Mombasa, Kenya – There is an easy caricature of the mob that tore apart Mombasa’s centre in riots earlier this week: A gang of Muslim youth brainwashed by a firebrand preacher, and enraged by his murder took to the streets in an apparently senseless outburst of vandalism and looting.
The rioting erupted quickly on Monday, as news of the death of the controversial cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammed spread through Kenya’s main port city. Earlier that morning, he had been driving his wife to hospital for treatment when attackers stopped his car and sprayed it with automatic gunfire. There was a heavy police presence in the city on Friday and security forces said they were ready “for anything” despite relative calm.
Earlier in the week rioters stoned cars, set up barricades of burning tyres, and attacked churches. Someone threw grenades at police, killing two in separate attacks. Prime Minister Raila Odinga said he detected a “hidden hand” inciting, organising and arming the mob to generate a sectarian war between Christian and Muslim communities.
Like so many caricatures, there is a grain of truth in there, but it is also a lazy interpretation of what happened and why. It obscures the deeper, far more complex malaise that has the wider Muslim community along Kenya’s coast resentful, afraid and angry.
Rogo’s killing had all the hallmarks of an execution, but then the cleric had plenty of people who might want to see him dead: the United States had placed him on a sanctions list for his alleged (though unproven) connections with al-Shabab rebels in neighbouring Somalia; the Kenyans too had charged him (though not convicted him) of planning terrorism; a police spokesman said although they had no clear evidence, it appeared that al-Shabab may have murdered him to win sympathy for its cause.
“The police are supposed to protect us… But how can I go there when I know they want to kill me too; when I know that I am next.
– Abubakar Sharif, Mombassa resident
But to local Muslims – and the rioting youth in particular – there is no doubt about what happened: Kenya’s secretive Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU) carried out an extrajudicial killing at the behest of the US. Of course there is no evidence to support the claim, but the murder is the seventh death or disappearance of people allegedly linked to al-Shabab so far this year. And the police have not charged, let alone convicted, anyone of any of the cases.
That failure alone has inspired a host of conspiracy theories that make conservative Muslims along the coast feel besieged and threatened. They argue, not without cause, that their conservative religious leaders are guilty only of articulating an opinion. It is a radical one to be sure, and one that implies violent action that the Kenyans in particular have been struggling to suppress. The absence of due legal process, not one of the disappeared was found guilty of anything, has increased feelings of mistrust.
I spoke to Salma Abdallah, the terrified wife of Mohammed Kassim, who vanished in March along with his friend Samir Khan. Both had been charged with the possession of illegal firearms and recruiting for al-Shabab. A few days after the pair were taken from a bus by men who said they were police, Khan’s mutilated body was found in the Tsavo National Park. Kassim is still missing.
Salma insists she has no idea what her husband was up to, but she has been moving from house to house with her one-year-old child, relying on the goodwill of friends to protect them from what she is sure is a police conspiracy to see them dead.
There may be no conspiracy of course, but in the absence of a credible investigations and convictions, she is left alone to speculate and hide.
‘No peace without justice’
Abubakar Sharif feels the same way: “The police are supposed to protect us,” he says. “But how can I go there when I know they want to kill me too; when I know that I am next.”
He was Aboud Rogo’s friend and co-accused in the terrorism case. Both had been released on bail, waiting for their court hearings. While I spoke to him, Sharif took a phone call. “The police have just issued an arrest warrant for me,” he said once he hung up. “And I don’t know what I am supposed to have done.”
Abubakar denies all the charges, and insists he is being persecuted only “because I love my religion”. Again, in the absence of any clear investigation or evidence of wrong-doing, his claim rings like a warning-bell for Muslims across Mombasa who are convinced they are being persecuted.
The record of unsolved disappearances and murders is just one of the key complaints of the coastal community – not just Muslims – which argues more broadly that it is economically and politically marginalised as well. They have a complex set of grievances that few leaders seem willing to address.
Hussein Khaled, who chairs the Muslims for Human Rights organisation, senses a dangerous lack of political will that starts with the police’s failure to find answers.
“There can be no peace without justice,” he says. He doesn’t mean it as a threat, but a warning.