Kenya's president: massacres aren't Al Shabab but political opponents

In a televised addressed today, President Kenyatta shocked many by appearing to change the narrative from a 'war on terror' to tribal and ethnic divides.

Armed security forces walk past a barricade of burning tires set up by residents to protest against the recent killings and what they claimed was the government's failure to provide them with enough security, in the village of Kibaoni just outside the town of Mpeketoni, Kenya, Tuesday, June 17, 2014.

President Uhuru Kenyatta today told surprised Kenyans that the grisly murders of 60 people in recent days – some while watching the World Cup – were not carried out by the terror group Al Shabab, but by local "networks" organized by his political opponents. 

Al Shabab claimed credit for a massacre on Sunday of 49 people in the coastal town of Mpeketoni, and for killing at least 10 people on Monday in a small town nearby. Those incidents, in an area hit recently by Al Shabab, bore the hallmarks of the Somalia-based, self-described Islamist group, with masked attackers shouting “Alahu Akbar” and executing civilians who failed to recite Koranic verses.

Yet Mr. Kenyatta, in a televised address, blamed "reckless leaders" for inciting violence against a specific ethnic group, the Kikuyu, who are reportedly the victims of the coastal attacks.

"The attack in Lamu [County] was well planned, orchestrated, politically motivated ethnic violence,” Kenyatta said. “This was not an Al Shabab terror attack. Evidence indicates that local political networks are involved in the planning and execution of the hideous crime."

The “reckless leaders” was a thinly veiled reference to opposition stalwart Raila Odinga, who Kenyatta’s camp has recently accused of stirring up trouble by holding demonstrations against the ruling party.  Today, Kenyatta directly accused the opposition of incitement.

Despite some three years of terror attacks in Kenya, the country’s minority Muslims and majority Christians have not yet openly turned against each other. 

But in what has long been seen as the stable hub of East Africa, Kenyatta's accusations could instead open a deeper divide: political rivalries that fall along ethnic lines. Such rivalries turned violent after the 2007 elections in which more than 1,000 people were killed and Kenyatta was accused of crimes against humanity. Kenyatta is accused by the International Criminal Court of organizing violence against Odinga supporters who are largely from the Luo tribe. 

In the past year, the main narrative in Kenya has been a national war on terror, and especially since Al Shabab attacked the tony Westgate mall last fall.

But Kenyatta's fingering of Mr. Odinga may now alter that story, and provoke longstanding antipathy between the two men and the respective ethnic groups or tribes they belong to. The post-election violence in 2007 was mostly along tribal lines.

Kenyatta today accused Odinga's forces of rallying against his government: "Kenyans and the government in particular have over the last several weeks observed frenzied political rallies with obvious acts of incitement and lawlessness and possible violence. This rhetoric is unacceptable and will not be condoned."

Kenyatta's statements are expected to confirm fears among parts of his political base that the political opposition, led by Odinga's camp, is inciting violence against them or trying to overthrow the government. 

Indeed, many Kikuyus are worried about violence against them after the Mpeketoni incident. The attackers at Mpektoni on Sunday targeted men only, a tactic seen in previous incidents of anti-Kikuyu violence in Kenya.  Further, residents of the Mpeketoni area hold grievances against Kikuyu settlers who were given land there by Kenyatta’s father, Kenya’s first president.

Some observers say the president’s proclamation is a distraction tactic at a time of rising frustration over terrorism, corruption, and  cost of living, and could make people retreat to their ethnic camps, and  could push a country once viewed as the stable hub of East Africa in a dangerous direction.

“The president has refused to rise above the fray and talk about unity beyond tribe,” says activist Boniface Mwangi.  “The government is playing the political card, and in Kenya the political card is a tribal card.”

While Kenyatta has vowed to "never go the route of ethnic division and political violence," worrisome signs are emerging in Kenya’s political divide, especially on social media. The online vitriol may be spilling into the open.

Yesterday, police dispersed rioters in the Kikuyu-dominated Nairobi neighborhood of Dagoretti, who were protesting against Odinga over the Mpeketoni violence.

Today at a Nairobi restaurant full of Kenyatta supporters, one customer shouted “Kill Raila!” to applause and laughter, during the president’s speech.

Meanwhile, the main slogan at Odinga’s rallies is “Uhuru Must Go,” even though elections aren't scheduled until 2017. 

Odinga’s rhetoric recalls protests of the early 1990s meant to topple Kenya’s former dictator,  Daniel Arap Moi.

Top security officials have threatened to arrest Odinga, while local media are reporting that police are now deploying in Nairobi’s slums and the opposition stronghold city of Kisumu – apparently over fears of politically motivated attacks.

“If Al Shabab has decided to exploit our biggest weak point, i.e. tribal divisions,” tweeted political commentator Ory Okolloh, “we are in deep [trouble].”

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