Why it’s hard for the U.S. to fight terrorism and promote democracy in East Africa

October 8, 2013
(Mohamed Sheikh Nor, File/Associated Press)
(Mohamed Sheikh Nor, File/Associated Press)

This is a guest post by UNC-Charlotte political scientist Beth Elise Whitaker. As a Fulbright Scholar in Kenya in 2005-2006, she studied U.S.-Kenyan relations in the context of the war on terror.  

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Saturday’s unsuccessful effort by U.S. Navy Seals to capture an al-Shabab leader in Somalia came just two weeks after the terrorist group’s assault on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi. Both events have drawn attention to United States policy in Africa, and put the spotlight on relations with Kenya. Whereas Kenya was once a reluctant partner in the U.S. war on terror, a wave of attacks since its 2011 military intervention into Somalia has increased the government’s resolve to fight militant extremists in the region. Ironically, this shift has come when the United States is more reticent to cooperate with Kenya because of pending charges against the current leadership for human rights violations. Once again, tension has emerged between two major U.S. foreign policy goals in Africa: fighting terrorism and promoting democracy.

Although Kenya was the site of several high-profile terrorist attacks even before the Sept.  21 assault at Westgate Mall — at the Norfolk Hotel in 1980, the U.S. Embassy in 1998, and the Kikambala Paradise Hotel in 2002 — its government has taken a cautious approach toward U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Kenyan security officials worked quietly with their American counterparts after 2001 on border control and intelligence sharing, reportedly thwarting several attacks. In public, however, Kenyan leaders criticized the United States for failing to adequately compensate victims of the U.S. Embassy bombing, imposing a travel warning they claimed crippled the tourism industry, and strong-arming them to pass harsh anti-terrorism legislation.

As my research has shown, Kenyan reluctance to cooperate publicly with the United States was due in part to the country’s shaky transition to democracy. After years of internal and external pressure, including from American officials, Kenya held free and fair elections in 2002 that brought to power a new coalition. Having finally emerged from authoritarian rule, Kenyans were wary of increasing government surveillance powers and strengthening security institutions. Democratization also led to the mobilization of Kenya’s long-marginalized Muslim minority, which resisted measures seen as targeting that community. In this context, politicians found it popular to stand up to the United States.

In addition, many Kenyans saw terrorism largely as an American and Israeli problem playing out on African soil. In a 2006 survey that I conducted, 73 percent of Kenyans said that Kenya had been a victim of terrorism because of its friendship with the United States. Senior government officials whom I interviewed at the time expressed similar views that Kenya itself was not a terrorist target; instead, its citizens were collateral damage in the struggle between the U.S. and al-Qaeda.

In contrast to Kenya, as I have shown elsewhere, less democratic countries in East Africa have been more willing to go along with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Cooperation is especially high with Uganda, which passed wide-ranging anti-terrorism legislation in 2002, joined the “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq in 2003, and sent troops for a U.S.-funded African Union (AU) mission to support the weak Somali government against Islamist insurgents in 2007. In power for 26 years, President Yoweri Museveni has re-framed long-standing domestic conflicts in the language of the war on terror and used anti-terrorism measures against political opponents. Tanzania also pushed through counterterrorism legislation quickly after 9/11 and has worked closely with U.S. security officials, though these policies have led to scattered protests. Of the three countries, Kenya has been most cautious.

Recently, however, this started to change. In 2011, a wave of kidnappings of tourists and aid workers prompted Kenya to send troops into Somalia to go after al- Shabab. Since then, according to the  State Department, at least 17 bombings within Kenya have killed 48 people. After years of denying its necessity, Kenyan lawmakers passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2012, which imposes severe penalties for planning and executing terrorist attacks. Authorities quietly sought additional assistance from countries such as Israel in battling militants. Even so, until now, most recent attacks were in poor urban areas or in remote counties, and many were on police posts, creating a false sense of security among the broader population.

For most middle-class Kenyans, it was the brazen assault on the Westgate Mall that brought with it the realization that Kenya is indeed a terrorist target. Although the mall was frequented by expatriates, and many foreigners were among the victims, its core clientele was the growing Kenyan middle class that drives the largest economy in East Africa. In this sense, 9/21 was Kenya’s 9/11.

But just as Kenya has become more determined to fight terrorism, the United States has grown wary of this partnership. Newly-elected President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto face charges before the International Criminal Court related to their alleged involvement on opposite sides of the 2008 post-election violence that left more than 1,300 Kenyans dead and 300,000 displaced. On trial in The Hague when the Westgate Mall was attacked, Ruto was granted a one-week adjournment to return home; President Kenyatta’s ICC trial is due to start Nov. 12.

In this context, the Obama administration has been reluctant to engage the Kenyan government too closely. Now it may have no choice. With al-Shabab seeking to re-establish itself and Kenyan troops now merged into the U.S.-backed African Union mission in Somalia, the two countries must continue to cooperate. Although the latest attack has brought Kenyans of all backgrounds together, the unity is not likely to last long. Last weekend, protests in Mombasa turned violent and a church was torched after last Thursday’s assassination of a Muslim cleric with alleged ties to al-Shabab; many accuse Kenyan security forces of being responsible. In this complicated political context, the challenge for the Obama administration is to cooperate on counterterrorism without being seen as legitimizing controversial leaders or undermining the country’s nascent democratic institutions.

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