The Embassy bombing of August 1998 and the twinned attack on a Kikambala tourist hotel and Israeli charter flight in 2002 led to the designation of the coast of East Africa as a primary theatre in the war on terror. Lamu featured prominently in the events that followed the emergence of homegrown terrorists. The new state of affairs was as unexpected as it was counterintuitive. For those who know the archipelago and its people, a remote and peaceful society like Lamu became associated with radical Islam defies the imagination. How this came about is a long story.
Religion and revivalism in the Lamu Archipelago
For people living in a place like Lamu scanning the horizon becomes a habit. For over two millennia, the triangular sails that with clockwork regularity appear in the distance near the end of the kaskasi winds brought new influences and exotic visitors who settled and became part of the Swahili coast’s hybrid mélange. Swahili language and culture evolved out of the long-term dynamic of cosmopolitan interaction interrupted by the occasional system-modifying disruption.
Islam, a source of stability that provided the template for the numerically small Swahili communities dealing with the vagaries of the outside world, took centuries to take root and flourish. During the eighth century C.E., political conflicts associated with the Sunni-Shia schism propelled small groups of Muslim refugees to the coast of east Africa. Islam spread slowly during the following millennium, integrating along the way influences from the hinterland like the kuzungusha ng’ombe and sorio purification rituals that the scholar Gunther Schlee identifies as originating with the proto-Rendille/Somali cultural complex.
The integration of such local practices congruent with Biblical and Quranic traditions apparently synched with the Swahili coast’s legacy of orthodox Islamic scholarship. According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.
Pate went into decline after an internal war of succession broke out following the death of Fumo Omari, Pate’s Sultan in 1807. The long poem Al Inkishafi, the most powerful exemplar of classical Swahili poetry, contrasts images of the once powerful Sultanate’s former opulence with Pate’s ruinous state several decades later to illustrate the transient nature of the material world.
According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.
The nineteenth century was a period of political turbulence across the Muslim world that prompted a rethink of Islam in Cairo, Istanbul, Mecca, and other centres of Islamic scholarship. Developments opened the door for the pan-Islamic political ideologies of religious rationalists. Reformers like Mohammed Abdul and Jamal Din Al Afghani advocated for Islamic education based on open inquiry and the search for knowledge over slavish commitment to medieval interpretations of Islam. In other areas, where Sufi traditions of experienced based religious knowledge were strong, reform focused on the personal internalization of Islamic values. One scholar writing about the Hadhramaut, a strong source of Islamic influence on the coast of East Africa, described the focus of religious renewal as “a shift from doctrine to praxis – i.e. as an attempt to bring to others the ‘tools’ for proper, good life, for ‘inner’ ability to separate right from wrong.”
The Ba’Alawiyya is Sufi tariqa established by descendants of the Prophet over a thousand years ago in the Hadhramaut. It became known later for championing the expansion of religious education while retaining its emphasis on Sharifite lineage. The Hadhrami diaspora that accelerated during the 1700s spread Ba’Alawiyya influence across the Indian Ocean from Java to East Africa. Several generations of Hadhrami scholars based in the Comoros and Zanzibar had through their scholarship and personal example promoted the quest for personal purity through the study of Islam’s original Quranic sources and traditions. This saw ulama religious councils in Zanzibar and the Comoros displace the influence of those of Lamu and Mombasa as the region’s ranking centres of religious knowledge.
The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.
Salih bin Alawi, or Habib Saleh as he came to be known, was born in 1853 on the island of Grande Comoro. At the age of 18, the young Sharif followed his uncle Abdalla bin Alawi to Lamu to study with its Islamic scholars. After a sojourn in the Comoros he returned to Lamu, declaring that Lamu was the only place where he felt spiritually at home.
The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.
During the last decade of the nineteenth century Habib Saleh acted on his belief that religious education should be available to everyone. The town’s stratified social order was already being challenged by the growing number of Hadhrami immigrants, Bajuni settlers from the archipelago’s outer islands, and freed slaves who settled in the area now known as Langoni. Habib Saleh built the original Ryadha mosque on a sandy hill above the expanding area of new settlement and went on to establish a mosque college modeled on the ribats established in the Hadhramaut by the previous generation of Alawi scholars. Ryadha offered religious instruction to all at a time when religious knowledge was still central to the power relations in Swahili settlements.
The Ba’Alawiyya taught that a religious leader should seek out obscurity in place of popular recognition, avoid material manifestations of wealth and power, and that they should keep a low public profile while continuing to offer advice to the community in religious matters. Habib Saleh personified these qualities. He also established a new Maulidi, the religious ceremony celebrating the birth of the Prophet, that featured litanies composed by one of his mentors, Al Habshi, recited to the accompaniment of the twari, a percussion instrument similar to the tambourine.
Habib Saleh’s educational pluralism put him into conflict with Lamu’s power establishment based in the old stone town, who tried to curb his activities. When this failed agents of the old order attempted to sabotage his growing influence by starting a fire in the Ryadha area of Langoni. According to the folklore, Habib appealed to his mentor in the Hadhramaut, Al Habshi, who intervened by using his mystical powers to miraculously extinguish the fire from afar.
These events coincided with the turbulent events accompanying the establishment of British imperialism in East Africa. As the archipelago’s pivotal role on the Swahili coast began to ebb, Kiwa Ndeo, the ‘Proud Isle’ as Lamu was known in Swahili verse, emerged as the center of a new Islamic movement that was to gradually spread beyond its coastal base. The town’s two religious streams coalesced after the success of Habib Saleh’s religious education revolution. His sons and grandsons proceeded to extend Lamu’s religious influence across the coast and into the interior of East Africa after the Saint’s death in 1938.
When I took up residence in Lamu in 1974, the Ryadha Mosque College buzzed with activity and housed students from as far away as Zaire, Tanzania, and the Comoro Islands. Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.
The festival had at some point expanded to include traditional Swahili dances that were performed in the large open area in front of the mosque. Elders from Pate and Ndau performed the slow moving Goma parade in immaculate white kanzu while the youth fought mock battles in the kirumbizi stick-fighting dance to the rapid cadence of the high-pitched zumari. After the conclusion of the Ishaa evening prayers, Miji Kenda gyrated to the rhythm of their ndurenge and mwanzele, the Pokomo did their mwaribe, and the wagema, the specialists in climbing the tall coconut palms to harvest the nuts and tap its sweet sap, performed their distinctive uta dance.
Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.
Not everyone accepted this exemplar of the Swahili coast’s tolerant and cosmopolitan Islamic culture. A small minority of Wahhabi influenced reformers objected to the use of the twari during the recitation of the Maulidi in Lamu mosques and the non-Islamic performances during the festival. Lamu religious leaders dismissed the complaints by stating that the Maulidi celebrated Habib Saleh’s tradition of inclusion, and that it attract new converts while maintaining positive relations with their non-Muslim neighbors.
Like the annual arrival of the dhows, the Maulidi’s importance for Lamu’s economic cycle had grown as the latter declined, in part due to the arbitrary imposition of customs duty and harassment by government officials. The rest of the year, Lamu’s economy largely depended on the traditional maritime activities and farming. The once vibrant mainland agriculture, however, was suffering due to poor security. Mainland Bajuni, displaced by Shifta bandit attacks in the 1960s, tried to resettle in mainland areas like Magogoni but found the going rough. A friend of mine gave up his farm there after being raised in the air by an elephant and dashed to the ground in front of his terrified children.
The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed. The hospitality industry became an essential growth sector that compensated for the decline of other livelihoods while revitalizing the production of artisanal crafts and the town’s famous woodcarving tradition. The building boom in Arabia led to a spike in demand for mangrove poles, reviving the international dhow trade. Remittances and returnees from the Gulf and Saudia Arabia provided a boost. After eight decades of economic stagnation, the archipelago’s economy began to sparkle again.
The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed.
These were simpler times, although much was changing underneath the surface. The tensions fueled by religious dogma and historical divisions elsewhere in the Islamic world were a non-factor except for the running debate over the distinctive Maulidi celebration spearheaded by Kenya’s chief Kadhi, Abdalla Farsi, and other Mombasa-based reformers. This debate was of little import in Lamu. The only dispute of significance was the internal rift between the Ryadha Sharifs that came into the open during the early 1970s when two of Habib Saleh’s grandsons started an alternative madrassa at Sofaa, a new mosque modeled on Ryadha and financed by a patron from the old Mkomani elite.
The contest between the traditionalists and modernisers remained couched in battles over local issues like the debate over the introduction of the Al Habshi version of the Maulidi celebration in place of the more generic Barzanji recitation, and its validation of the sharifs’ elevated spiritual station. It was difficult to see divisions like the longstanding Sunni-Shia conflict arising among the local believers in these settings. But events conspired to make this happen after a small freighter dropped anchor in the Lamu roadstead on an otherwise unremarkable June day in 1985.
