The assassination of a Muslim cleric in Kenya’s port of Mombasa and deadly riots that followed have exposed deep social, political and sectarian divides that could unleash more violence ahead of a presidential election next year.
Unidentified gunmen sprayed bullets into the car of Aboud Rogo last Monday, killing a man accused by both the Kenyan government and the United States of helping al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in Somalia.
Rogo’s supporters fought running street battles with the security forces in the hours after his death, and sporadic violence continued over the following days. Churches were torched and two grenades were thrown at police vehicles. At least five people have been killed.
The government says the violence was organised by Kenya’s “enemies” and blames Muslim radicals – including the slain cleric – for supporting al-Shabaab, the Islamists that Kenya’s military has been battling since invading Somalia last year.
Muslims, who predominate in many neighbourhoods of Kenya’s second largest city, blame the authorities for the cleric’s killing, and say it is part of a campaign against their community and faith.
They say the spontaneous outpouring of fury was a natural response, both to the assassination and to decades of political and economic marginalisation in an area where shanty towns cluster in squalor alongside luxurious white sand beach resorts.
“Incited? I don’t need to be incited to riot when I have eyes to see my sheikh has been killed by the government,” said Otieno Ramadhan, 25, a Muslim convert who sells charcoal.
“We youth from the coast don’t have anything to show, no jobs – yet other people get employed daily at the port. All they have brought us here is drugs to kill us slowly,” he added. “I will riot. They can shoot us dead if they wish.”
Ahmed Yahya, a 27-year-old butcher, recalled how the sensation of rage coursed through him when the news of the cleric’s killing reached the mosque where he was praying in Mombasa’s rundown Kisauni district.
He and other worshippers poured into the streets. The crowd chanted “the police are killers”.
“Rogo was a staunch Muslim, that is what I admired most about him: his firm and bold stands on matters of Islam. But, you see, to be a firm Muslim doesn’t make you a terrorist,” Yahya said, hacking at a slab of meat in his shop.
Rogo had built up a loyal base of supporters in parts of Mombasa, with many of his sermons posted online and on social media. The riots broke out as word of the killing spread through Kisauni and another neighbourhood, Majengo, Rogo’s own backyard.
“The sheikh challenged us to be real Muslims, by word and deed, ready to do anything to defend our religion, even die,” said Yahya.
Muslims make up barely 11 percent of the population of Kenya but were long the predominant religious group along the coast, where the local Swahili culture was influenced for centuries by Indian Ocean trade links with the Middle East.
Coastal Swahili Muslims complain that they have lost land and jobs to settlers from inland, while seeing little of the wealth generated by tourism on their beaches and traffic at their port, which serves most of east and central Africa.
“The Kenyan coast faces historical injustices such as limited job opportunities, and this has led people to believe this government is against Islam,” said Phyllis Muema, who runs a community group operating programmes for unemployed youth.
In Mombasa’s Kisauni and Majengo districts, youths idle in the rubbish-strewn streets lined by dilapidated housing and open gutters. Unemployment is rampant; so is drug addiction.
An outlawed coastal group, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), wants to secede from Kenya. It has threatened to stage unrest if its demands for independence are not met by next year’s presidential election.
The group has distanced itself from the violence that followed Rogo’s assassination and denies government assertions that it is linked to Islamic radicalism or support for Shabaab.
“We are not involved with these issues. It is not our arrangement, it is not our project,” MRC Secretary-General Randu Nzai said.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said it was clear the violent reaction to Rogo’s killing was organised. He blamed the country’s enemies for seeking to “create religious animosity”.
“Why deliberately attack churches? That must be part of an organised reaction. Where did the grenades come from? It confirms our worst fears that there is a serious underground organisation conducting this,” Odinga said this week.
A senior government official told Reuters police were hunting for three Muslim clerics allied to Rogo, and suspected of fanning the unrest. He declined to disclose their identities.
Sheikh Juma Ngao, a moderate Islamic cleric who disagreed with Rogo over the radicalisation and recruitment of Kenyan Muslims to fight in Somalia, was among the crowd that surrounded Rogo’s shot-up car in the aftermath of the attack on Monday.
He blamed prominent associates of Rogo for stoking violence.
“They said they should start the violence after the burial… So it was intentionally organised to show their anger over their late cleric,” Ngao said on Wednesday evening, as volleys of police gunfire crackled from a nearby street.
Radicalism among Kenya’s Muslims has been a prime concern of the West since the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in the capitals of Kenya and neighbouring Tanzania, which killed at least 223 people, blamed on local followers of Osama bin Laden.
Concern has grown sharply since last year as Kenya has been drawn into the war against al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia.
A U.N. investigation last year found that the Somali rebels had created extensive funding, recruitment and training networks in Kenya. An unknown number of Kenyan Muslims have crossed the border to fight alongside the Shabaab.
After Kenyan troops crossed the frontier last October to fight the Shabaab, the Somali Islamists vowed to carry out revenge attacks in Kenya. Since then there have been attacks on churches in Kenya as well as soft targets like local bars.
The government has announced an amnesty for Kenyans who fought alongside the Somali rebels. Muema, who runs the youth groups at the coast, said Kenyan Muslim youth have returned from combat in Somalia with radical views and no job prospects.
“We have worked with elders who tell us the youth are coming back and are only waiting to be given instructions and they act. And they are armed,” Muema said.
“The targeting of churches tells you that this is not just about the killing of a sheikh but the putting into practice of an ideology that you must be against people you see as non-believers,” she said of this week’s riots.
Civil unrest on the coast raises memories of tribal violence that killed more than 1,200 people and nearly tore Kenya apart after a dispute over the results of the last presidential election in 2007-08.
“It’s like a ticking bomb now: the coast, the MRC and secession, al Shabaab, all these things,” said coastal historian Stanbuli Ahmed Nassir.
Sustained unrest along the coast could badly knock Kenya’s multi-million dollar tourism industry, only just recovering from the kidnapping of tourists at a coastal resort last year.
“We haven’t had major cancellations but it is certainly worrying us big time,” said Mohammed Hersi, who runs the Whitesands Hotel, the coast’s largest resort. “The growing trend of attacks on the police is something we’ve not seen before.”
Down by the pool, some holidaymakers were oblivious to the mayhem that had happened a short distance along the highway.
“Which city? Here?!” exclaimed one British woman who gave her name as Elisabeth, told of the violence outside as a beach boy and his camel sauntered by.