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Conflict dynamics on Kenya’s coast

Police patrol in Mpeketoni, Lamu county, Kenya (July 2014)
Police patrol in Mpeketoni, Lamu county, Kenya (July 2014) (Jimmy Kamude/IRIN)

A string of attacks by gunmen on communities in Kenya’s southeastern Coast Province over the past six weeks has left more than 100 people dead, and the real fear of yet more violence to come.

The death toll in the raids in Lamu and Tana River counties is undisputed. There is also a general agreement that the cause of the violence is “politics and land”. But on who is behind the attacks, and why, the consensus is shakier.

The biggest attack to date was in Mpeketoni, 300km along a potholed road from Kenya’s second city of Mombasa, 50km south of Lamu, the ancient port and cradle of Islamic Swahili culture. Mpeketoni is an overwhelmingly Kikuyu town, Kenya’s large and politically powerful ethnic group from the centre of the country. They were settled in the area by the government in the late 1960s and crucially provided with title deeds, legal tenure which the traditional owners of the land do not possess. 

On the evening of 15 June, an estimated 40 heavily-armed men took over the town. For 9 hours, undisturbed by the security forces, they executed almost exclusively men, burned down businesses and torched vehicles. When it was over, 59 people were dead. The majority were Kikuyu, but there were also a significant number of victims from among the coastal Mijikenda community.

According to eyewitnesses, the raiders wore military kit, some were bearded and spoke Somali or broken Swahili; all consistent with claims by the Somali insurgent group al-Shabab - battling the Kenyan army in southern Somalia - that they were responsible. But the government has dismissed the connection.
In a 17 June statement President Uhuru Kenyatta made it clear he regarded the violence as deliberately aimed at Kikuyu settlers, who over the years have gravitated in increasing numbers to the coastal strip. “The attack in Lamu was well planned, orchestrated, and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community, with the intention of profiling and evicting them for political reasons,” he said. 

Several weeks after the attack, that was the prevailing view in Mpeketoni - a community under siege, in which their MP was a key target for the attackers. Mpeketoni wields a significant block vote in Lamu County, and the political demographics point to increasing Kikuyu influence. Current Lamu governor Issa Timamy, who campaigned on a platform of local indigenous land rights, felt it expedient to pick a Kikuyu as his running mate. He was nevertheless arrested in connection with the violence, although is yet to be charged.

As in the best whodunits, everybody seems to have a motive. But according to Hussein Khalid, executive director of the Mombasa-based human rights group Haki Africa, the evidence points to a unit of al-Shabab that includes local recruits, which is cleverly playing on the region’s social and economic tensions.

“We have heard of youth crossing the border to fight with al-Shabab, some of them from the Lamu area. [If they have returned to Lamu] that would explain why [according to eyewitnesses] some of the attackers covered their faces, and referred to people [in the town] by their names,” he told IRIN.  

A national newspaper reported intelligence officials as saying they believed one of the al-Shabab commanders in the Lamu area was a Kikuyu who had converted to Islam - a suggestion not denied by Deputy Inspector General of the Administration Police Samuel Arachi.  “Al-Shabab has mutated. Previously it was basically Somali, now it is anybody who has been radicalized,” he told IRIN. 

“But who is financing this, who are the paymasters? And why now?” He added: “It doesn’t matter if it is al-Shabab, the Mombasa Republican Council [a coastal separatist group] or Mungiki [a Kikuyu militia], they won’t get away with it.” 


The real culprit, local analysts say, is the history of marginalization of coastal people - what academic Paul Goldsmith describes as the “crisis of second-class citizenship”, where the mixed-heritage Swahili are largely peripheral in post-independence Kenya.

Mainland Lamu and Tana counties are the traditional home of the Swahili Bajuni and smaller neighbouring communities. But at independence their communal land, instead of being administered as trust land as elsewhere in Kenya, remained under the authority of the state. What that has meant is that local people are effectively squatters, and “this place we call home is not ours, at least not on paper,” said Khalid.

Cross-border raids from Somalia during the 1960s as a result of the Shifta conflict also drove the Bajuni off their land, shutting down economic activity and impoverishing the local community. Insecurity continued in the 1990s with the collapse of the Somali state.