Shi’a versus Bidha’a on the Coast of Kenya
The 1979 Iranian revolution upset the Islamic world’s political and religious status quo. The unanticipated strength of the events set in motion by Ayatollah Khomeini overturned both conventional and leftist concepts of the ‘grand march of modernization in the West, reviving religion as a driver of socio-political change for the first time since the Western Enlightenment.
One of the West’s most prominent academic authorities on Islam, Maxime Rodinson, had built a reputation by stressing that historically it was extremely difficult to find religious sources for Muslim responses to their situation: explanations should be sought in the “the social, cultural and ideological context of the age in which they operated than by their Muslim origin”. The country’s relative prosperity made developments in Iran all the more surprising for upending such theories. Analysts and policy makers were unprepared to assess the implications of what the Lebanese–born scholar, Fuad Ajami, termed “The Impossible Revolution”.
Internal Iranian participants in the upheaval also confused the broad spectrum of anti-government support that united under Khomeini, with the revolution’s Shia religious agenda. The centre did not hold. The Marxist Khalq Party was decimated. The interim Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzagan, didn’t last long. Khomeini banished any hope of accommodation by backing the students who took control of the US Embassy.
The broad spectrum of leftist groups and moderate middle class supporters who joined up with the religious opposition during the uprising could only rue their mistake. Like the many experts caught out by the events, they were left to contemplate Khomeini’s observation that “the Islamic revolution is not about the price of Persian limes.”
It was one of the seminal events of the Twentieth Century. Ayatollah Khomeini ended up on the cover of Time in 1979. The Saudi’s and their Western allies responded by backing Saddam Hussein’s doomed invasion of the contested Iraq-Iran border zone. The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.
Egypt was the first modern Islamic voice to influence Muslims south of the Sahara, and religion did not figure prominently in the message. Gamal Abdel Nassir used the Voice of Egypt to break the European control of the airwaves and focused on anti-imperialist themes reinforcing African aspirations for independence. Egyptian radio broadcasts of the 1960s eschewed the sectional interests of the region’s diverse Muslims and instead cultivated support for the non-aligned movement. But after Nassir’s death, economic power replaced ideology, and patronage links with Saudi Arabia took over as the primary conduit of external influence on the Islamic periphery.
The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.
Most of their funds were transacted on the state level with a view towards cementing ties of economic cooperation while curbing Israeli influence. The rest went to support madrassa education and to train teachers. In Kenya, a new generation of scholars and Imams, many of whom were sponsored by the Saudis, were opposing superstitions like belief in the power of amulets, quasi-religious divination and magic, and other practices tolerated by the Sharifite establishment. But despite its decidedly non-Wahhabi orientation, Lamu’s Ryadha establishment also received Saudi support.
Although Saudi aid at that juncture highlighted secular principles, it was part of a longer-term strategy twinning cultivation of Wahhabi ideology with support for the Kingdom. The Iranian Revolution shook up this patrimonial status quo, and in Kenya, Iran’s new popularity complemented coastal Muslims’ antipathy for the ‘Arabs’.
During my early days on the coast I was frequently confused by the contradictions conveyed by the word “Arab.” As far as I could see, although only religious scholars and relatively recent Hadhrami immigrants actually spoke Arabic, many coastal Muslims aspired to a degree of Arab-ness through dress and language, while real and imputed connections to Arab lineages conferred prestige. Bajuni oral tradition, for example, states that these indigenous African Swahili originated in Mecca. I was naturally perplexed when a Bajuni friend remarked, “Arabs are the worst people in the world.
Other coastals who came from high status ‘Arab’ families expressed a similar attitude, claiming that the Arabs of Arabia are primitive and vain. Jokes about the Saudis in particular were common, especially among coastals returning from the Kingdom who found life in Arabia difficult and suffocating. The large number of coastals who migrated there in search of work found themselves treated as low status migrant workers. Merchants with important business connections sometimes echoed the negative attitudes prevalent among the Swahili and near universal among the Somali. “The Saudis are very nice when you meet them here,” one Mombasa tycoon told me, “but if you deal with them in Arabia they are the worst of savages.”
A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.
This began to change after the 1979 revolution. Iran became a symbol of the fight back against Westernisation. Their efforts to promote Islamic moral renewal highlighted local grievances over historical injustices and other issues that were never championed by the Arabs and their political clients. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, coastal Muslims could look to a role model in Ayatollah Khomeini who combined religious integrity with political liberation. Pictures of the Ayatollah joined the pantheon of cultural heroes on the coast, sometimes sharing a wall with Bob Marley and Bollywood film stars.
A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.
During the early 1980s the Iranians initiated efforts to exploit their religious capital by cultivating influence on the coast. They established an Islamic newspaper in Mombasa that discussed social problems and offered religious commentary. The Iranian Embassy sponsored delegations of local notables and sheikhs to visit Iran. Most returned speaking of Iran in glowing terms; the Saudis responded by flying many of the same individuals to Mecca and Medina. The narrative emerging out of these junkets confirm the reports of seamen who reported how they were welcomed as Muslim brothers in Iranian ports like Bandar Abbas but were treated poorly on the other side of the Persian Gulf—where Christian expatriates were received with open arms.
The Iranians’ efforts gradually brought some religious leaders under their influence, including Abdullahi Nassir, former leader of the pro-secession Coast Peoples Party, who was commissioned to deliver a series of lectures across the coast. In Lamu, the internal conflict between the Ryadha and Sofaa sharifs provided another entry point.
In 1983 Sofaa had recruited the assistance of the long-serving Mombasa politician, Sharif Nassir. The two factions typically supported different candidates in local elections, and this presented Nassir with an opportunity to leverage his support among the large Lamu community in Mombasa. The coast’s pre-eminent politician held a harambee at the Sofaa Mosque to raise funds to build a new madrassa and dormitory. Shortly afterwards the Iranians offered their assistance for the same project.
When I visited the mosque in May of 1984 I found a new over-sized version of the original Sofaa and a new educational complex erected on the plot behind it. A block of classes funded by Nassir’s harambee remained incomplete, like a testament to the old order. I was told that Mzee Mwenye, the head of the mosque and its Imam, Mwenye Omari, had embraced the Ithna Asheri school of Shi’ism. When I spoke to them, they said they were grateful to their new Iranian friends for improving the facilities but otherwise nothing significant had changed.
The mosques beautiful new calligraphy with its references to the Shia martyrs Hussein, Hassan, and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, indicated otherwise. The conduct of prayers and most everything else was the same, although my father-in-law confirmed that the pro-Shia management had began using the Shia version of the call to prayers before the complaints of the neighborhood’s residents saw it discontinued.
East African Muslims are a multicultural community where until recently sectarian differences rarely served as a source of friction. Bohra, Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, and other Asian Shia Muslims lived among the Sunni majority in coastal towns and cities and even married Sunni wives occasionally. This explains why Sofaa’s Shia affiliation was, for most people in Lamu, more about the ongoing Ryadha-Sofaa feud than a break with Lamu’s Islamic tradition. My father-in-law and many other former regulars continued to pray at Sofaa despite the changes.
The conflict nevertheless began to ramp up over the following months as the two factions engaged in various battles for influence, beginning with the recruitment of children to attend their respective madrassa. My wife was perplexed when competing representatives of Sofaa and Ryadha had come to the house advising her to enroll our children in their respective Quran schools. They warned of the negatives that would result if they remained in their present chuo, which was not affiliated to either faction.
The Sofaa faction won a legal victory when they went to court to prevent the eviction of a popular female maalim based in a vacated Shi’a mosque that had not been used for decades. This was followed by a battle over selection of a new mosque for hosting Friday prayers. The traditional Mskiti wa Jumaa in Mkomani could no longer host the town’s growing numbers, forcing late arrivals to pray on the sidewalks and alleyways outside the mosque. When Sofaa lost their bid to be selected as the second Jumaa mosque, partisans chained the doors of the eight hundred year-old Pwani Mosque – identified with Lamu’s pre-Ba’Alawiyya ulama – that had been chosen instead. The District Commissioner, however, intervened on behalf of the anti-Sofaa clerics.
Lamu people discussed these developments in their usual jocular fashion, referring to the parties as Watu wa Shi’a and Watu wa Bidha’a, the latter being a reference to the criticism of the Maulidi who claimed it was the kind of religious innovation forbidden in the Quran. Most everyone I knew viewed the events as a family affair that had burst into the open with comic effect. No one took down their pictures of the Ayatollah, even though their take on the revolution had soured during the interim.
