UNTIL the night of June 15, Mpeketoni was not a household name in Kenya. It appears only on some maps as an administrative section of Lamu County, but in the past week it has been described as a town complete with police station and branches of the country’s two largest banks.
Though it is about 10km from the Indian Ocean, it has little to do with the fabled tourist spots like the nearby island of Lamu.
In fact, Mpeketoni is a place of “upcountry” people that was settled 40 years ago by the Kikuyu, members of Kenya’s largest tribe, which took on the British colonial government in the Mau Mau uprising.
Those who arrived in the scrubland near the delta of the Tana River were subsistence farmers and “losers” in the war for land and freedom.
Kenya did gain independence from Britain in 1963, but many Kikuyus were unable to reclaim their ancestral land.
Disregarding any indigenous presence, founding president Jomo Kenyatta sent them down to the area where on arrival they received a carton of basic necessities, hence mpe katoni — Kiswahili for “take this carton”. Several other settlement schemes in the area foundered for lack of proper management.
Was Mpeketoni a likely target for at least two dozen black-clad and masked assailants carrying the jihadist flag of Somali militant group al-Shabaab, who descended on the trading centre around 8pm that Sunday night to kill, burn and loot until morning, when more than 60 men and boys lay dead on its sandy streets?
From its bastion in nearby Somalia, al-Shabaab quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in revenge for Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia in October 2011 or to avenge the murders of Muslim clerics in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa.
But breaking his silence in a televised address 36 hours later, President Uhuru Kenyatta — the son of the man who had originally sent his Kikuyu kinsmen to Mpeketoni — said absolutely not, that the intelligence services and police had failed, that al-Shabaab had played no role in the attack, which he claimed amounted to “well-planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community” — read the Kikuyu.
There was widespread puzzlement over this statement because there had been no official denial of al-Shabaab’s claim that it had carried out the murderous attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall last September in which at least 67 people were killed, nor any attempt to shift the blame elsewhere when Kenyans subsequently lost their lives in attacks on buses, food stands and markets.
The unmentioned but widely understood target of Kenyatta’s charge was his political rival, Raila Odinga, and his opposition Cord alliance, still smarting from a narrow electoral defeat in March 2013 and anxious to score political points.
Cedric Barnes, the Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, says he finds no inherent contradiction in either claim.
“President Kenyatta made a rather frank admission about the depths of insecurity in the country, and al-Shabaab’s claim, apart from the rhetorical, is aimed at Kenyan stability,” he says. “Al-Shabaab is very adept at exploiting these issues.”
People familiar with the longstanding tensions over land and the fact that the “migrants” were more likely than the indigenous inhabitants to obtain title deeds are not surprised.
Gabriel Dolan, a Catholic priest who knows the area well, calls the attack on Mpeketoni “a wake-up call that shockingly reminds us of the consequences of politicising instead of addressing land reform”.
So how precarious is Kenya’s stability, and how well can it defend itself?
Those who have spent years analysing al-Shabaab as it has grown within the failed Somali state say its principal aim appears to be establishing an Islamist caliphate at home and punishing Kenya for present and past sins, beginning with the refusal of the first Kenyatta government to accede to the desire of ethnic Somalis in northeastern colonial Kenya to unite with the newly independent Somalia.
And they note that Kenya’s toxic ethnopolitical rivalry and shambolic and corrupt domestic security system fit right into al-Shabaab’s playbook.
Reporters who converged on Mpeketoni the day after the attack were struck by the lack of any serious police presence. The police post had been gutted and its few vehicles firebombed, but local reinforcements were only trickling in.
And then there was no-one around to fend off a second attack early Monday on a hamlet a few miles away where another 10 people were reported killed.
Around the same time as Kenyans were digesting the attack on Mpeketoni, Australian Pancontinental Oil & Gas NL announced it had struck oil in the nearby Lamu basin, the first offshore find in a recent string of oil strikes in northern Kenya.
And the government’s first sovereign bond secured international bids worth US$8,8bn, four times the finally accepted $2bn.
Kenya is the economic powerhouse of East Africa and the regional headquarters for large firms and brands. But tourism, a traditional mainstay and a significant source of jobs, is reeling from a precipitous drop in tourist arrivals.
Mutuma Mathiu, a managing editor at Nation Media Group, recently summed up Kenya’s four-part terrorism problem as: the grievance with the Somali Islamists; Kenya’s military presence in Somalia; the fact that it is a weak state with poor law enforcement; and that it is “riven by chasms and centrifugalities related to elite competition and feelings of deprivation”.
With his tongue in his cheek but a heavy heart, Mutuma wrote that with security officers who “melt into the night when their courage is needed most, everything is for sale — papers, protection, anonymity — and national security is many times a pawn in political games”.
Mutuma concluded that Kenya was “probably far from ideally suited for a long war of attrition with al-Shabaab”.
A week later calls were mounting for the resignation, or dismissal, of senior security officials, not just the local officers who had been caught flat-footed, but from interior secretary Joseph ole Lenku on down. No-one budged.