The Ugandan government has largely succeeded in deterring radical Islamist elements while Kenyan authorities have failed to address social and economic grievances that give rise to violent extremism, a US forum was told on Friday.
Partly as a result, Islamist attacks on civilian targets in Kenya are likely to continue, two experts warned in presentations at a Washington think tank.
“The Ugandan state was able to distinguish between the Islamic sphere in general and the violent minority within it,” Dr Sebastian Elischer, a professor of African politics at the University of Florida, said.
“The Kenyan state has consistently failed to engage with its Salafi minority in a constructive manner and has consistently resorted to indiscriminate violence against the Islamic sphere as a whole,” Dr Elischer asserted.
David Throup, a Washington-based academic specialist on Kenya, offered a similar assessment at the forum sponsored by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“The Kenyan state hasn’t been able to grapple with the social and economic problems of coastal Kenya and the Northeast,” Dr Throup said.
“It sees those problems through a prism of state security. It has been very brutal and has actually incited recruits for Al-Hijra,” he said, referring to the Kenyan affiliate of Al-Shabaab.
In its dealings with ultra-conservative Muslims, Uganda has taken the effective approach of “soft regulation in cooperation with religious proxies”, Dr Elischer observed.
“Co-optation characterises a lot of what [President Yoweri] Museveni does,” he continued.
“Violence and exclusion have characterised Kenyan politics since independence.”
The two speakers agreed that Kenyan citizens have been responsible for some of the recent Islamist violence inside the country.
“The leadership of the Shabaab faction inside Kenya is no longer drawn from Somalis or traditional Muslim peoples of the Coast but from upcountry Muslim converts,” Dr Throup said.
He noted that a significant number of Kenyans in traditionally non-Muslim parts of the country had converted to Islam in the 1980s and ’90s.
Radical Islamists have pursued a strategy of launching large-scale attacks on civilian targets in Kenya and, less frequently, in Uganda in order to force those countries’ governments to withdraw their forces from the African Union Mission in Somalia, Dr Throup said.
He said this approach is “very sensible” from Al-Shabaab’s perspective.
“If I were the leader of Al-Shabaab, I would target a number of shopping malls in Nairobi again, particularly ones close to the US embassy and UN compound,” the professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies said.
Such attacks would have “very, very damaging consequences for the Kenyan economy”.
Dr Elischer said he was surprised that more violence of that sort has not been occurring.
“It’s virtually impossible” for the Kenyan government to deter such attacks, Dr Throup said.
Tensions between Kenyan authorities and many Kenyan Muslims have been heightened by the government’s “profound suspicions” of Muslim NGOs, Dr Throup said.
This skepticism stems from the creation of two Muslim NGOs that played roles in organising the 1998 Nairobi embassy attacks, he added.
At the same time, “the Kenyan government has a basic problem — it doesn’t like NGOs”, Dr Throup said.
And that is in part because some NGOs “made the mistake of being so virulently in support of Raila Odinga in 2007”, he said.
“Kenyan NGOs have played their relationship with the Kenyan government excruciatingly incompetently.”
Political divisions might begin to be healed, however, if the government “could stop beating up Muhuri and Haki Africa”, Dr Throup suggested, referring to Kenyan Muslim NGOs that have been subject to financial sanctions.
Kenyan officials could “use these organisations to monitor what is going on” in Muslim communities, he said.