Prior to these developments, in 1982, a fire consumed a large area of Langoni. It started after a quarrel between a brother and sister ended with the brother setting the house on fire before dawn. The prevailing kuzi winds spread the flames across Langoni’s canopy of palm-thatched roofs, incinerating hundreds of the densely packed mud and wood houses and spreading to the coral rag stone structures lining the Msitu wa Mui, Lamu’s main street which the government had ineffectually renamed Kenyatta Avenue. When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.
International and Kenyan donors committed funds for rebuilding a new mabati (corrugated iron)-roofed Langoni, but the promised reconstruction of the homes dragged out. A year later many households were still camping in makeshift structures built on the ruined plots; after two years some victims on the list were still waiting for compensation. Most of the damage occurred on the Sofaa side of town, which ostensibly led to the mission of the mysterious freighter that arrived almost three years later.
When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.
The ship carried clothing for the victims of the Lamu fire donated by the Shi’a community in Kuwait. It spent a long time anchored off Manda Island while the Sofaa sharifs negotiated the cargo’s release. Several months later the goods were cleared, but because they were officially listed as charitable donations for the community at large, the Provincial Administration claimed that other religious actors should be allocated equal shares. As it turned out, the shipment contained many items of high quality, and distribution proceeded on a prejudicial basis. Some recipients reported that they found dollars and riyals in the pockets of donated kanzu; a fisherman showed me a Seiko watch he found in the ‘Kuwaiti’ gown he received.
For a while “umepata Kuwaiti gani?” became the first question people asked after the usual greeting. Many of the genuine victims received nothing. My brother-in-law, who lost more than most when his shop and home burned, missed out. The generosity of the foreign benefactors ended up generating more controversy than relief.
The issue was settled when, during Friday prayers a group of youth broke into the storeroom where the Kuwaiti cargo was kept. They made off with the remaining chests and footlockers. They broke them open on the waterfront, dumped out the contents, and ran off after taking the pick of the loot—which was mainly shoes. The public scrambled for what was left, all evidence of the heist vanishing before the faithful in the mosque uttered the final “Assalamu alaykum wa barakatuh” ending the prayers. The news spread fast.
“These guys committed a major sin!” one my neighbors declared.
“What’s so wrong about liberating what was supposed to be gifts for the poor?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, clarifying that “it was bad because most of the best things went to the slackers who don’t attend Juma’a prayers.”
That was not the end of it. In the scramble for the footwear most of the pairs were separated. Several times a day someone would call hodi hodi from downstairs, walk up the stairs, and after the usual salutations produce a bag filled with unmatched shoes.
“Uko na ndugu ya hiki?” invariable followed, as they placed a single Italian loafer or a fashionable woman’s stiletto on the mat.
The exercise continued for several weeks. Although I surmised many of the shoes were never united with their ‘brothers’, it helped restore a degree of normality to community after the antagonistic Shi’a versus Bidha’a interlude. Twice, women who were not on good terms with my spouse clunk-clunked up the stairs and politely made their enquiries, and I observed how the process resulted in the resumption of normal relations.
Things did not end well for the warring sheikhs. The infighting continued, and the resulting decline in status coincided with the rise of a new generation of more activist reformers with comparatively shallow educational and spiritual qualifications than their predecessors.
Assessing The Aftermath: The Kingdom Strikes Back
At the time I viewed this incident as a victory for local religious sensibilities over the forces of patronage and imported religious models. But the influence of the Ayatollahs’ revolution had opened the way for political Islam to take root in local conditions. No one anticipated the directionality of events over the next two decades.
The Iranian gambit ended up producing the opposite effect in respect to their political interests, with correspondingly negative implications for the Muslims of this region. Infatuation with the Islamic revolution declined as the Iranian government began to show its authoritarian nature, and the Saudis went on the offensive. Iran’s pan-Islamic activism in turn prompted Saudi Arabia to adopt a more aggressive role across the Islamic world. Over the course of the 1980s the Kingdom spent over $4 billion per year to spread the Wahhabi creed abroad. Private sources in the kingdom interpreted the Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan as divine approval for their version of jihad, and extended their funding for radical Wahhabi movements across to virtually the Islamic world.
The gradual spread of Wahhabi influence provided cover for the proponents of the more extreme Salafi movement before the Embassy bombings of 1998 accelerated the convergence of the global Islamist narratives across the Horn of Africa region. This coincided with the spread of social media and internet-based transmission of Islamist ideologies, which gained ground at the expense of the transmission of formal Islamic knowledge through recognized schools of jurisprudence and the human exemplars of Sufi teachings.
We all know what came next.
The irony is that Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has suffered disproportionately from the international cast of Al Qaida sleeper cells and Al Shabaab insurgents based across the Somalia border.
The War on Corruption: What Singapore Got Right
15 min read. Singapore’s success in minimising corruption can be attributed to its dual strategy of reducing both the opportunities and incentives for corruption, while Kenya’s failure to eliminate graft is the result of a half-hearted anti-corruption crusade that is politically weaponised and applied selectively.
Experts on the study of corruption distinguish between political corruption and bureaucratic corruption. Political corruption involves vote-rigging, registration of unqualified voters, falsification of voter registers and election results, selling and buying of votes, and wiretapping the phones of political opponents. All this is aimed at helping politicians capture and/or maintain political power. With particular reference to Kenya, political corruption also involves instigation of “ethnic” violence in opposition regions by incumbent political parties in order to scatter voters and minimise their turnout on election day.
Bureaucratic corruption, on the other hand, is used by political leaders and civil servants – the bureaucrats – to extract extralegal incomes for themselves, their relatives, and associates. This involves extraction of bribes and rents in the distribution of public goods and services, theft of public resources, embezzlement of funds from state coffers, nepotism, and the granting of patronage to cronies and relatives, illegal taxation by bureaucrats with benefits accruing to them and their associates, capricious and selective enforcement of state laws and statutes in order to generate benefits for the bureaucrat, and differential treatment of private enterprises with the expectation of kickbacks from the favourably treated enterprises.
There are four categories of bureaucratic corruption in the literature on the subject, according to John Mukum Mbaku, an expert on the subject. The first is cost-reducing corruption, which involves actions by civil servants to reduce the regulation-induced costs of an enterprise below their normal rates. An example here is the illegal reduction of a private firm’s tax obligations to the government and exemption of a business from compliance with certain rules and regulations. In this way, a firm’s transaction costs are reduced and the finances thus saved are shared out between the bureaucrat and the firm owner.
The second type of corruption is cost-enhancing corruption. This occurs in situations where governments place controls on the prices of foodstuffs, which normally leads to hoarding and severe food shortages. Herein, civil servants who control government food stocks extract rents from potential consumers by charging them prices that approximate free market prices. Another way is the extraction of bribes by civil servants from entrepreneurs seeking for licences, including import/export, and investment licences. Yet another is where civil servants simply use the state’s coercive power at their disposal to appropriate private property for their own use, for instance through illegal taxation. In Kenya, the public procurement domain is the arena in which cost-enhancing corruption has been most pervasive. This is the situation in which public officials extract rents from their control of the public procurement process. They do so by demanding kickbacks from tender awardees and by inflating the same and skimming off the excess.
The third type of corruption is benefit-enhancing corruption. Herein civil servants may permit more public benefits such as bursary funds to public schools, or development resources to a particular region, to accrue to an individual or group than is legally permitted. Recipients of such benefits then share them with the bureaucrat on the basis of a prearranged formula. This type of corruption is quite pervasive in Africa and many other developing societies because it is relatively easy to execute and not so easy to detect.
The fourth and final type of corruption is benefit-reducing corruption. This is where bureaucrats simply appropriate for their own private use public benefits that are intended for other private citizens. One example of this is a civil servant manager of a pension fund who can delay the transmission of retirement benefits to pensioners, deposit such funds in a high interest-earning bank account, and subsequently skim off the accrued earnings. This type of corruption is also very easy to undertake because of information asymmetries in much of Africa and elsewhere, with bureaucrats having more information about public benefits programmes than the ordinary citizens. In Kenya, the problem of employers, especially in the private sector and within state corporations, making statutory deductions from employees, such as pensions, health insurance, and income tax, which never reach their legitimate destinations is a perennial one.
The evolution of corruption in Kenya
The fact that corruption in Kenya has reached epidemic proportions is beyond question. In the 1960s and 1970s, bureaucratic corruption manifested itself in bureaucrats’ demands for kickbacks valued at around 10 per cent of the total cost of a public tender, development project, or whatever goods or services were under procurement. By the 1980s and 1990s, the rates had escalated to around 40 per cent. In the current dispensation in Kenya, the rates have maxed out to 100 per cent! This is the situation where, for instance, a development project is conjured up, it is costed, awarded, and paid for, but nothing is done. The exemplification of this is the Kimwarer and Arror dams project scandal in which billions were paid out for nothing. Alternatively, public funds are simply withdrawn from bank accounts and directly pocketed by public officers, a most brazen form of corruption that was amplified by the investigative report on the financial shenanigans at Maasai Mara University.
