Rising Al Shabab attacks in Kenya: Can new officials improve security?

Some 15 months after the Westgate attack, Al Shabab continues its attacks in Kenya. The departure of two officials shows it's becoming a political crisis for President Kenyatta.

Ben Curtis/AP
A protester in Nairobi lays red-painted crosses on the street, symbolizing the blood of the 28 non-Muslims singled out and killed in the recent attack on a bus in Mandera by Somali militant group Al Shabab.

Fierce public outcry over the muted Kenyan government response to repeated attacks by Al Shabab culminated today in the departure of two top security officials.

The abrupt resignation of Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo and the dismissal of Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenko ended more than a week of government silence in the face of growing demands for the officials' removal. Hundreds protested outside the parliament last week demanding action. More than a year after Al Shabab orchestrated an attack on the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenyans are demanding a clearer strategy to halt spiraling insecurity. 

The departure of two of Kenya's top security officials signals just how much of a crisis insecurity has become for President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Jubilee government. But so far there is no indication the government's security approach will change. 

“It’s very unusual. People don’t resign in this country,” says Andrew Franklin, a Nairobi-based security analyst. It was forced by “this rather obvious rising crescendo of attacks by Al Shabab.”

'Determined, effective, and successful'

In the last 24 hours, the Somalia-based militant group staged two attacks in northeast Kenya. One was on a nightclub in Wajir that left one dead and another on a tent camp in Mandera County, where workers for a nearby quarry were sleeping. At least 36 people were killed. Only a week and a half ago, Al Shabab singled out and killed 28 non-Muslim Kenyans on a Nairobi-bound bus in Mandera. There have been other smaller attacks in between.

“It becomes quite obvious that Al Shabab comes and goes as it pleases” if you look at what has transpired since the Westgate Mall attack 15 months ago, Franklin says.

President Kenyatta’s address today did little to indicate a change in security tactics. He slammed government critics and the media for helping Al Shabab with their public discussion of security failings, and described Kenya’s efforts as “determined, effective, and successful.”

“We aid this enemy when we succumb to suspicion, fear, finger pointing, and blame games,” he said. “The media must step back from being an inert funnel of sentiments, opinions and messages and become a true mediator and an honest broker of the national discourse… Media serving as a platform for incendiary and toxic interaction is dangerous for our nation.”

“The response [to attacks] has always been a PR response, with no tangible reaction,” says Patrick Gathara, a prominent political commentator. "We always seem to be vulnerable."

While many Kenyans gave Kenyatta the benefit of the doubt after Westgate, “This time people were quite unwilling to rally behind a government that is already seen as incompetent,” Mr. Gathara says.

That this public outcry happened in response to attacks in Kenya’s marginalized northeast, a part of the country often ignored by the rest, is one of the strongest indicators that Kenyatta has exhausted public tolerance for security failures.

“For a very long time we had this thing where grenades were going off in places like Wajir and Garissa and it rarely made the news. Now it is. It’s important,” Gathara says.

Kenyatta also announced that he had commissioned a review of the security sector and that a report, complete with recommendations, will be out on Thursday.

But the dramatic steps needed to address security shortfalls seem unlikely. Gathara predicts the same sweeping crackdowns and military deployments that have had little impact so far.

“The entire system needs reform,” he says. “Until we can get a handle on what is wrong and have a clear idea of what it is, and get a debate going on the policies… until we do that all we have is fluff.”

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