Thursday, 30 August 2012

Has Mombasa lost its "raha"?

"Mombasa Raha" is a popular phrase at the Kenyan coast. "Raha", in Swahili, means joy or happiness, and the phrase is used to express the excitement and fun of the Mombasa lifestyle.  In the wake of the recent riots that have plagued this the most important Indian Ocean port on the east coast of Africa, one can't help but wonder whether peace has fled Mombasa's shores for an indefinite period of time.

The assassination of an influential and very radical Al-Shabaab-influenced cleric (I will not use the term "Muslim" to describe him because, frankly, he does not deserve it and I would be doing injustice to all my Muslim friends and acquaintances) prompted two days of vicious rioting in Mombasa.  Yesterday seemed to be quiet, but there have been pockets of turbulence reported in parts of central Mombasa today.  Surely, any spell of tranquility will not last, especially given the impending elections and Kenyan politicians' fondness for stirring up unrest.

Law and order broke down earlier this week in Mombasa as rioters attacked churches (no one knows why these have been targeted!), burned tyres, looted shops and homes and threw grenades at vehicles and police. Some observers claimed to have witnessed rioters looting chicken! This all sounds rather familiar, given that London went through similar looting episodes last August, although, here, chicken was replaced by flat screen TVs.  So far four policemen have been killed in Mombasa, dying of their injuries after bearing the brunt of grenade explosions. Three civilians have died too, although by the time I publish this on line, more will have inevitably lost their lives. Some have been stoned, others have been hit with metal rods and some have simply been trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This sudden and vicious orgy of  violence is itself sparked by another death.  It was broad daylight on Monday 27 August when Aboud Rogo was driving his minivan (matatu) along the Mombasa-Malindi route. Many of you will have been on that road when heading for Yul's Aquadrom at the Bamburi Beach. In the vehicle with him were his young daughter and wife. Apparently, his wife had miscarried two weeks earlier, and was feeling sick, so that family was on their way to the hospital. Reports claim that, suddenly, another vehicle overtook Rogo's minivan. From it, an unidentified gunman emptied half a clip of ammunition from his AK-47 in the direction of Rogo. Some of the bullets hit Rogo, enough to kill him and cause the vehicle to swerve off the road. A few rounds injured his wife in the leg, it has been reported.

If the reports are to be believed, Rogo died the way he lived: violently, and with little regard for the rule of law. Although nothing was ever proven in court, Rogo was linked with a number of terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil, most notably the US embassy bombings in Nairobi in 1998. He was high on the USA's terror watch list - so high that the US slapped travel sanctions on him and coaxed the United Nations to do likewise (the European Union was due to follow suit).

Rogo's notoriety was compounded by his alleged links to Al-Shabaab, the Somali fundamentalist militant group against which a substantial number (by now, in the thousands) of Kenyan troops are waging war in Somalia. Al-Shabaab repeatedly threatened to retaliate in Kenya, and has done so with a number of grenade attacks against civilian and police targets. Kenyan authorities suspected Rogo was helping to facilitate these attacks, and suspicions hardened when they raided his house and discovered a weapons cache with an AK-47, two hand grenades, pistols and plenty of ammunition. He was in the process of being tried for possession of illegal weapons, and reports claim that he was out on bail when he was killed.

Who killed him? Rogo's supporters and sympathisers in Mombasa claim it must have been a police hit - an explanation that probably accounted for much of the anger demonstrated by youths in the riots that followed. Tired of waiting for justice to take its course, and mindful of Rogo's Houdini-like ability to escape, the thinking goes that security officers arranged the killing. There has even been talk of US involvement in the killing.  Whatever it is, people are inclined to believe that security officers were involved. How else could they have done it in the middle of the day on a busy highway without anyone seeing a thing? No witnesses have come forward, it should be added. At the scene, Rogo's wife refused medical attention from police officers saying that it was the police who'd killed her husband and so she didn't want help from them.

Al-Shabaab is, of course, very clever. It quickly jumped on to this bandwagon, releasing a statement decrying the Kenyan "infidels" for their policy of extra-judicial killings against "Muslim" activists.
Police, naturally, denied this account. They claim that Rogo fell foul of political infighting in Al-Shabaab and that his murder was a deliberate ploy to incite tensions in Mombasa. If so, it worked.
Whoever killed Rogo - and let's face it, we won't know for quite some time, if ever - it's hard to ignore the central role played by Al-Shabaab and the feeling that the Kenyan government has brought this on itself. Kenyan officials knew what they were getting into when they invaded Somalia. If they didn't, it's because they hadn't read their history. Somalia has a way of hitting back at countries that get themselves too involved; just think of the Americans and the humiliation of Black Hawk Down (the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 between US forces and Somali militia fighters), or the ridiculous Ethiopian invasion which unseated the relatively moderate Islamist Courts Union, only to pave the way for Al-Shabaab to take charge.

For Kenya, the grand Somali adventure has brought domestic unrest and a fraught relationship with the large minority of ethnic Somalis that consider themselves Kenyan. It threatens to boil over into something even more perilous if the militant talk being exchanged by Muslims and Christians in Mombasa doesn't dissipate quickly.
Foremost on Kenyan policitians' mind, however, will be the election scheduled for 2013, which is currently the driving force behind most government policy. If any of the main candidates can find a way to exploit these tensions to improve their chances at the polls, expect the violence and unrest to continue - just as tensions were encouraged and allowed to explode into brutal violence in the aftermath of the last elections in 2008. You see, Kenya's favourite politics is the politics of fear.
Of course, there's another way to win elections. Most Kenyans are peaceful souls that want calm and order. This is a golden opportunity for a Kenyan leader to forge a reputation as a peacemaker and unifier, an image that will play well with voters across the country, transcend the ethnic and tribal boundaries in Kenya, and do the country a world of good in the process. The optimist in me can only hope that one of the main candidates can see the sense of this through their own lust for power. The cynic in me thinks otherwise.  Please prove the cynic in me wrong.

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