In view of the pandemic levels corruption has reached in Kenya, a national conference on corruption was convened in January 2019 at the Bomas of Kenya. At the conference, President Uhuru Kenyatta asserted that the government would relentlessly pursue high profile cases already in the courts and launch a crackdown to ensure all corrupt persons are held accountable.
“For the first time,” the President reiterated, “no person is beyond the reach of the long arm of the law no matter how powerful or influential they may perceive themselves to be.” He further revealed that all branches of government were working collaboratively to eliminate the vice. Since then, a big show has been made of demolishing properties constructed on road reserves, on riparian land, and on illegally-acquired public land. Finance Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich and his Principal Secretary, Kamau Thugge, among others, were arrested and charged with eight counts of financial fraud. Additionally, four high county governors were arrested and charged with corruption. These include Samburu governor Moses Kasaine Lenolkulal, Busia governor Sospeter Odeke Ojaamong, Kiambu governor Ferdinand Ndung’u Waititu, and Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko.
In the 1960s and 1970s, bureaucratic corruption manifested itself in bureaucrats’ demands for kickbacks valued at around 10 per cent of the total cost of a public tender, development project, or whatever goods or services were under procurement. By the 1980s and 1990s, the rates had escalated to around 40 per cent. In the current dispensation in Kenya, the rates have maxed out to 100 per cent!
A lot of fuss has been made before about fighting corruption, right from the 1960s, yet the problem has only gotten worse over time. The question is, given the manner in which the war on corruption has been conducted in Kenya, can it be successful? What chance is there that the current war on corruption will be successful? What will it take to seriously reduce and eventually stamp out corruption in Kenya? Where did Kenya go wrong on matters corruption?
When the rain started beating Kenyans
To understand how Kenya went wrong on the corruption issue, one has to juxtapose it with Singapore. Both Kenya and Singapore were British colonies. Singapore gained independence in 1959 while Kenya gained independence in 1963. Both had the same bureaucratic institutional legacy from colonialism.
For four decades, Kenya’s politics was dominated by one party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU); similarly, the People’s Action Party has remained the ruling party in Singapore since independence. Yet whereas Singapore is consistently ranked the most corruption-free country in Asia and among the top ten cleanest in the world, Kenya is rated among the top corrupt countries in Africa and the world. What accounts for these two realities is squarely the difference between adherence to leadership integrity and good governance principles, and lack of adherence to the same.
When Jomo Kenyatta became Prime Minister of Kenya in 1963, delegations of goodwill trooped to his Gatundu home bearing gifts for him, which he enthusiastically accepted. The gift bearers sought to ensure favourable consideration of their future requests. Even before he was released from prison, efforts were made to make Kenyatta’s post-prison life comfortable: a house was constructed for him; and, as the late Jackson Angaine stated in an interview with The Nation, “I mobilised the Ameru to contribute towards buying a Mercedes Benz car for Mzee Kenyatta shortly before his release in 1961.” This laid the foundation for favouritism, nepotism, and misuse of public office to serve private interests. The foundation for the appropriation of public office for self-enrichment was thus laid by Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, and it has gotten worse with each successive president.
A couple of years after Kenya’s independence, when Bildad Kaggia teamed up with Oginga Odinga and a few other truly nationalist leaders to fight for the rights of the landless for social justice and equity, and for restructuring Kenya’s colonial economy to work for the ordinary citizens, President Jomo Kenyatta publicly ridiculed him for failing to amass the kind of wealth that his former fellow political prisoners at Kapenguria had amassed for themselves: “We were together with Paul Ngei in prison. If you go to Ngei’s home, he has planted a lot of coffee and other crops. What have you done for yourself? If you go to Kubai’s home, he has a big house and has a nice shamba. Kaggia, what have you done for yourself? We were together with Kung’u Karumba in jail now he is running his own buses. What have you done for yourself?” Jomo Kenyatta boomed at Kaggia in disgust for refusing to use his position and ethnicity to accumulate wealth instead of teaming up with Odinga to oppose the acquisitive behavior of the new elite.
A couple of years after Kenya’s independence, when Bildad Kaggia teamed up with Oginga Odinga and a few other truly nationalist leaders to fight for the rights of the landless for social justice and equity…President Jomo Kenyatta publicly ridiculed him for failing to amass the kind of wealth that his former fellow political prisoners at Kapenguria had amassed for themselves.
Kaggia’s response to this rebuke was emblematic of a true servant-leader with the highest sense of integrity and commitment to the general good. He calmly responded: “I was not elected to Parliament to acquire a large farm, a big house or a transport business. My constituents sleep in mud houses. They have no shambas and have no businesses. So, I am not ashamed to be associated with them. By the time they have these things, I will also be able to have them for myself.”
Unfortunately for Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa and even beyond, such leaders of integrity have been rare. Indeed, the few extant ones were, at best, systematically marginalised from the centres of power and, at worst, silenced through assassination. For instance, when Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (popularly known as JM) incisively critiqued the government and declared that the manner in which the state was being used in Kenya would lead to a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars, he was assassinated and his body dumped in Ngong forest.
What Singapore did right
Just like Kenya’s Kenyatta, when Lee Kuan Yew became the first Prime Minister of Singapore in June 1959, he received many gifts from well-wishers who, like their Kenyan counterparts, wanted to ensure favourable consideration for their future requests. However, Lee declined to accept these gifts in order to set an example for his political colleagues and all civil servants.
A former senior civil servant, Eddie Teo, revealed that public servants watched and followed the example of Lee and his colleagues and “were incorruptible because they were incorruptible”. Eddie Teo and his colleagues were “motivated by the exemplary conduct set by our bosses” because “they lived simple, frugal and unostentatious lives” and the anti-corruption law was applied to everyone, regardless of position, by Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).
The country relies on two key laws to fight corruption: The Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), and the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act (CDSA). The PCA applies both to persons who give and those who receive bribes in both the public and private sectors. When applied, the CDSA confiscates ill-gotten gains from corrupt offenders, including direct benefits as well as profits made by individuals or companies from contracts awarded due to bribery. The two laws combine to make corruption a high-risk, low-reward activity in Singapore.
Furthermore, the Singapore Public Service is guided by a Code of Conduct, which sets out the high standards of behaviour expected of public officers based on principles of integrity, incorruptibility, and transparency. The Code of Conduct is enshrined in the Government Instruction Manual for public officers and provides that a public officer (a) cannot borrow money from any person who has official dealings with him; (b) cannot at any time have unsecured debts and liabilities that are more than three times his/her monthly salary; (c) cannot use any official information to further his/her private interest; (d) is required to declare his/her assets at his/her first appointment and do so annually thereafter; (e) cannot engage in trade or business or undertake any part-time employment without approval; and (f) cannot receive entertainment or presents in any form from members of the public.
In a nutshell, unlike Kenya, Singapore resolved from the very beginning to fight corruption as a matter of strategic imperative to ensure the rule of law, sustain a healthy state of governance, and facilitate economic and social development. Right from independence, the founding political leaders saw it as their onerous task to set good examples for public officers. They created, by personal example, a climate of honesty and integrity, and made it patently clear to public officers that corruption in any form would not be tolerated.
Perhaps the best exemplification of Singapore’s zero tolerance of corruption is the fact that the anti-corruption law is applied to everyone equally, including top government and ruling party officials. Among top political leaders that have been prosecuted include the Minister for National Development, Tan Kia Gan, in 1966; the Minister of State, Wee Toon Boon, in 1975; the Member of Parliament and trade union leader, Phey Yew Kok, in 1979; and the Minister for National Development, Teh Cheang Wan, in 1986. The case of MP and trade union leader Phey Yew Kok is particularly illustrative of Singapore’s unrelenting commitment to zero tolerance of corruption. Kok was charged with misappropriating $100,000 trade union funds in 1979. He, however, fled to exile. When, at age 81, he returned to Singapore in 2015 after 35 years abroad, his case was re-opened by the CPIB and he was prosecuted on 34 charges involving more than $450,000, almost five times the original $100,000 he was accused of stealing from trade union funds in 1979. Kok pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in jail.
In a nutshell, unlike Kenya, Singapore resolved from the very beginning to fight corruption as a matter of strategic imperative to ensure the rule of law, sustain a healthy state of governance, and facilitate economic and social development. Right from independence, the founding political leaders saw it as their onerous task to set good examples for public officers.
