In recasting his ICC indictment as an issue of African pride, and in seeing his case dropped, President Kenyatta has achieved a huge PR victory. However, rising violence in the north-east and the president’s perceived failure to manage internal security have significantly undermined this image. This could be crucial for his entire presidency, as Wanjohi Kabukuru explains.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has a highly skilled press team. In the 2013 elections, they carried their candidate all the way to the presidency against the odds. Since then, they have managed to completely switch the narrative of Kenyatta’s indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC) from a source of shame to one of pride. And with the ICC prosecutors withdrawing the case, the president seems to finally be free of the court.
However, his image handlers don’t seem to have been prepared for the violence that has dominated Kenya’s recent headlines. The past few months have bloodied the president’s painstakingly engineered reputation.
On 22 November 2014, 28 people on board a bus were executed in the Omar Jillo area of Mandera County in the north-eastern tip of Kenya. According to reports, the bus was hijacked by suspected members of the Islamist militant organisation al-Shabaab who identified and killed the non-Muslim passengers. Ten days later in the early hours of 2 December, news emerged of another brutal attack. This time, 36 people had been killed at a quarry in Koromei in the same county.
The attacks were thought to be in part provoked by the government’s raids in the coastal town of Mombasa earlier in November
The attacks were thought to be in part provoked by the government’s raids in the coastal town of Mombasa earlier in November, in which over 250 youths were arrested and four mosques were closed down after weapons and radical literature were discovered. Some have also suggested that the assailants’ deliberate attempts to separate out Muslims to be spared from non-Muslims to be killed in the two attacks was an attempt to incite broader faith-based intolerance.
In the wake of the killings, Muslim leaders were quick to condemn al-Shabaab’s actions as a “barbaric tactic” which was “unacceptable, immoral and inconsistent with Islamic teachings”. Sheikh Mohammed Osman Warfa, chairman of the Jamia Mosque committee, rushed to appeal for restraint and tolerance, calling “upon all the people of Kenya to stand united and shun the macabre attempts to divide the country along religious or ethnic lines, as this remains al-Shabaab’s goal – to foment religious and ethnic divisions.”
Rather than fomenting religious intolerance, public anger was largely directed at the government for its failure to protect its citizens.
Anger and inaction
Kenyatta’s inability to contain the restive north-eastern region, as well as his response to the recent events, has smudged his once pristine brand. When the 22 November attack took place, the president was on a visit to the Middle East, and to the surprise of many, his usually ever-active social media accounts went silent.
Kenya’s effervescent online community responded with heavy criticism. Many saw Kenyatta’s decision to remain in Abu Dhabi as insensitive, and these claims worsened when it was reported that the Kenyan leader was attending a Formula 1 Grand Prix.
The ridicule of the president was virulent in language, caustic in taste and laced with pure satire. Kenyatta’s love of public relations gimmicks, such as wearing combat fatigues and taking “selfies”, were singled out and derided. The hashtag #Tumechoka (Swahili for “we are tired”) started to trend on Twitter and spilled out into street demonstrations.
One issue that came up for particular condemnation was Kenyatta’s over-tolerance of what many see as incompetent officials. For over a year in fact, Kenyatta has been criticised for dilly-dallying as the public has lost more and more faith in the country’s security apparatus. Murmurings of public disquiet began in May 2013 when the president picked the former hotelier Joseph Ole Lenku to be his cabinet secretary in charge of the interior ministry. But they grew into a cacophony following the deaths of 67 people in the siege of Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013 and following the scores left dead by a series of attacks in Mpeketoni in June 2014.
At the heart of popular discontent is the idea that domestic security forces are not just ineffective, but possibly corrupt. In Transparency Internationals 2014 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which is based on how corrupt people consider the public sector to be, Kenya had slipped nearly 10 places to be ranked 145th out of 174 countries.
However, even as the din of the public’s misgivings over ineptitude in the police and interior ministry has grown louder, Kenyatta has typically chosen to ignore the rot. Instead, his administration has usually relied on tough security pronouncements, while security chiefs have developed a pattern of responding by scrambling either attack helicopters and jets or truckloads of platoons in order to attack nondescript Somali villages or round up suspects in northern Kenya.
In light of brutal attacks towards the end of 2014, however, the groundswell of public discontent forced Kenyatta to finally make some changes and purge his security chiefs. Lenku stepped down as cabinet secretary of the interior ministry, with Retired Major-General Joseph Nkaissery nominated to take his place, while the Inspector General of Police, David Kimaiyo, also announced his retirement.
Kenyatta’s purge might appease some Kenyans, but in many ways, the problems of his presidency go much deeper than just Lenku and Kimaiyo and beyond just security. It now seems that Kenyatta’s decision to fill his first cabinet with relative newcomers was a lapse in judgement more broadly, and failures in security could also undermine the three pillars of Umoja, Uchumi and Uwazi (unity, economy, openness) that defined his election manifesto.
As 2015 begins, it is clear these key principles will be difficult to achieve as some of the key economic growth sectors of agriculture and tourism largely depend on a secure atmosphere. In his election promises, Kenyatta pledged 7-10% growth and one million new jobs for young people, targets which are far from being achieved. His vow to increase tourist arrivals in the country from 1.2 million/year in 2012 to 3 million also now looks far-fetched. Meanwhile, the president’s pledges to set up the Kenya Development Bank “to provide currently unavailable finance to the private sector for all types of capital projects including infrastructure development”, and his plan to merge two state corporations charged with supporting local entrepreneurship in order to boost local economies are also yet to be fulfilled. And, perhaps most tragically, his promise to establish a Border Security Force never came to fruition.
Kenyatta’s intray is brimming, with al-Shabaab at the top of his pile, but he will also be preoccupied with Kenya’s political opposition. As the president has been taking flak, the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) has been trying to reap political capital. And on the issue of the Somali Islamist militants, the opposition and government diverge.
While the government takes a hard-line stance, opposition leader Raila Odinga has U-turned from the position he held when prime minister to a more politically expedient one. Al-Shabaab claims its attacks on Kenyan soil are in retaliation to the presence of the Kenyan Defence Forces in Somalia, and Odinga has joined its calls that Kenyan troops be withdrawn from Somalia.
Kenyatta has firmly rejected this demand, stressing: “We will not, we shall not and we will never leave Somalia, until we achieve stability. When Kenya was bombed in 1998 we were not in Somalia, when Kikambala [an attack on Mombasa in 2002] happened we were not in Somalia. Then they started targeting our economy with piracy, making the cost of our imports go high, and we made a decision to go into Somalia.”
Judging from recent events, it is clear that terrorism will be high on Kenyatta’s 2015 agenda. Not only has the al-Shabaab threat blotched the image he so expertly cultivated through his ICC manoeuvrings, but weakened security could undermine the implementation of countless other pledges.