Start of Main Content

Why State-Led Mass Killing in Kenya Is Unlikely

Guest post by Daniel Solomon, an independent researcher on mass atrocity issues who blogs at Securing Rights.

The evolution of Kenyan politics since its last episode of mass killing, after the country's December 2007 elections, hardly appears promising. In 2013, during a presidential election widely considered freer and fairer than its predecessor, the Kenyan electorate returned to power two of the alleged instigators of the 2007–2008 violence. In 2012, a newly assertive military began operations against al-Shabaab in southern Somalia. In the two years since, the insurgency and its Kenyan affiliates have used the military's operations to justify reprisal attacks in several major Kenyan cities.

The most recent of these occurred on June 15, in the coastal town of Mpeketoni. Approximately 60 civilians, most spectators of the day's World Cup matches, died during the assault. While Kenya's president has blamed "local political networks" for the attack, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, and the attack resembles the group's past tactics.

For some analysts, the government's response has raised a new specter of reprisal violence in Kenya. Coverage of Kenyatta's comments in a South African newspaper recalled "bitter memories…[of] 2007," drawing a general link between the government's inflammatory response to the Mpeketoni attack and the rabble-rousing of Raila Odinga, whose Orange Democratic Movement was ousted from power in 2013.

When discussing the risk of mass killing—specifically, of state-led mass killing—in Kenya, it is important to differentiate the potential targets of such violence. While supporters of both Uhuru Kenyatta’s government and Odinga’s opposition party have engaged in inflammatory and even dangerous speech against their political opponents, political reforms since Kenya’s post-election violence have muted the strategic logic of mass killing, albeit meekly. Devolution, the gradual federalism implemented by Kenya’s constitution in 2010, has diffused the benefits of state capture, the primary prize of mass killing during the country’s previous episode. Cynically put, mass violence between Kenya’s national factions no longer makes sense.

The far graver consequence of events like the Mpeketoni attack follows from the recent discrimination against ethnic Somali civilians in major Kenyan cities. As Human Rights Watch observes, Kenyan security forces have responded to spurious allegations of mass Somali collaboration with al-Shabaab with a form of security theater. An easy scapegoat, Somali civilians have become a frequent target of mass detention and other abuses, and Kenyan security forces have staged extrajudicial crackdowns in Nairobi's majority Somali neighborhoods.

These abuses, however, are also unlikely to escalate into mass killing. Although al-Shabaab likely operates local cells, including among ethnic Somali communities, there is little evidence to suggest the mass conspiracy that recent detentions imply. The strategic logic of state-led mass killing is again absent.

Given these middling risks, it is no wonder that, when asked about the risk of a mass killing in Kenya before 2015, the Early Warning Project's expert opinion pool so far ranks Kenya among the less likely candidates, with a probability of about 15 percent. Abuses by the Kenyan state are rampant, but mass lethal violence is unlikely to be among them.