Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, has scrambled to restore confidence in his leadership with a security reshuffle after Islamist gunmen shot and beheaded 36 labourers at a quarry in north-eastern Kenya in the second such massacre in less than a fortnight.
Amid growing criticism over his failure to tackle the security threat, Mr Kenyatta fired his Interior Minister, replacing him with the opposition figure and retired army General Joseph Ole Nkaissery, and accepted the resignation of the national police chief David Kimaiyo.
The move came after an audacious attack by al-Shabaab gunmen, who stole into a tented labourers’ camp 10 miles from Mandera, a town on the Somali border, in the early hours of this morning, singling out non-Muslims and shooting them at pointblank range. Witnesses said that at least two of the workers were beheaded.
The incident came just 10 days after a similar attack in the same area, where non-Muslim passengers were dragged off a bus by gunmen, and executed. Most of the 28 dead were teachers returning to Nairobi for the Christmas holidays.
The attacks have highlighted the Kenyan government’s failure to provide security in vulnerable and remote border areas, where decades of underinvestment in public security have left the police thinly spread, and militants are able to move easily across the porous border from war-torn Somalia, either by paying off underpaid police officers or by avoiding the scarce patrols.
As with Islamist groups elsewhere in Africa, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab, which has affiliations to al-Qaeda, has been emboldened by the muted government response, encouraging it to mount increasingly brazen attacks that seek to drive a wedge between the marginalised Muslim communities clustered along Kenya’s coast and in border communities and the predominantly Christian population.
It was a little after midnight on Monday night when the militants entered the quarry and fired warning shots in the air. Some the militants shot as they slept, while others were singled out as non-Muslims and shot in the head.
“The militia separated the Muslims, then ordered the non-Muslims to lie down where they shot them on the head at close range,” Hassan Duba, a village elder from a nearby settlement, told Reuters. The attacks have triggered widespread panic in the area, with hundreds of teachers, health workers and civil servants trying to leave the region amid fears that they could become targets.
Referring to the dead as “Kenyan crusaders”, a spokesman for al-Shabaab echoed earlier assertions that the attack was in revenge for Kenya’s military efforts to squeeze the group out of its strongholds in Somalia. The group said it was also punishing Kenya for its treatment of Muslims in a series of mosque raids in the port city of Mombasa.
“We are uncompromising in our beliefs, relentless in our pursuit, ruthless against the disbelievers and we will do whatever necessary to defend our Muslim brethren suffering from Kenya’s aggression,” said the spokesman, Ali Mohamud Rageh.
Kenyans have been in uproar over the government’s perceived failure to tackle the insurgency despite intelligence received regarding impending attacks. Mr Kenyatta, who was in Dubai at the time of the 23 November bus attack, failed to cut short his trip after the shootings, and instead attended a Formula One event. Moreover, he has sought to shift blame to the opposition for a series of violent attacks along Kenya’s coast in recent months that have destabilised the country and frightened thousands of tourists away. Heavy-handed tactics in Mombasa, where hundreds of Muslim youths were dragged from their homes in a recent operation, have meanwhile drawn angry reaction from their communities and human rights activists.
There had been growing calls on the President to sack the outgoing Interior Minister, Joseph Ole Lenku, who had little experience of government, and the police chief for a series of security blunders dating back to the Westgate mall attack last September which claimed at least 67 lives.
Announcing the reshuffle, the beleaguered President denounced his detractors, focusing his ire particularly at the media, and vowed to “intensify the war on terrorism”. He said that Kenyan forces would remain in Somalia as part of the African Union force supporting the government there.
“This is a war and a war that we must win, we must win it together,” he said. “The ultimate aim of this atrocious campaign is to create an extremist caliphate.” Kenyan opposition figures, however, have questioned the effectiveness of its mission in Somalia, and have called on the government to look at an exit strategy.