x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Imam's killing demonstrates Kenya's deep divides

Al Shabab, secession claims and religious unrest are all pushing Kenya to the brink of more violence as a presidential election looms.

Aboud Rogo, shown in January this year, after being charged with possession of dangerous weapons. The imam was assassinated last week.
Aboud Rogo, shown in January this year, after being charged with possession of dangerous weapons. The imam was assassinated last week.

MOMBASA, KENYA // The assassination of an imam in Kenya's port of Mombasa and deadly riots that followed have exposed deep social, political and sectarian divides that could unleash more violence ahead of a presidential election next year.

Unidentified gunmen sprayed bullets into the car of Aboud Rogo last week, killing a man accused by both the Kenyan government and the United States of helping Islamist militants in Somalia.

Rogo's supporters fought running street battles with the security forces in the hours after his death, and sporadic violence continued over the following days. Churches were set on fire, two grenades were thrown at police vehicles and at least five people were killed.

The government said the violence was organised by Kenya's "enemies" and blames Muslim radicals for supporting Al Shabab, the Islamist group that Kenya's military has been fighting since invading Somalia last year.

Many neighbourhoods in Kenya's second-largest city are predominantly Muslim and they blame the authorities for the imam's killing, claiming it was part of a campaign against their community.

They said their fury was a natural response, both to the assassination and to decades of political and economic marginalisation in an area where shanty towns grow alongside luxurious beach resorts.

"Incited? I don't need to be incited to riot when I have eyes to see my sheikh has been killed by the government," said Otieno Ramadhan, 25, a Muslim convert who sells charcoal. "We youth from the coast don't have anything to show, no jobs - yet other people get employed daily at the port. All they have brought us here is drugs to kill us slowly," he added. "I will riot. They can shoot us dead if they wish."

Ahmed Yahya, a 27-year-old butcher, recalled how rage coursed through him when the news of the imam's killing reached his mosque.

He and other worshippers poured into the streets and chanted "the police are killers".

"Rogo was a staunch Muslim, that is what I admired most about him: his firm and bold stands on matters of Islam. But you see, to be a firm Muslim doesn't make you a terrorist," Mr Yahya said.

Rogo had built up a loyal base of supporters in parts of Mombasa, with many of his sermons posted online and on social media.

"The sheikh challenged us to be real Muslims, by word and deed, ready to do anything to defend our religion, even die," said Mr Yahya.

Muslims make up about 11 per cent of the population of Kenya but were long the predominant religious group along the coast, where the local Swahili culture was influenced for centuries by trade links with the Middle East.

Coastal Swahili Muslims have complained that they have lost land and jobs to settlers from inland, while seeing little of the wealth generated by tourism on their beaches and traffic at their port, which serves most of east and central Africa.

"The Kenyan coast faces historical injustices such as limited job opportunities, and this has led people to believe this government is against Islam," said Phyllis Muema, who runs a community group operating programmes for unemployed youth in districts where unemployment and drug addiction are rampant.

An outlawed coastal group, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), wants to secede from Kenya. It has threatened to stage protests if its demands for independence are not met by next year's election.

The group has distanced itself from the violence that followed Rogo's assassination and denies government assertions that it is linked to Islamic radicalism or support for Al Shabab.

"We are not involved with these issues. It is not our arrangement, it is not our project," said the MRC secretary general, Randu Nzai.

The Kenyan prime minister, Raila Odinga, said it was clear that the violent reaction to Rogo's killing was organised.

"Why deliberately attack churches? That must be part of an organised reaction. Where did the grenades come from? It confirms our worst fears that there is a serious underground organisation conducting this," Mr Odinga said this week.

A senior government official said police were hunting for three Muslim imams allied to Rogo, and suspected of fanning the unrest.

Radicalism among Kenya's Muslims has been a prime concern of the West since the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in the capitals of Kenya and Tanzania. At least 223 people were killed in the attacks that were blamed on local followers of Osama bin Laden.

Concern has grown sharply since last year as Kenya has been drawn into the war against Al Shabab fighters in Somalia.

A United Nations investigation last year found that the Somali rebels had created extensive funding, recruitment and training networks in Kenya.

After Kenyan troops crossed the frontier last October to fight Al Shabab, the Somali Islamists vowed to carry out revenge attacks in Kenya.

Since then there have been attacks on churches in Kenya as well as soft targets such as local bars.

The government has announced an amnesty for Kenyans who fought alongside the Somali rebels.

Violence on the coast raises memories of tribal clashes in which more than 1,200 people were killed that nearly tore Kenya apart after a dispute over the results of the last presidential election in 2007-08.

"It's like a ticking bomb now: the coast, the MRC and secession, Al Shabab, all these things," said Stanbuli Ahmed Nassir, a historian.

Sustained unrest along the coast could affect Kenya's tourism industry, only just recovering from the kidnapping of tourists at a coastal resort last year.

"We haven't had major cancellations but it is certainly worrying us big time," said Mohammed Hersi, who runs the Whitesands Hotel, the coast's largest resort. "The growing trend of attacks on the police is something we've not seen before."

Down by the pool, some holidaymakers were oblivious to the mayhem that had happened a short distance along the main road.

"Which city? Here?" said a British woman who was told of the violence outside as a beach boy and his camel sauntered by.