Available evidence strongly indicates that the most important difference between a corrupt and corrupt-free state is the quality of their governance. A country’s incidence of corruption is related to its quality of governance. Multiple studies conclude that countries with high corruption have a low quality of governance, those with medium corruption have fair governance, and those with low corruption have good governance.
Singapore has minimised corruption because of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s strong political will and the provision of adequate personnel, budget and operational independence to enable the CPIB to enforce the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) impartially, regardless of an offender’s status, position, or political affiliation. Corruption offenders in Singapore are punished according to the law, without their jail sentences being suspended, or without being pardoned by the president. Consequently, corruption is perceived as a high risk, low reward activity in Singapore today because those persons convicted of corruption offences are punished according to the law.
As early as 1996, Singapore was ranked first among the 12 Asian countries in the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy’s (PERC) corruption survey. The PERC attributed Singapore’s top ranking to its strict and consistent enforcement of anti-corruption laws as corrupt officials, particularly high-ranking ones, are dealt with in Singapore with a severity rarely seen elsewhere. The country consistently ranks among the least corrupt in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Indices.
Lessons from Singapore
A number of lessons can be extracted from the Singaporean experience. The first, and perhaps the most critical one, is the importance of political will in the fight against corruption. For the war to succeed, a country’s political leadership must be sincerely committed to the eradication of corruption. They must demonstrate exemplary conduct, adopt a modest lifestyle, and eschew indulging in corruption themselves. Anyone found guilty of corruption must be punished, regardless of his or her position or status in society. If the big fish are protected from being prosecuted for corruption, and only the small fish are caught or prosecuted, as is the case in Kenya, the anti-corruption strategy will lack credibility and is unlikely to make any difference.
The second lesson from Singapore is that to effectively combat corruption, incremental measures won’t suffice. Instead, comprehensive anti-corruption measures must be employed. These include comprehensive anti-corruption laws and a non-corrupt and autonomous anti-corruption agency. The anti-corruption legislation must be comprehensive enough to prevent loopholes and must be periodically reviewed to introduce relevant amendments whenever required.
The third lesson is that the anti-corruption agency must itself be incorruptible. To ensure this, it must be controlled or supervised by an incorruptible leader. The agency must be staffed by honest and competent personnel. Overstaffing should be avoided and any staff member found guilty of corruption must be punished and dismissed from the civil service.
The fourth lesson from the Singaporean experience is that to reduce the opportunities for corruption in those government departments that are vulnerable to corrupt activities, such as customs, immigration, internal revenue, and traffic police, such departments should review their procedures periodically in order to reduce the opportunities for corruption.
The fifth lesson that the Singaporean experience teaches us is that the incentive for corruption among civil servants and political leaders can be reduced by ensuring that their salaries and fringe benefits are competitive with the private sector. The long-term consequences of low civil service salaries are unfavourable as talented civil servants will leave to join private companies for higher pay, while the less capable will remain and succumb to corruption to supplement their low salaries. However, governments might not be able to increase salaries unless there is economic growth and adequate financial resources. The basis for making civil service salaries competitive with the private sector is thus good governance and effective economic management that ensure sustained economic growth and development.
In short, Singapore’s success in minimising corruption can be attributed to its dual strategy of reducing both the opportunities and incentives for corruption. Indeed, Singapore’s experience in curbing corruption demonstrates that it is possible to minimise corruption if there is strong political will. Needless to say, the situation becomes hopeless if such political will is lacking, when political leaders and senior civil servants pay only lip service to implementing anti-corruption strategies in their countries. Unfortunately, this has been the case in Kenya where the anti-corruption war has been waged half-heartedly, where low-level corrupt individuals are prosecuted while those who perpetrate grand corruption are celebrated and cleared to run for top political offices, and where even the half-hearted war is politically weaponised and applied selectively. It is thus no wonder that the scourge of corruption continues to grow in Kenya and constitutes perhaps the single most lethal threat to the future of the state.
Other successful strategies
Beyond the momentous experience of Singapore, evidence from elsewhere, such as the Doing Business Indicators, demonstrates that there is a high correlation between the incidence of corruption and the extent of bureaucratic red tape. This suggests the imperative need for cutting bureaucratic red tape by eliminating needless regulations while safeguarding the essential regulatory functions of the state. Some of the regulations on the books of many countries, such as those related to starting a new business, registering property, engaging in international trade, and a myriad other certifications and licences, are sometimes not only extremely burdensome but governments hardly ever pause to examine whether the purposes for which they were introduced are still relevant to the needs of the present. Such are the regulations that induce corruption and most simply need to be done away with.
Second, experience from elsewhere indicates that creating transparency and openness in government spending is another great strategy for minimising corruption. Subsidies, tax exemptions, public procurement of goods and services, soft credits, and extrabudgetary funds under the control of politicians constitute the various ways in which a government manages public resources. Governments collect taxes, tap the capital markets to raise money, receive foreign aid and develop mechanisms to allocate these resources to satisfy multiple needs. Some countries do this in ways that are relatively transparent and make efforts to ensure that resources will be used in the public interest. The more open and transparent the process, the less the opportunities for malfeasance and abuse. This calls for high levels of citizen literacy, and an active civil society with a culture of participation. A good example here is New Zealand, which remains consistently one of the top performers in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. New Zealand is a pioneer in creating transparent budget processes, having approved in 1994 the Fiscal Responsibility Act that provides a legal framework for transparent management of public resources.
Beyond the momentous experience of Singapore, evidence from elsewhere…demonstrates that there is a high correlation between the incidence of corruption and the extent of bureaucratic red tape. This suggests the imperative need for cutting bureaucratic red tape by eliminating needless regulations while safeguarding the essential regulatory functions of the state.
A third strategy recommended by experts, and which is based on the Singapore experience, involves deploying smart technology. As already noted above, one of the most fertile sources of corruption in the world is the purchasing activities of the state. Purchases of goods and services by the state can be sizeable in most countries – somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of gross domestic product. Since the awarding of contracts involves a measure of bureaucratic discretion, and given that most countries have long histories of graft, kickbacks, and collusion in public procurement, an increasing number of countries have opted for procedures that guarantee adequate levels of openness, competition, a level playing field for suppliers, and fairly clear bidding procedures.
Singapore has achieved this by streamlining cumbersome administrative procedures and slashing red tape to provide an efficient and transparent civil service so that no one needs to bribe civil servants to get things done. A national ICT masterplan was set up in the 1980s, which is updated regularly to enable the government to exploit technology to benefit the country and to spur economic growth. Through this, the government implemented e-services to enhance the accessibility and convenience of government services. Now thousands of government services are transacted online by Singaporeans in the comfort of their homes. With regard to public procurement, Singapore installed GeBIZ, an online procurement portal because of which, today, all government procurement is done online. The procurement specifications are posted online and are available to all prospective contractors, both national and international. Transparency and efficiency are enhanced, and opportunities for abuse and corruption are drastically reduced.
A third strategy recommended by experts, and which is based on the Singapore experience, involves deploying smart technology. As already noted above, one of the most fertile sources of corruption in the world is the purchasing activities of the state.
Chile is another country that has deployed the latest technologies to create one of the world’s most transparent public procurement systems in the world. ChileCompra was launched in 2003, and is a public electronic system for purchasing and hiring based on an Internet platform. It has earned a worldwide reputation for excellence, transparency, and efficiency. It serves companies, public organisations as well as individual citizens, and is by far the largest business-to-business site in the country, involving 850 purchasing organisations. In 2012 users completed 2.1 million purchases issuing invoices totaling US$9.1 billion. It has also been a catalyst for the use of the Internet throughout the country.
In many of the measures discussed above, the underlying philosophy is one of eliminating the opportunity for corruption by changing incentives, by closing loopholes and eliminating misconceived rules that encourage corrupt behaviour.
But an approach that focuses solely on changing the rules and the incentives, accompanied by appropriately harsh punishment for violation of the rules, is likely to be far more effective if it is also supported by efforts to buttress the moral and ethical foundation of human behaviour. For the anti-corruption war to succeed, the Singapore example illustrates that it requires unrelenting political will on the part of the top political leadership and it must be waged comprehensively and without fear or favour. Otherwise, the manner in which the war against corruption has been conducted in Kenya amounts to mere window dressing; it is emblematic of the proverbial preaching of water while simultaneously partaking of wine.
‘Secular’ Vs ‘Religious’ Violence: When Is Terrorism Not Terrorism?
5 min read. The rigid distinction between “the tolerant secularist” versus the “barbaric religious fundamentalist” in today’s discourse on the global War on Terror has been employed to justify the extreme measures taken against so-called Islamic terrorist groups.
