Terrorists can be your friends; how land issues, unemployment and alienation make the bad guys ‘heroes’

THE Kenyan coast is sun, sand and sea breeze—but now, also silence. Tourism, which is Kenya’s second most important sector for earning foreign currency, has been hit hard by insecurity in the region.

Now, the beaches are mostly deserted, unsold souvenirs gather dust; hotels are barely occupied up to quarter capacity or are closed altogether. Unemployment is skyrocketing.

In June, a series of sinister and bloody attacks on local villages were executed in rapid succession in Lamu, which borders Somalia—coming less than a year after the Al Shabaab attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi which left over sixty dead.  Although the attacks carried the hallmark of Al Shabaab, who claimed responsibility, they also had a local signature, a matter that Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta controversially alluded to.

Long history of land grabs

The original inhabitants of the coast have historical land grievances that have never been seriously addressed.  First it was the colonial settlers and Arab traders who grabbed the best pieces of land. After Independence in 1964 politically well-connected Kenyans did the same. The Swahili, a collective name for the original inhabitants, became squatters on their own land on which generations of their family had lived and worked.  Many of them have an axe to grind with successive governments.

Trouw MRC 01 Mombasa

For years the Somalia militant group Al Shabaab from across the border has tried to radicalise the unemployed poor and marginalised youths at the Kenyan coast, and indeed managed to recruit a significant number of them into the militia to fight in neighbouring Somalia.

Strange bedfellows

Today many recruits have returned home, disappointed because Al Shabaab is losing territory to combined forces of the fledgling Somalia government in Mogadishu and the African Union peacekeeping force, AMISOM.  According to experts the youth have organised themselves and metamorphosed into Al Hijra, a Kenyan offshoot of Al Shabaab.

The local land tension is a situation Al Shabaab is only too happy to exploit. “If someone tries to chase me off my land, I will call upon Al Shabaab to help me prevent it”, said a land activist north of the port of Mombasa.  The Kenyan, who is a devout Catholic, and the Somali radical Muslim group seem to be strange bedfellows.  But he explained it all with the simple remark: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

It seems that some elements along the coast are using the radicals to force the government to finally pay attention to the grievances of the coastal community. “Those young men are a well trained and well armed group of mercenaries for hire,” said Khalef Khalifa of Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI).

Mali and Nigerian examples

A similar situation exists in Mali where the Tuareg people feel that they have been marginalised by successive governments. Their militia thought they could win another uprising by using local and international radical Muslim elements.

In no time they occupied a huge track of land in the north, and it needed an international force to push them back into their pockets of power.  But they still linger and execute hit and run attacks.

The extremists would not have been invited in had successive Malian governments taken the grievances of the Tuareg seriously and tried to solve the problems.  The radicals would also not have had a chance if the Malian army had not tried to stage a coup.  The military, especially in the north, were sick and tired of not receiving their wages and not having adequate weapons or even fuel for their vehicles. Politicians and high-ranking officers behind desks in the capital Bamako pocketed that money.

Not much different is the situation in Nigeria where major parts of the north suffer under the relentless violence of Boko Haram. Over the recent decades the economy of the north has been bled dry. Politicians and others looted local industries and the state coffers.  Empty factories are a silent proof in the city of Maiduguri, so often hit by Boko Haram.

The radical group is growing by the day just by tapping into the reservoir of unemployed, poor youths. They don’t have much to lose. The army in Nigeria too is almost helpless. Poor pay and insufficient military hardware are blamed for it. One wonders where the money goes in the oil rich country.

Price of corruption

Another thing these countries have in common is the security forces being too busy with collecting bribes for themselves and their superiors. In all three countries the army or police at roadblocks look the other way for a small token. That is how cars, laden with explosives, can travel distances to their deadly targets.

Lamu 2The clearing for Lamu Port

In Kenya, two months after the wave of violence along the coast, President Kenyatta expropriated 2000 square Kilometres of land from two-dozen companies because the land was supposedly acquired irregularly. It is an area close to Lamu archipelago, which is one of the oldest Swahili settlements as well as a popular destination of tourists.  Plans for a port near Lamu are decades old but only now are they materialising.  Acquiring land in the area was a long-term investment which would be made good the day it could be sold to the government for the development of a port and a road and railway connection to the interior.

The decision of the president, though applauded, does not mean that the issues along the coast are solved and peace will immediately return. There are hundreds if not thousands of unsolved land issues along the entire coastline. Even if they all would be solved, then the question remains how to get rid of the radicals who were drawn into the local grievances.

Nigeria, Mali and Kenya are very different countries.  Ruthless radicals for different reasons target them all. But whether it is land issues, unemployment or marginalisation they are all just symptoms of one disease: Corruption.