Kenya Divided

Why the Showdown Between Kenyatta and Odinga is Empowering al Shabaab

People cheer during a rally organized by the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy in Nairobi, July 7, 2014. Siegfried Modola / Courtesy Reuters

The current political upheaval and conflict in Kenya could not have been better scripted for the Islamist militant group al Shabaab. Its continued attacks have successfully pitted the country’s two top politicians, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his main rival, Raila Odinga, against each other in a high-stakes game of political brinkmanship that could plunge Kenya into another toxic ethnic conflict -- exactly the kind of environment in which a group like al Shabaab can thrive.

On June 15, al Shabaab gunmen attacked the coastal Kenyan town of Mpeketoni, going door to door executing dozens of non-Muslim males. Although this was just the latest in a long string of al Shabaab attacks in Kenya in recent years, the Kenyan government once again appeared caught off guard. The next night, even though the government made vows to protect residents, al Shabaab returned to the area, brazenly killing scores more without suffering a single casualty.

Seeming helpless and inept, Kenyatta and his ministers decided that their best defense would be to blame the president’s political adversaries. And so, in a June 17 speech to the nation, Kenyatta denied that al Shabaab was involved in the bloodshed, and instead pointed the finger at “local political networks,” an unmistakable reference to Odinga and his coalition. Kenyatta’s deflection was at odds with nearly every other assessment of the attacks, including al Shabaab’s own repeated claims of responsibility.

The reasons for Kenyatta’s blame game are clear. Political buzzards have been circling his administration for months. Since al Shabaab’s attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall last September, Kenya has been rocked by numerous high-profile militant attacks. In some cases, like in Mpeketoni, the government has failed to do much of anything, leaving many Kenyans increasingly doubtful of its ability to protect them. In others, security forces have brutally overreacted, multiplying the government’s enemies and creating deep resentment among many Kenyans. Perhaps even worse, the country’s economy has taken a huge hit due to

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