In the past few decades, Islam has been on the spot in connection with violence due to the surge in armed groups that justify their actions using the religion. Examples abound: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS) have claimed to want to unite all Muslims under one caliphate, liberate them from a Christian-Jewish conspiracy, and free Muslim countries from foreign influence. Similarly, Al Shabaab has an ambition to regain Somalia’s lost territories and establish a Muslim state that is free from foreign influence.
Such claims and the fear that these alarmist statements ignite have not only won these violent groups new recruits but have also led to the tightening of counterterrorism efforts. President Donald Trump, for example, calls Islamist groups and their violent actions “radical Islamic terrorists/terrorism”. However, after the New Zealand mosque massacre last year that left 49 people dead, he referred to the atrocity as “an act of hate”. Notable is his failure to differentiate between “Islamic” and “Islamist” and how quick he is to draw the link between Islam, Al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS). The latter have been labeled terrorist groups even though there has been a spike in white nationalist violence/terrorism in parts of the United States.
Closer to home, Al Shabaab and its rhetoric has often received widespread publicity as an “Islamic’ terror group” – a label that immediately makes a connection between Islam and violence. There have been recent calls by the Government of Kenya for the United Nations Security Council to officially classify Al Shabaab as terrorist group. Yet the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), despite claiming that its actions are inspired by Christianity, has not been labeled a “Christian terrorist group”.
“Secular” versus “Islamic” terrorism
The question is whether claims by Islamist groups such as Al Shabaab should be taken at face value. Al Shabaab has received widespread publicity in comparison to other “secular” armed groups largely because, together with other Islamist groups, it is seen as “religious”, “indiscriminate”, “brutish”, and “inflexible to negotiation” because it hates secular institutions, especially the Federal Government of Somalia (and its allies) and does not recognise “infidels”. If one uses Al Shabaab’s logic, a threat to Al Shabaab equals a threat to God.
However, one must recognise that for many years Somalis have not only experienced violence by Al Shabaab, but have also been victims of violence perpetrated by “secular” warlords. For example, in the period culminating in the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991 and during the civil war in Somalia, such violence was propagated by, among other actors, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). ARPCT was an alliance of “secular” politicians comprising a band of warlords mainly from the Hawiye clan and their financiers. There are many other examples of violence by so called “secular” actors beyond Somalia that could be classified as state-perpetrated terrorism, including US drone attacks on Somalia that continue to this day.
Ironically, during that period, it was the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that brought peace to Somalia for the first time since onset of the civil war. Back then, the ICU comprised, among other factions, so-called moderates and radical Islamists. Sheikh Sharif, who later, in 2009, would became president, led the moderates and adopted a liberal approach to politics that was opposed by the more radical faction. This radical faction would go on to form the Al Shabaab of today after sabotaging the unity and progress of the ICU and making more political demands. Al Shabaab gained more strength after the ICU was ousted from Mogadishu in 2006 by US-backed Ethiopian forces.
However, one must recognise that for many years Somalis have not only experienced violence by Al Shabaab, but have also been victims of violence perpetrated by “secular” warlords.
Al-Shabaab violence is often portrayed as a religious act of purification. Yet Al Shabaab’s attacks are non-discriminatory – Muslims and non-Muslims are targets, as are locals and foreigners. In Somalia, the targets have been government buildings, hotels, restaurants and schools where the majority of the casualties have been Somali Muslims. The most prominent recent example is the attack on a hotel in Kismaayo that killed the Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh and the attack in Mogadishu that killed the Mayor of Mogadishu, Abdulrahman Omar Osman, after a bomb was detonated inside the headquarters of Benadir district. Al Shabaab has made it clear that it targets the Government of Somalia and that those working to support it are a target, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not.
This is not to imply that religious institutions and individuals have not been targets of Al Shabaab. On the contrary, when this happens, it is more because the target was easy and the aim was to heighten the impact of the violence, thereby raising the profile of the group. It also often does so for political and economic motives as opposed to “religious” ones. For example, the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi was claimed as a retribution against Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011. The attack in Mpeketoni was targeted at Kikuyu Christians, while the one at Garissa University, which killed 148 students, targeted the mostly Christian student population.
Al Shabaab has made it clear that it targets the Government of Somalia and that those working to support it are a target, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not.
Therefore, when al-Shabaab uses Islam to justify its actions, it does so to win the support of Muslims in countries like Kenya, which are rich grounds for radicalisation. Thus the notion of purity that comes with the “Islam” label is tapped into by the group to present it as incorruptible, similar to the Salafi or Ummah brands that are used to unify Muslims.
Al Shabaab emerged from the social and political dynamics of war-torn Somalia and so it is fueled more by Somali nationalism than by the aim of creating an Islamic state. The use of a pious rhetoric to promise change by returning to the pure foundations of Islam serves a social function that Al Shabaab uses to promote its political agenda.
As argued by Gunning and Jackson, religion is complex and difficult to define and so it is problematic to generalise it. Religion should be seen as a part and parcel of society – a “site of practice attached to power and knowledge embedded within a community of believers”. The rigid dichotomy of “religious” versus “secular” is rooted in European history and politics where religion was seen as irrational in comparison to rational science and therefore confined to the private sphere.
Al Shabaab emerged from the social and political dynamics of war-torn Somalia and so it is fueled more by Somali nationalism than by the aim of creating an Islamic state.
Labeling Islamist groups as “religious” is therefore informed by the Christian West, whose image of the Middle East is that of the “other” – the “fanatic Muslims” – an image that is reinforced by the increased use of religious symbols by Islamist groups. This explains the double standard of why the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) of Northern Spain that is shaped by Catholicism is seen as secular yet al-Qaeda, despite displaying diverse secular qualities and ambitions, such as overthrowing regimes, ending occupation, freeing Palestine, and targeting both secular and religious sites, is seen as “a network of Islamic extremists and Salafi jihadists”.
Labelling Islamist groups like Al Shabaab as “religious” risks implying that it is a legitimate representative of Somalis and East African Muslims; yet Islamic practices are shaped by context and are diverse. Muslims in East Africa alone are indeed quite diverse and the fact that some Muslim leaders have come out to condemn the actions of the group serves as proof of this diversity. Al-Shabaab members and their leaders should therefore be seen as only a fraction of Muslims of East Africa, acting not as representatives of Muslims but as a unique group with its own agenda. Regardless of their claims, so-called “religious terrorists” do not necessarily act as they preach; rather their actions are often shaped by political calculations.
The rigid distinction between “the tolerant secularist” versus the “barbaric religious fundamentalist” in today’s discourse on the global War on Terror has had the impact of promoting further conflict and denies Muslims their history, which is distinct from that of the West. This distinction is used to justify the extreme measures taken against so-called Islamic terrorist groups and helps to divert attention from controversial “secular” state violence.
Fear and Loathing: Why Kikuyus May End Up Voting for Ruto in 2022
13 min read. Many believe that the pact between Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto prior to the 2013 elections ensured peace in the Rift Valley – the epicentre of the post-election violence of 2007/8 – and delivered the duo the presidency. DAUTI KAHURA speaks to Kikuyus who are wondering why Uhuru has now abandoned Ruto, and whether this politics of betrayal will have a devastating impact on the Kikuyu “diaspora” in the Rift.
The two-week break in the month of December afforded me some time to travel around the Kikuyu populated peri-urban areas bordering Nairobi in Central Kenya (also known as Uthamakistan in today’s political parlance) and in the greater Rift Valley – a segment of Kenyan society that has strong views on the succession politics of 2022.
For the very first time, the ethnic community’s elites who have dictated the pace and rhythm of the country’s politics since 1963 are at a crossroads: they do not have a horse to back. Conditioned and socialised to believe they cannot back someone outside their ethnic cocoon, they are at a loss, mainly because President Uhuru Kenyatta is serving his last term and has not pointed to anybody who could possibly succeed him. In a country where presidential campaigns begin two years before the actual election date, the uncertainty that President Uhuru has created among the Kikuyu rank and file is palpable.
This uncertainty has been exacerbated by the fact that Uhuru is viewed as the most underperforming president since independence; he is now loathed and lampooned in equal measure by his core constituency – the Kikuyu underclass and pretenders to the middle class. Why? “Because after voting for him three times – in 2013 and twice in 2017 – it is very painful to see that we the Kikuyus suffer unmitigated economic disaster, courtesy of his gross incompetence and cluelessness,” said Peterson Gakuo from Ihwagi location, Mathira constituency, Nyeri County.
“We have now come to the realization that the man was all form and no substance. We thrust the presidency onto him because he was supposedly one of us. I can tell you there was no other criterion…we were told he is our leader by the late John Njoroge Michuki. If anybody wanted to negotiate with the Kikuyu vote, he had to talk to Uhuru. And so we were stuck with a man whose only claim to any ‘political fame’ is that he has pedigree. It is the greatest mistake the Kikuyus have ever made.”
