NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Islamist attacks, knee-jerk security responses, corrupt policing and racial profiling are dividing Kenyans increasingly along religious and ethnic lines, experts said.
There is fear on all sides - among Christians who pray on Sundays under armed police guard, among Muslims who are vilified on the internet, and among government leaders who have lost face for failing to provide security.
The Somalia-based al Shabaab militant group has escalated the number of attacks on Kenyans this year, as part of its campaign to stop Kenyan military operations in Somalia.
“It is primed to explode,” said Clive Wanguthi, a Muslim leader living in Nairobi’s Somali-dominated Eastleigh area.
“If they (extremists) continue with these attacks, they will come and hit a sensitive area and everything will go to hell. I mean we will kill each other,” said Wanguthi.
The 47-year-old father of six converted from Christianity to Islam 25 years ago, and is trying to ease tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Eastleigh, which has been a focus of government crackdowns. Eleven percent of Kenyans are Muslim, some of them ethnically Somali.
Security forces’ efforts to tame the Islamist threat have focused on shutting down radical mosques and mass arrests of Muslims, particularly of Somali refugees living in Eastleigh, during an operation in April.
In the countdown to Christmas, lorryloads of police have arrived in Eastleigh each night to patrol its streets, video halls and clubs, residents said.
“For most Kenyans, Somali and Muslim is one thing,” said Wanguthi.
“You should see the level of hatred that is posted on Facebook forums against Muslims. It is: ‘Kill them. They don’t deserve to live. They are terrorists.’”
He looks typically Muslim, with his salt and pepper beard, white kanzu and embroidered cap. His heritage is mixed – partly Italian and partly Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group.
People avoid him, getting out of the lift or bus when he enters, he said.
“There’s a lady who said: ‘Ah, no no no, I am not taking the risk’,” as she walked out of the lift, he said.
He is the chairman of Nyumba Kumi (10 houses in Kiswahili), a government initiative to encourage people to be vigilant in their neighborhood and report suspicious activities. He also sits on the District Peace Committee and is the constituency manager for the local member of parliament.
He goes door to door with a group of young Christians and Muslims to try to break down barriers of fear, and has brought many Christians into his mosque - after convincing his imam there was no danger.
“Most of the negative perceptions of Muslims are because people are ignorant of what Islam is all about. And there is this media hype ... that it is a violent terrorists’ religion,” he said.
“We want people to open up and understand each other. Once we get talking we will never have suspicion amongst us.”
Kenya cannot defeat al Shabaab by force alone, experts said. It must also tackle its radical Islamic ideology.
“It’s important to not just appear to be tough and talk tough,” said Steve Kirimi, head of Peace-Net, a coalition of conflict resolution groups.
“You will kill a few (radicals) but there will be several others germinating and with the fullness of time it will come back to haunt us.”
Peace-Net has been hosting discussions between youths, Islamic scholars and the government in Eastleigh to address some of their grievances, such as difficulties getting identity documents and unemployment.
“You find people ... opening up and they are saying why they find themselves easily lured into getting recruited into extremist groups,” Kirimi said.
“It might take a bit of time but if you start at the bottom where we know people ... are getting recruited, then I think we will be making some headway,” he said.
In Eastleigh, the police stop people just because they are Somali, said Mohamed Ismail, a Kenyan businessman who is ethnically Somali and has lived in the area all his life. “They do it for bribes.”
Some of those who are arrested have disappeared without being booked into nearby Pangani police station, he said.
“Every week, one or two persons go missing,” he said, adding that several Somalis arrested earlier this year by men who claimed to be police officers were later found dead.
Human Rights Watch said in August it had “strong evidence” of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit.
National police spokeswoman Zipporah Mboroki said she had not received reports “of that nature”, and recommended people contact their nearest police station or the Independent Police Oversight Authority so reports could be investigated.
The government denies it is carrying out ethnic or religious profiling and that the police have unlawfully killed anyone.
But its counter-terrorism strategies risk further alienating Muslims, experts said.
“The way they are often treating communities with blanket suspicion is likely to mean that people who are party to knowledge that the security forces need are less likely to come forward,” said Sarah Collier, an analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.
Parliament debated a security bill last week which would allow the police to detain terrorism suspects without charge for up to 360 days and allow the National Intelligence Service to “do anything considered necessary to preserve national security”.
Rights groups have opposed it, instead calling for the implementation of security sector reforms promised in Kenya’s 2010 constitution, aimed at improving civilian oversight and ending abuses.
“That (security bill) is a knee-jerk reaction,” said Caleb Wanga, safety coordinator with Usalama Reforms Forum, a lobby group focused on police reform. “The government approach must change.”
Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by Alex Whiting