With Kenya’s General Election on the horizon, Kenyans are acutely aware of their failure to resolve the grievances which sparked horrific post-election violence in 2007. Scheduled for March 4, 2013, the elections will raise delicate tribal tensions, but pundits and politicians alike may be underestimating the role of foreign policy in this electoral cycle. The domestic repercussions of Kenya’s foreign policy engagements, namely its military involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), could destabilize an already delicate pre-election environment.
On domestic policy, the threat of reigniting deep-seated ethnic tensions between the three main tribal groups, Kikuyu, Luo, and Kalenjin, has dominated the electoral discourse. The friction between these tribes, stemming from unresolved land disputes, political and social marginalization, and economic inequalities, manifested in the 2007 fatal hostilities that pushed Kenya to the brink of civil war. This violence still weighs on the collective conscience of Kenyans, and on domestic and international stakeholders, who recognize the real possibility of its reoccurrence. Currently, a fragile detente exists between the three major groups, but many question whether or not their truce can hold through the election, which is still several months away.
On foreign policy, Kenya’s involvement in Somalia has largely been absent from the electoral discourse—surprising given the significant impact it has had on Kenya’s internal security. Although the government has yet to formally attribute over a dozen deadly attacks in Kenya over the past year to Al Shaabaab, they are widely believed to be the work of Al Shabaab loyalists in retaliation for Kenya’s military involvement in Somalia. Al-Shabaab publicly threatened to stage revenge attacks when Kenya deployed troops in Somalia in October 2011. These persistent terrorist attacks in Kenya have already resulted in retaliatory xenophobic violence and clashes between Kenyans and Somalis, and have the potential to destabilize internal security more broadly. The current violence between Kenyans and Somalis is particularly saddening given the predominantly amicable history between the two groups, and signals a trend of burgeoning xenophobia and societal cleavages.
Unfortunately, tensions continue to escalate. This summer, police clashed with Muslim youths, and several churches were vandalized in the economically vital port city of Mombasa following the death of Aboud Rogo, a Muslim cleric with ties to Al Shabaab. Following the November and early December bomb attacks in Eastleigh, Nairobi, violent clashes erupted as Kenyans retaliated against Somalis. This was not the first time a reprisal melee ensued. In September, after Al Shabaab sympathizers allegedly bombed a church in Nairobi, a mob descended upon Somalis nearby in a suspected act of revenge.
In late December, Kenya concluded its ambitious thirty-day voter registration exercise with approximately 12.7 million people registering. Although the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) fell short in meeting its 18 million registered voter goal, the process occurred without any major incidents. However, subsequent attacks by Al Shabaab or it sympathizers, with similar patterns of retaliatory violence or hostilities could impede future election preparations if they grow more violent, affect more people, or result in extensive property damage or displacement. An environment characterized by fear and even sporadic violence would weigh heavily on an already burdened electorate given the memories of 2007.
Moreover, an escalation that threatens Kenya’s internal security could require some Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) to return from Somalia—a victory for Al Shabaab that it would certainly exploit. A gap in AMISOM’s ranks could allow Al Shabaab to regroup and, perhaps, retake strategic cities, which would undermine the hard-won security, counter-terrorism, and political gains made in Somalia.
Finally, Kenya needs an election without incident. Kenyans have worked hard to manage and heal the wounds of 2007. Kenya’s new constitution curbed the powers of the executive, reformed the judiciary, and provided new protections for minorities. A smooth election and electoral transition would consolidate and legitimize these reforms and allow Kenya to address outstanding economic, social, and political problems. With a stable transition, Kenya could focus on achieving its “Vision 2030,” its project to achieve national cohesion and integration through the elimination of ethnic discrimination and hate speech, and reconciliation between different ethnic communities.
Kenya’s highest domestic priority must be to ensure free and fair elections, with results respected by both parties, and free of post-election violence. But it can only achieve its domestic policy objectives by strategically confronting the repercussions and realities of its foreign policy. Withdrawing from Somalia is not the solution. Rather, Kenya ought to re-evaluate its security environment and remain transparent with the electorate. In collaboration with civil society and the electoral candidates, the Kenyan government must seize this opportune moment to actively curtail xenophobic tensions, encourage dialogue that precludes ethnic hatred speech, and to dissuade the electorate from scapegoating or retaliating against those seen as “Somali.” Kenya cannot afford to be taken by surprise or derailed in this most crucial test.
* The author is a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in Washington D.C. and all opinions, views, and comments in this article are solely the author’s and in no way represent or reflect those of the United States Department of State and its agencies or affiliated entities.