Johannesburg — The assassination of an influential and very radical Muslim cleric prompted two days of vicious rioting in the Kenyan city of Mombasa. All seems quiet now, but SIMON ALLISON wonders how long the calm will last - especially given the impending elections and Kenyan politicians' fondness for stirring up unrest.
Mombasa, police say, is quiet again. Some semblance of order has returned to the narrow streets of Kenya's oldest and most exotic city after two days of complete chaos. Law and order broke down as rioters attacked churches, burned tyres, looted shops and homes and threw grenades at vehicles and police. "They are looting even chicken," said one shocked observer. Two policemen were killed, dying of their injuries after bearing the brunt of a grenade explosion. Three civilians died too: one was stoned, one was hit with a metal rod, another was standing too close to the police when the grenade exploded.
The sudden, vicious "orgy of violence", as one newspaper described it, was sparked by another death.
It was broad daylight on Monday when Sheikh Aboud Rogo was driving his minivan along one of Mombasa's main thoroughfares. In the vehicle with him were his young daughter and his wife. His wife had miscarried two weeks earlier, and was feeling sick, so the family was on their way to the hospital.
Suddenly, another vehicle overtook the sheikh's minivan. From it, an unidentified gunman emptied half a clip of ammunition from his AK-47 in the direction of Sheikh Rogo. Some of the bullets hit the sheikh, enough to kill him and cause the vehicle to careen off the road. A few rounds injured his wife in the leg.
If the reports are to be believed, Sheikh Rogo died the way he lived: violently, and with little regard for the rule of law. Although nothing was ever proven in court, Rogo was linked with a number of terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil, most notably the embassy bombings in Nairobi in 1998. He was high on the USA's terror watch list - so high that the US slapped travel sanctions on him and persuaded the United Nations to do likewise.
The cleric's notoriety was compounded by his alleged links to Al-Shabaab, the Somali fundamentalist militant group against which a substantial number (in the thousands) of Kenyan troops are waging a war in Somalia. Al-Shabaab repeatedly threatened to retaliate in Kenya, and has done so with a number of grenade attacks against civilian and police targets. Kenyan authorities suspected Rogo was helping to facilitate these attacks, suspicions hardened when they raided his house and discovered a tidy weapons cache: an AK-47, two hand grenades, two pistols, 113 rounds of ammunition and 102 detonators. He was in the process of being tried for illegal weapons possession, and was out on bail when he was killed.
But who killed him? Rogo's supporters and sympathisers in Mombasa said it must have been a police hit - an explanation that probably accounted for much of the anger demonstrated by Muslim youths in the riots that followed. Tired of waiting for justice to take its course, and mindful of Rogo's Houdini-like ability to escape being shackled, the thinking went, security officers arranged the killing. How else could they have done it in the middle of the day, without anyone seeing a thing? At the scene, Rogo's wife refused medical attention from police officers for this very reason: "I don't need your help. You have killed my husband, now leave us alone," she shouted at them.
Al-Shabaab was quick to jump on this bandwagon, releasing a statement decrying the Kenyan infidels for their "policy of extra-judicial killings against prominent Muslim activists".
Police, naturally, denied this account. "Why kill Rogo in broad daylight, knowing the implications that it could trigger in the country especially in Mombasa? Our moral duty is to protect Kenyans," said Charles Owino, a police spokesman. Police offer a rather different story: they claim Rogo fell foul of political infighting in Al-Shabaab and that his murder was a deliberate ploy to incite tensions in Mombasa.
If so, it worked.
Whoever killed Rogo - chances are we won't know for quite some time, if ever - it's hard to ignore the central role played by Al-Shabaab and the feeling that the Kenyan government has brought this on itself. Kenyan officials knew what they were getting into when they invaded Somalia. If they didn't, it's because they hadn't read their history. Somalia has a way of hitting back at countries that get themselves too involved; just think of the Americans and the humiliation of Black Hawk Down, or the ridiculous Ethiopian invasion which unseated the relatively moderate Islamist Courts Union, only to pave the way for Al-Shabaab to take charge.
For Kenya, the grand Somali adventure has bought domestic unrest and a fraught relationship with the large minority of ethnic Somalis that consider themselves Kenyan. It threatens to boil over into something even more dangerous if the militant talk being exchanged by Muslims and Christians in Mombasa doesn't dissipate quickly.
Foremost on Kenyan politicians' minds, however, will be the election scheduled for 2013, which is currently the driving force behind most government policy (remember, the government is one of national unity, meaning that most politicians have a stake in its success, or some area of it). If any of the main candidates can find a way to exploit these tensions to improve their chances at the polls, expect the violence and unrest to continue - just as tensions were encouraged and allowed to explode into brutal violence in the aftermath of the last elections in 2008. Kenya's favourite politics is the politics of fear.
Of course, there's another way to win elections. Most people are peaceful souls that want calm and order. This is a golden opportunity for a Kenyan leader to forge a reputation as a peacemaker and a unifier, an image that will play well with voters and do the country a world of good in the process. Let's hope that one of the main candidates can see the sense of this through the fog of war and their own lust for power.