Rasna Warah

Most people who move to Malindi, a small, sleepy resort town on Kenya’s coast, are exiles of one sort or another. The Italians, who form a sizeable proportion of the population, are escaping from the stifling routine and order of Europe. Some, they say, are fugitives, evading the law in their own country. The British pensioners who live here are running away from the cold and the prospect of spending old age in a miserable home for the elderly in Britain. Kenyans from other parts of the country, like myself, come to escape the rat race, crime and gridlocks that have come to define my birthplace Nairobi, Kenya’s political and commercial capital. 

Kenya’s coastal strip has over the centuries attracted seafarers, slave traders, adventurers and merchants from as far as India, China and the Arab peninsula. Its unique blend of African, Arab and Indian culture dates back several centuries and is said to extend from Mogadishu in Somalia to Cape Delgado in Mozambique. Malindi, like Mombasa, Mogadishu, Lamu, Pate and Zanzibar, was once a leading mercantile centre, part of the Indian Ocean sea routes that linked the African hinterland to Asia. Its Muslim population, mostly Swahilis who have been inhabiting the East African coast for centuries, can be found in the older historic part of the town known as Shela, where the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set up base in the 15th century, and from where he is said to have recruited a pilot to steer his ship towards India.  

In more recent years, foreign tourists have been coming to Malindi to enjoy the sun, the sea and sex. The town’s beaches have gained a seedy and decadent reputation as places where European billionaires, including the playboy former Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlosconni, come to play. However, this tourist season, the bars, restaurants, casinos and beach hotels in Malindi are almost empty. An Ebola outbreak in West Africa and a spate of violent incidents that resulted in the death of dozens of people in Lamu County north of Malindi have scared off foreigners. The attacks appeared to be land-related, pitting indigenous ethnic groups against those they view as “outsiders,” even though Al Shabaab, a Somalia-based terrorist organization that has links to Al Qaeda, took responsibility for the massacres. Lamu Island, a World Heritage Site known for its unique Swahili architecture, culture and lifestyle and its pristine beaches, has seen a dramatic reduction in tourists this season, largely due to a dawn-to-dusk curfew imposed by the government. 

While Kenya’s coast has been experiencing violent attacks  in recent years, which the government largely attributes to a proscribed secessionist group called the Mombasa Republican Council and radicalised Muslim youth,  Malindi has largely been spared from the violence that has now come to be associated with places such as Mombasa and Lamu. Its relatively large population of pleasure-seeking Europeans appears to co-exist quite happily with its conservative Muslim population and its deeply impoverished indigenous Giriama people. In Malindi, it is not unusual to see a local woman clad in black bui bui (full-body veil) walking besides a half-naked Italian woman in a see-through dress with a bikini underneath. This kind of tolerance, also unique to Kenya’s coast, is unimaginable in many parts of the Muslim world. 

Unlike Nairobi, which has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in the world, hence earning the name “Nai-robbery”, violent crime is quite rare here. In Nairobi, people drive with their car windows and doors firmly locked for fear of carjacking. Here, you can park your car with all windows open and find the groceries you left in the back seat untouched. Some say it has to do with the strict Sharia law practised by local Muslims; others say that the locals have not yet been tainted by the greed and dysfunction of Kenya’s big cities. 

The generally relaxed atmosphere in this town, which is about an-hour-an-a half’s drive from Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city and leading beach resort, was shattered quite unexpectedly in the early hours of Sunday November 4th, 2014, when a group of 20 or so young men wearing blue bandanas and black shirts tried unsuccessfully to invade and destroy a police camp with guns and machetes. At around the same time, another group, similarly dressed, attacked an army barracks in Mombasa. Most of the Mombasa attackers were repelled and killed, but two managed to escape. 

The government, predictably, blamed the Mombasa Republican Council, a rag tag group made up mostly of poor peasants, whose secessionist slogan “Pwani si Kenya” (The Coast is not Kenya) has been causing considerable alarm within this and previous governments. While the current administration paints the group as a violent organization with jihadist ambitions, others are of the view that the MRC is a peasant or class-based movement that is seeking to redress government neglect of the coastal region, which remains one of the most impoverished regions in the country, despite tourism. Some also believe that this and other groups could be part of a wider insurgency that is being fuelled by radical Muslim clerics inspired by Al Shabaab. 

