Violence and civil society on the Kenyan coast

Pessimism about the prospect of peaceful change was not shared by activists from the wide range of civil society organizations operating in Mombasa.

Tony Ward
17 December 2014
Mosque in Mombasa Old Town, Kenya.

Mosque in Mombasa Old Town, Kenya. Terri O'Sullivan/Flickr. Some rights reserved.In November 2014 both the Kenyan and international press reported growing tension in Mombasa, Kenya, culminating in the closure of four mosques after police raids. Three of the mosques reopened on November 28 having been restored to the control of imams and sheikhs associated with the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK). More radical Muslims see the CIPK as a pro-government organisation, and the mosques had been taken over by the CIPK’s opponents.

Mombasa and the coastal strip form a distinctive region of Kenya. Those living there often feel marginalised by their religion (predominantly Muslim in an otherwise Christian-dominated country), ethnicity and economic underdevelopment. A small separatist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council, campaigns for independence for the ten-mile-wide strip of land that formerly belonged to the Sultanate of Zanzibar, a puppet state of the British Empire. It has been blamed, perhaps unfairly, for some recent episodes of violence.

In late 2013 and early 2014 my colleague Ian Patel and I carried out research in Mombasa on behalf of ISCI. We wanted to see how civil society was responding to the tensions in the area and in particular the beatings and extra-judicial killings perpetrated by the Anti-Terrorist Police (ATPU). These had been well documented in a report by the Open Society Foundation and the coastal region’s most prominent human rights organisation, Muhuri. (Muhuri is short for ‘Muslims for Human Rights’, but their staff were at pains to stress that they are not a Muslim organisation; indeed several of them are Christians.)

We found that some of the ‘youth’ – a broad term in Kenya, covering young men up to their mid-thirties – who had taken over the Musa and Sakina mosques did indeed use some strident rhetoric and talked of the need for armed resistance to the ATPU. They were especially angered by the assassination of the Muslim preachers Sheikh Aboud Rogo in August 2012 and Sheikh Ibrahim Omar in October 2013. One acknowledged that ‘if you want to avenge for your Sheikh, you cannot find the guys who were doing the killing, so you are going to kill another innocent guy, and they will be killing more and you will continue killing more;’ but he felt that Muslims could not ‘back down’ to avoid this spiral of violence.

We also spoke to Sheikh Abubakar Shariff Ahmad, known as Makaburi, who acted as a mentor to the Musa and Sakina youth and was alleged by the government to be a recruiter for the Somali armed group Al-Shabaab. He defended his hard-line position, against democracy and in favour of a highly conservative brand of Islamic rule, with a disarming combination of bluntness, personal charm, and a willingness to engage with opposing views. He described his attitude to Al-Shabaab as ‘50-50’ but defended their right to establish an Islamic state in Somalia. He insisted that Muslims were prepared to live peacefully under the Kenyan Constitution, but ‘how are they supposed to fight for their rights under the same constitution we are living in when the police are hunting them down and killing them?’ Under these conditions he considered armed jihad a legitimate response. When we suggested that violence was counterproductive he argued that the Kenyan state feared the damage it would do to tourism and foreign investment far more than it feared any peaceful protest. He also foretold his own murder. On April 1, he was gunned down outside a Mombasa courthouse.

Makaburi’s pessimism about the prospect of peaceful change was not shared by activists from the wide range of civil society organizations operating in Mombasa. One of the striking features of our conversations with local activists was the breadth of support for the 2010 Constitution, coupled with an awareness of the gulf between the spirit of the Constitution and the corrupt, tribalised reality of Kenyan politics.

Some hope was offered by the commissions established under the constitution on Human Rights, Land and Administrative Justice. The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights was particularly active in Mombasa and to some extent functioned as part of civil society, joining with other local organisations to put pressure on the state over issues of police violence and land reform.

The combination of hope and the awareness that democratic change is likely to be nothing if not a hard slog was summed up by one of the three staff members from InformAction, a non-profit company which makes and shows documentaries as a focus for discussions in local communities. These young, conservatively-dressed Muslim women were strongly committed to building a democratic, inclusive state. One of them estimated that it would take 15 years to make the Constitution a reality. If over those years, ‘every month we reach 100 people, [and] out of 100 people two of them come out changed, then after 15 years we will be having a lot of numbers of people who are changed and feel that this Kenyan system can actually change to be a good system.’

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