The Kikuyu rank and file, suffering from the vicissitudes of President Uhuru’s intemperate economic policies and callousness, have in recent years been showing him the middle finger. They are revolting. Like they say where I come from, “vitu kwa ground ni different.” Things on the ground are different. In Kikuyuland, the name Uhuru is slowly becoming anathema. “Please, please ndukagwetere ritwa riu haha, ndugathokie ngoro, ndakare.” Kindly avoid mentioning that name [Uhuru] here, I don’t want my mood spoilt.
The second reason why this uncertainty is driving the Kikuyus crazy and is taking on a dangerous trajectory is that “Uhuru is carelessly endangering the lives of the Kikuyus of the greater Rift Valley,” said Beth Wairimu from Zambezi trading centre along the Nairobi-Nakuru highway in Kikuyu, Kiambu County, which is some 20 kilometres from Nairobi.
“In 2013, we Kikuyus voted for both Uhuru and William Ruto as a team. There was an understanding that after Uhuru’s 10-year two terms, he would support Ruto. This is publicly acknowledged within the community. This meant the Kikuyu people would equally throw their lot behind Ruto in order to ensure the security of the Kikuyus in the Rift Valley diaspora and to honour his part of the bargain. Now to turn around and betray him is really jeopardising the safety of our people in the Rift. We owe him [Ruto] our trust.”
I shall return to this theme of betrayal, and security, survival and trust issues of a politically-jaded community later. But first, let me begin my story with a meeting that took place exactly two years ago.
Politics of betrayal
In December 2017, just about a month after Uhuru was sworn in after the controversial repeat presidential election of October 26, I sat with two Uthamaki fundamentalists, one a Nairobi city Jubilee Party politician and the other a nouveau riche city of Nairobi real estate businessman. We were at the Sagret Hotel in the Milimani area, a popular nyama choma joint. Although patronised mainly by Kikuyu old money for many years, it has in recent years been attracting a coterie of new money, mostly made in the Mwai Kibaki era between 2003 and 2013. The businessman I was meeting was one of the fellows who made his millions during that time.
“In 2013, we Kikuyus voted for both Uhuru and William Ruto as a team. There was an understanding that after Uhuru’s 10-year two terms, he would support Ruto. This is publicly acknowledged within the community…”
The middle-aged businessman, after soaking in thufu wa thenge (he-goat’s soup), mutura (traditionally-made sausages) and ndudero (stuffed intestines), turned to me and said straight to my face: “Ni ithue twathanaga guku…Kahura ni waigwa? Uthie ukandeke uguo niguo ndaiga nii ndurika ya wa Susana.” It is we [presuming himself to be part of the Uthamaki cabal] who rule this country. Kahura have you heard? You can write that’s what I’ve said, me, a braggart and son of Susan. “Nitwarekania na Ruto…Ruto no riu? Ndagecirie tutioe uria ekire…MoU ya Raila twameikirie kioro, ona ya Ruto noguo tukumeka.” We are finished with Ruto…who is Ruto by the way? He shouldn’t for a moment think we’ve forgotten what he did [referring to the 2007/2008 post-election violence in the Rift Valley region]…we threw Raila’s MoU into the toilet…that’s what we are going to do with Ruto’s.
In December 2002, the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), fronted by Mwai Kibaki, defeated Kanu, whose flag bearer was the neophyte Uhuru Kenyatta. Narc comprised Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP), Charity Ngilu (today the governor of Kitui County)’s Social Democratic Party (SDP), Michael Kijana Wamalwa’s Ford Kenya and the breakaway Kanu group that was led by Raila Odinga and consisted of, among others, George Saitoti, Joseph Kamotho and William Ntimama. This Raila group morphed into the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). (Saitoti, Ntimama, Kamotho and Wamalwa are no longer with us; they all died under different circumstances and are therefore not part of any current coalition.)
In an MoU that is presumed to have been agreed upon by Raila and his LDP group and Kibaki and his DP brigade, in the event that they took power, each group would equitably share cabinet positions. More significantly, there was an understanding that once Kibaki took on the presidency, he would appoint Raila as the prime minister. The long and short of that MoU is that it was never honoured. Five years later, in 2007 (an election year), Raila cobbled up another political party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), that took on Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU), which had also ditched Narc.
Ruto: The key to peace in the Rift Valley?
The disputed presidential vote count in December 2007 led to the massacre of more than 1,000 people, and the displacement of more than 500,000 others, the majority of whom were Kikuyus from the Rift Valley. To cut a long story short, the businessman told me: “Twamurutire nyama ee kanua…eke uria ekaga aria samaki na atofoke rui, kai Ruto ariwe wena ny…e cigana?” We snatched the victory from the lion’s mouth, (basically to mean), we grabbed back power from Raila, who had won it and we told him to go jump into Lake Victoria and do his worst…we were ready to deal with him. So this Ruto, how many b….s does he have?
The duo boasted that if Ruto lives up to January 2020 to be in government or indeed even anywhere, “niukumenya ndiaruire rui Ruaka.” You’ll know I wasn’t circumcised by the Ruaka River, said the braggadocio. “We tamed this Raila man who has given us enough headaches, put him in his place…save for Ruto who entered politics just the other day. I say yet again, we govern this country, we decide among ourselves who will rule the country. The other communities must wait for us to dish out positions to them, and they must be satisfied with what we give them. It is not for nothing that our political and business elites are the most powerful in the country.”
Fast forward to January 2020 and it is the Kikuyu electorate that finds itself torn between the devil and the deep blue sea: it must choose what should “devour” it. Whatever option it takes, it will not be an easy choice because Ruto has presented the Kikuyus with the greatest dilemma. If they do not support Ruto, is there a risk that the violence of 2007/8 will be repeated? As a food seller from Banana in Kiambu County told me, “It is true, the memories of 2007 are vivid, yet were it not for Ruto, Uhuru would not be president and our people in the Rift would not be living in peace and harmony.”
I met the feisty food seller who runs a kibanda (foodshed) 150 metres from the gates of the United Nations complex and US Embassy in Gigiri in December 2019. Serving me chapati and coco beans, she confessed that it had been a most difficult year. “People don’t have as much money in their pockets as they used to do, but God is great, we are alive.” I asked her why the Kikuyus, who had willingly chosen President Uhuru, were now complaining. She said, “We don’t want to hear that name – he has really annoyed us, it is unbelievable what he has done to us and now to make it worse, he wants to impose Raila on us.”
Fast forward to January 2020 and it is the Kikuyu electorate that finds itself torn between the devil and the deep blue sea: it must choose what should “devour” it. Whatever option it takes, it will not be an easy choice because Ruto has presented the Kikuyus with the greatest dilemma. If they do not support Ruto, is there a risk that the violence of 2007/8 will be repeated?
The lady, who looked to be in her mid-40s, told me she would be voting for Ruto come 2022. “At least the man is firm, focused and resolute.” The food peddler said that deep in their hearts, Kikuyus know they owe Ruto a political debt: “We entered into a pact with the Kalenjin people, that they would help our son capture power and protect our people in the Rift. In return, we would lend our support also to their son after Uhuru’s terms ended. It would now be disingenuous for the Kikuyu people to renege on that promise…it actually would be dangerous. I have relatives in the Rift and I can tell you, they are not sitting pretty.”
“So you are alive to the post-election violence of 2007?” I asked her.
“Oh very much so.”
“How then do you explain the violent backlash from the same people you claim to have been protecting your relatives?”
“We forgave Ruto,” the lady said to me. “As Christians, we are called to forgive our transgressors…but we’ll never forget, no, we cannot forget. It was very painful. But remember also, Ruto was working under the command of Raila. He takes the bigger blame. Raila is very wicked, absolutely wicked – he will never be king in this country. Look now at what he has done after realising he cannot win through the front door. He has gone ahead to confuse Uhuru so that he can capture power through the back door.”
The woman claimed that Uhuru is a victim of Raila’s charms, machinations and political whims. I asked her what she meant. “Can’t you see how he crafted the handshake – Raila is the architect of the handshake and BBI and Uhuru fell for the ploy. “Uhuru ni kirimu gitu.” Uhuru is our stupid son. President Uhuru has thoroughly let down the community…“No ona kuri uguo, mwana muciare ndateagwo.” You do not throw away a baby you have given birth to. Even though President Uhuru has wasted the aspirations of the Kikuyu people, he still remains painfully one of our own.
Raila: The central hate figure
I learnt that the Kikuyu people were back to stereotyping Raila, and by extension, the Luo community: the insults and innuendoes have been revived. “We will never let the country be ruled by an uncircumcised man. Let me ask you, why is Raila so eager to rule Kenya? The day the Luos take power in this country we’re finished, so that will never happen. That’s why we’ll reject anything to do with Raila and Uhuru together…so take it from me, we’ll shoot down that BBI of theirs.”