While Kenya has experienced sporadic violence in the past, the epicentre of the violence has tended to be in the scenic Rift Valley, where politically-instigated ethnic clashes have been a feature of nearly every election since 1992. The most violent of these clashes took place after the 2007 elections, when more than 1,000 people were killed and around 600,000 people were displaced. The current president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto are currently facing charges of crimes against humanity related to that violence at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

The rather daring and bizarre recent attacks in Malindi and Mombasa point to a new phenomenon that has become more widespread in the coastal region in recent years – that of radicalisation combined with increasing rebellion and discontent among marginalised and impoverished coastal communities who appear to be taking up arms against the state.  Add to this mix the threat of Al Shabaab, which staged a daring terrorist attack on Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall in September last year, and you have a lethal cocktail of local insurgencies combining forces with international terror networks.  

For decades, Kenya’s coastal communities have complained of state neglect. Landlessness and poverty are endemic in the region. Successive regimes, including Omani sultans in the 19th century, British colonialists and post-independence leaders, have been accused of grabbing land and rendering the local Mijikenda and Swahili populations poor and homeless.  Al Shabaab, which promised to bring its war to Kenya after the country invaded Somalia in 2011, ostensibly to eject the terrorist organisation from Somali soil, appears to have found ready recruits among Kenya’s coastal youth. Last week, Kenyan security forces raided several mosques in Mombasa which they claimed were jihadist hotbeds. One youth was killed and 251 were arrested during the operation. A few days later, Al-Shabaab militants carried out an attack on a Nairobi-bound bus, killing 28 passengers. The group claimed it was in retaliation for the mosque raids. And earlier this year, Abubakar Shariff, a fiery Kenyan Muslim cleric, was shot and killed by unknown assailants outside a law court in Mombasa. Shariff, also known as Makaburi, had been blacklisted by the United States over his alleged links to global jihadists. After the Westgate attack, he is reported to have stated that Al Shabaab was justified in killing Kenyans because the Kenyan forces in Somalia had done the same to Somalis. He was the third radical Muslim cleric to have been killed in two years. Most Kenyans believe that these killings were sanctioned by the government, though the government has denied any knowledge of who was behind the murders. 

Insecurity not just in coastal areas, but in other marginalized regions of the country, particularly in northern Kenya, where vast reserves of oil have been discovered, seems to be escalating. Not too long after the Malindi and Mombasa attacks, Pokot bandits killed 22 police officers in Turkana county in northern Kenya. Conflict over resources between the Pokot and Turkana ethnic groups were blamed for these killings. The government, on cue, sent out a military mission to inflict what the Pokots view as “collective punishment” on Pokot villages. Houses were burnt and there were reports of beatings and other forms of violence inflicted by the Kenyan soldiers. The Pokots, in a surprising move that stunned the country, threatened to sue the state and demanded compensation for lost property. 

Kenyans seem to have lost faith in the country’s security forces, who have also been criticised for bungling the Westgate rescue operation, and for engaging in looting of the mall when it was overtaken by Al Shabaab. President Uhuru Kenyatta seems reluctant to sack any of his security chiefs or to bring about radical changes in the security apparatus. As a result, a nagging fear has gripped the country. 

In Malindi, however, not even the attack on the police camp seemed to have affected the general relaxed and jovial mood of the expatriate population. On the day of the Malindi attack, Sunday lunch was being served at a beach club that was brimming with Italians and British residents, who appeared to be oblivious of the violent goings-on around them. British members of a residents’ association were complaining about the poor state of roads in Malindi. Another group of Italians was planning a safari and road trip to Lake Turkana. 

No one wanted to talk about, or seemed to want to know, why a group of young men would try to overpower and seize a police camp in Malindi, or what their motives might have been. I couldn’t help thinking of a popular touristy song by a Mombasa-based band in the 1980s whose cheesy lyrics “Kenya nchi nzuri, hakuna matata” (Kenya is a nice country, there is no problem) had entertained tourists for decades. The song had become a soothingly deceptive mantra during the two decades of dictatorship in Kenya in the 1980s and 90s, and had even spawned a “Hakuna Matata” T-shirt industry.  

Dictatorships can be strangely comforting in times of war as they offer predictability and decisiveness. However, the only things Kenya’s coastal communities can be sure of at the moment are the ocean’s tides and the muezzins’ calls to prayer.

Rasna Warah writes a weekly column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper. She has published five books: War Crimes (2014), Mogadishu Then and Now (2012), Red Soil and Roasted Maize (2011); Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits (2008) and Triple Heritage (1998). She has also written extensively about recent developments in Somalia and organized a photo exhibition on Mogadishu that was shown in Istanbul, Nairobi, Malindi and Mogadishu in 2012. Her research interests include the politics of aid, slums, urbanization, Somalia and questions surrounding identity in Kenya. www.rasnawarahbooks.com Twitter @RasnaWarah 

Images courtesy ©Hassan Ghedi Santur