Settlement scheme for landless Kikuyu

            Death toll in Lamu 
15 June: 65 people killed in Mpeketoni and environs
17 June: 15 killed in Poromoko and Majembeni villages, Witu
23 June: 5 killed in Taa village, Pandanguo area
5 July: 12 killed in villages in Hindi area
5 July: 9 killed at Gamba police station
18 July: 7 killed in bus attack, Witu 

Mpeketoni is an example of what has been labelled Kenya’s “rigged development”. It was created as a settlement scheme for landless Kikuyu in 1968. Despite initial hardships they made a success of the project (the name is a reference to the single “carton” [cardboard box] of supplies each settler received from the back of a truck) and it is now a thriving town of 50,000 people boasting banks, agricultural schemes, solidly-built churches, and a planned university campus. 

But, according to Goldsmith, Mpeketoni benefited from a level of institutional support other rural development projects to settle local people, did not receive. “No security, no assistance of any sort, no land rights, no government infrastructure” were daunting hurdles. Those that gave up found ready takers for their plots among the people funnelling into the region from up-country. “Nasty things happened in Lamu that cannot happen elsewhere in Kenya,” said Goldsmith. 

The fertile land between Mpeketoni and Witu is commonly referred to as witemere - literally, “cut for yourself”. The idea that the land is there for the taking (or squatting) is part of an up-country narrative that “people from the coast are lazy and don’t want to work” - and are failing to make the most of what they have, said Khalid. Insult is added to injury when the takeover is crowned with the award of title deeds from officials also originally from central Kenya. 

Perceptions of injustice

The proposed multibillion dollar Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor Project is further fuelling perceptions of injustice. The mega 1,700km regional road and rail link is expected to boost Kenya’s GDP by 3 percent, according to the government’s Vision 2030 plan. But land speculation and evictions driven by LAPSSET - as well as the project’s impact on local livelihoods - are real concerns if not carefully managed, says a new report by the Kenya Human Rights Commission. In-migration is expected to significantly rise, which will have a local political and economic impact.

Already there is concern that the promised jobs at the port may bypass local people. Emblematic of that was the removal of a local man at the helm of LAPSSET and his replacement with former Cabinet secretary Francis Muthaura. “The project is being run on the coast, why in hell bring a `foreigner’, more so from the ruling class, to run everything,” Mohammed Ramadhan of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights told IRIN.

“We hate them. We don’t want them here, but we’re not ready to fight,” one former politician from Hindi, 40km from Mpeketoni, said of the new settlers, especially those displaced by the 2008 post-election violence in the Rift Valley. “Everything they take for themselves. There is no thanks, and now they are taking over politically, and the government is backing them.”


"Everything they take for themselves. There is no thanks, and now they are taking over politically, and the government is backing them"

Meanwhile, the government’s response to the growing insecurity is adding to the list of grievances. Rights activists argue that underlining the perception of second-class status is the difficulty of getting an ID card. “Anybody with an Islamic name has a problem. It’s easier to get a passport in America than the country in which I was born,” said the politician.

But Mombasa County Commissioner Nelson Marwa was clear: “The national ID is a security document. You don’t just get it like that. You need to be checked. So any delay is understandable because of the global terrorist threat,” he told IRIN.

But no ID makes finding a job all the harder. For young men “with no hope for the future and who don’t feel part of Kenya”, the ideology of Jihad is energizing, said Khaled. And it is not just coastal youths who feel the lure. Growing numbers of converts from other communities in Kenya are crossing into Somalia to join al-Shabab, making profiling all the harder for the authorities. 

Marwa rejected that argument. “For the majority of youths being radicalized, drugs is the main cause. They are addicts, so it’s easy to manipulate them. We want leaders to discuss this – let’s avoid side shows.” He also denied the widespread allegation the government had any hand in the extra-judicial killing of hardline clerics believed to have been involved in recruiting youths to join al-Shabab. More than seven clerics in Mombasa, linked to terrorism by the authorities, have died since 2012.

Given the simmering discontent available to exploit, a home-grown al-Shabab franchise might prove difficult to dislodge, with a leaky border to Somalia, and Lamu’s thick Boni forest to hide in. “From an insurgency point of view, it’s the smartest thing [al-Shabab] could have done,” said Goldsmith.

The saliency of the land question and marginalization are recognized in the constitution’s provisions for the devolution of powers and the addressing of historical injustices. Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission also made specific recommendations that the National Land Commission should undertake an adjudication and registration exercise on the coast and “revoke illegally obtained titles”.

A private member’s Community Land Bill – intended to safeguard community land rights and provide for the registration and protection of community land – is expected to be re-tabled in the Senate later this year. “That is the crux of the matter. The community should own LAPSSET, they are the ones who should benefit,” said Ramadhan.

But in the short-term, all non-government analysts IRIN spoke to expected the violence to increase. “You can’t fight an ideology by using force. You fight an ideology with an ideology,” said Khalid.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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