Once again, Raila is the central hate figure of the Kikuyu people. “It is this handshake that worsened our economic plight,” said a straight-faced Peter Macharia, a businessman who runs a tours and travel company. “Raila should have stayed in the opposition because he is best at checking the government, but not as a president, because anyway, he’ll never be.” According to Macharia, Raila was born to dabble in opposition politics and not the politics of leading the country as its head of state.
“Uhuru, during the presidential campaigns, reminded us – for the umpteenth time – that Raila was uncircumcised, and was therefore a boy and that national leadership was not for boys. Now we see them holding hands. Did Uhuru circumcise Raila?” asked a woman from Kagio Market, in Kirinyaga County. “Uhuru should stop joking with us; if he has circumcised him, he should come back here and tell us so.”
A lady pastor who runs an evangelical church in Githurai, Nairobi County, said that she would vote for Ruto. “There’s a way he connects with the people of God. The good Lord could be using him to pass a special message to us Kikuyus. I don’t trust Raila – why does he exhibit an unbridled thirst for power? I’ve always doubted whether he’s Godly.
“Have you ever heard of the dog whistle theory?” asked a mzee from Kiambu. The Kikuyu people had been conditioned to be wary of Raila’s movements, utterances and whatever else he did, the old man said. “When Raila opens his mouth to speak, they automatically interpret their own things, totally different from what other communities have heard him say. Lazima tupambane na hii ufisadi vilivyo. (We must slay the dragon of corruption relentlessly.) The Kikuyu interpret the statement to mean: We must deal with these Kikuyus firmly wherever they are.” The mzee said right now to sell Raila and anything associated with him in central Kenya is like pounding water in a mortar with a pestle.
“Kikuyus are waiting for Uhuru to tell them this is the direction we the Kikuyu community will be taking,” said the old man. “If he says we’re going west, they will take the opposite direction. That’s what they plan to do because they want to teach him a lesson by acting contrary to his wishes.”
Anger begets anger. “Kikuyus plan to vote for Ruto to punish Uhuru. Absurd as it may sound, Kikuyus have resolved to give President Uhuru the contempt card because he has already shown he doesn’t want Ruto to succeed him. After re-electing him for a difficult second time, the Kikuyus are bitter with President Uhuru for exposing them by not grooming a fellow Kikuyu to succeed him. Instead he looks like he’s rooting for Raila.” In the logic of the Kikuyu people, said the mzee, it is akin to a man who, hoping to evade stepping onto urine, jumps straight into faeces.
The Kikuyu people’s political wisdom can be puzzling, said mzee Kimiti from Gikambura in Kikuyu constituency, Kiambu County. “I describe them as oogi aa jata aria matoi kendu, the wise men who know nothing.”
“In 2002,” recalled Kimiti, “the Kiambu people went against the grain and voted for Uhuru Kenyatta to a man when practically every other Kikuyu was rooting for Mwai Kibaki. In their strange logic, Kibaki wasn’t one of their own – even though he spoke the Gikuyu language, hailed from central Kenya and had served in prominent positions, including as an influential finance minister and vice president. These were not enough to qualify him to be called a son of the soil.”
Anger begets anger. “Kikuyus plan to vote for Ruto to punish Uhuru. Absurd as it may sound, Kikuyus have resolved to give President Uhuru the contempt card because he has already shown he doesn’t want Ruto to succeed him…”
But in 2007, the people of Kiambu turned around and voted for Kibaki. “Do you know why?” posed the mzee. “Because Uhuru had joined Kibaki’s PNU bandwagon. Had he not, they would have followed him to wherever he would have taken them, abstained, or thrown their votes to the dogs. Now they are rallying against President Uhuru but still waiting for him to show them a sign. Brainwashed into believing that voting for Raila as president would be the beginning of their end, they are currently confused with the newly found bromance between their son and Raila. [Kiambu] Kikuyus can kill you with their wisdom: their very own Uhuru is finishing them from within, yet they firmly believe that Raila, who has never done any harm to them, will actually finish them.”
Gakuo said the only option Kikuyus currently have is to hedge their bets on Ruto. “President Uhuru has been waging war on Ruto… for what? When we voted for them for the first time in 2013, we knew both were running away from the ICC [International Court of Justice]. Uhuru therefore knew Ruto’s character. Why is he now turning around, telling us Ruto is the most corrupt state officer in his government? Uhuru arenda gutukuwa urimu niki? Why is Uhuru taking us for fools? That narrative of Ruto being the greatest thief is neither here nor there and in any case it’s already late in the day. Muceera na mukundu akundukaga taguo. He who is in the company of a thief is also a thief. They [the Kenyattas] have stolen from their very own Kikuyu people. What have they done for the people?”
Amid the confusion and paradoxes reigning in Uthamakistan, an urgent need for the Kikuyu people to assuage their collective guilt is also quietly at play. Businessman Ndiritu Kanyoni told me that Kikuyus want to vote for Ruto because it would ostensibly “right” the “wrong” of being the only community that doesn’t vote for those who are not from their own ethnic group. “They want, for the first time, to prove to the other ethnic communities that they indeed can vote for a non-Kikuyu,” said Kanyoni. “The guilt of being seen as the most tribalistic people when it comes to voting for the president has been gnawing at them. Voting for Ruto will, in their view, assuage that guilt.”
The businessman said in 2003 the Kikuyu political elite shafted Raila (read Luos) and the result was the post-election violence of 2007/2008. In 2013, the same elite shafted Musalia Mudavadi (read Luhyas) when Uhuru Kenyatta claimed demons had visited him and caused him to change, a presumed pact between him and the son of Moses Substone Mudavadi. The result, pointed out the businessman, was creating an unnecessary mistrust among a community that today the Kikuyu people would be counting as its political ally. After 2017, the elite has unashamedly shafted the Kalenjin by labelling Ruto as the most corrupt man in this part of the world and therefore unfit to be president. “We cannot be the tribe that shafts every other ethnic community.”
Musalia was “a safe pair of hands,” opined Kanyoni: “innocuous, malleable, stands for nothing…the Kikuyu political elite would have easily controlled him…But the elite is know-it-all, tactless and full of hubris.”
The “other” Kikuyus
Wairimu from Zambezi reminded me this was not the time to “annoy” Ruto by reneging on a deal that every Kikuyu knows about. “For the sake of the Kikuyus living in the North and South Rift – Ainabkoi, Burnt Forest, Eldoret, Endebess, Kericho, Kitale, Londiani, Moi’s Bridge, Matunda, Molo, Mt Elgon, Njoro, Soy, Timboroa, Turbo and others places – we Kikuyus will vote for Ruto. Call it political insurance, safety and security and survival for our people.”
“The only person who can ensure the protection of Kikuyus in the Rift is William Ruto – not Uhuru Kenyatta, not Raila Odinga,” said Wainaina, one of the wealthier Kikuyu businessmen in Eldoret town. Wainaina said that the notion that the state can protect Kikuyus who live away from the motherland was false and misleading: “Mwai Kibaki was the president when violence was visited upon the Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. Why didn’t he protect us? Since then, we’ve been sitting ducks and we’re on our own and we know it. If violence were to erupt in the Rift Valley, it’s us Kikuyus who’d suffer the brunt and Uhuru would be nowhere – he’s been unable to protect our businesses, what about our lives? We’re not gambling. Ruto ndio kusema hapa Rift Valley,” Ruto’s the final word in the Rift Valley…that’s it.”
Amid the confusion and paradoxes reigning in Uthamakistan, an urgent need for the Kikuyu people to assuage their collective guilt is also quietly at play. Businessman Ndiritu Kanyoni told me that Kikuyus want to vote for Ruto because it would ostensibly “right” the “wrong” of being the only community that doesn’t vote for those who are not from their own ethnic group.
After the post-election violence, the Kikuyus from the Rift Valley region came to the conclusion that their aspirations and those of the Kikuyus from the motherland were incongruent: “They consider us collateral damage, a political expediency to be toyed around with. They don’t care if we’re killed in huge numbers,” said Wainaina. “When some of our people retraced our ancestry back in central Kenya, they were not welcome. They told us to go back to where we belonged, that there was no space for us…that we’d left many years ago. It was as shocking as it was painful.”
In his machismo style, the businessman at Sagret Hotel said: “It’s we, the Kikuyus from central Kenya, who tell the Kikuyus in the Rift what to do politically and they follow. What have been their options? If some of them are caught in the political melee, well, it’s because we’ll not cede ultimate power just because some of them will be slaughtered.”
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