In Kenya there is an emerging official narrative of a war on terror being won. [154] Al-Shabaab is on the back foot in Somalia. Kenya has not seen further attacks on the scale of Westgate, Garissa or Mpeketoni. But no one believes that the threat of al-Shabaab has evaporated. When we asked people in Lamu whether they thought another large-scale attack targeting Christians and non-indigenous people would succeed in further dividing the area, or even manage to garner more support for the group, views were mixed.

On the positive side, there was a near-uniform acceptance that Lamu still has significant resilience to division. People often pointed to the response to the Mpeketoni attacks, with one person arguing that “everyone in Lamu Town felt bad for the victims of Mpeketoni. Some Kikuyus came here and we welcomed them.” [155]

Others stressed that although the land disputes and politicisation of ethnicity had deepened divisions, it was important not to overlook the bonds that did exist. As one elderly woman from the Mpeketoni area argued, “We have stayed with Kikuyu since when they came. We used to nurse their children as they go farming”. [156]

Others also pointed out that:

People won’t get behind al-Shabaab or openly support it because firstly they blame the group for the problems they face now, including bringing the security restrictions, and secondly because we are well educated in Islam. [157]

Indeed, the depth of Islamic belief and teaching in the area was seen as antithetical to al-Shabaab’s ability to garner support.  

Furthermore, people pointed to the hard work being done by numerous local civil society groups, and especially faith groups, in trying to improve community cohesion through dialogues and fora that bring people together. As a businesswoman from Mpeketoni suggested, “inter-faith dialogue helped a lot because for example Christians were told about how terrorism is not part of Islam. It also helps heal divides.” [158]

A religious leader in a focus group discussion pointed out that the:

attack in Mpeketoni immediately divided people by religion and tribe. However, we [a group of imams and preachers] formed an inter-faith forum and led a public demonstration, we closed the whole road. The whole community came, the media came, and on the second day the national government came. [159]

However, it is questionable whether bottom-up peacebuilding activities have managed to reach beyond those in society who are already open to participation. As we heard in one focus group:

Community leaders have sat together and united our networks, but at the youth level, those beyond our networks, they are not being united. This includes the most sensitive group, the young marginalised men. [160]

Overall, progress has been made, but no one is under any illusions about the persistence of divisions:

There has not been enough bringing people together to understand it’s not Muslims or Christians. So another attack would still really divide people. [161]

There are other issues that civil society leaders feel are beyond their control. As a businessman points out, “the government needs to do its security work but ensure they do not victimise people”. [162] While the government – and its international partners – recognise the problems embedded within Kenya’s security sector, especially related to abuse of power, discrimination, and the lack of accountability, reform has been slow and uneven. Civil society has many insights that could help shape the government’s peace strategy – on both security and other matters. But people feel disappointed by the tendency to avoid consultation on sensitive security matters, and the consequent failure to enable engagement. [163]

Lamu’s structural problems also remain largely unaddressed. Whatever development initiatives come to Lamu – whether a port, other infrastructure or tourist investment – new jobs and economic opportunities will mean more migration, tension and grievances. [164] The remedy? Time and again we were told of the need to invest in education for ‘local’ people.  

One issue raised even more frequently than education or jobs was the need for the government to ensure that everyone has title deeds. As one woman involved in peacebuilding efforts explained:

We can talk about cohesion and living together but indigenous people will still feel bad without the title deed, they will say ‘we can’t get a loan, we can’t send our children to school.’ [165]

The issue sits at the centre of identity-based conflict in the region. In the words of a politician: “If we had equal land rights and were treated equally then who would be able to incite one group against another? Their propaganda would not work.” [166] There has been some work by both the national and county government to resolve the issue of title deed ownership, with customary community ownership of land recognised in Kenya’s new constitution, and some deeds being issued to local people. Nonetheless, many locals still lack the skills and the stamina to attain land titles, and meanwhile the interests at play in Kenya’s land politics remain entrenched – linked to actors in Nairobi with considerably more power than the ‘small people’ who are most at risk from further violence, whether at the hands of al-Shabaab or the security services.

Unfortunately, the temptation remains for politicians to gain support by taking disputes over land, jobs or services, and mobilising ‘their’ constituencies against ‘the others’. In Lamu, devolution appears merely to have brought such national dynamics closer to the local level.

With elections due this year in August 2017, religious leaders in Lamu are worried about election-related violence between identity groups: “We’re on a time bomb and it could explode at any time.” [167] Even local officials share these concerns, predicting that, “as we move towards elections, more violence can be expected”. [168]

Yet, despite the deep fissures and vulnerabilities that exist in Lamu, al-Shabaab may yet be unable to mobilise significant levels of support from its people. As one study explains:  

Kenyan Muslims are not united, and nor is the coast. Race and ethnicity, as well as religious differences, divide these potential communities…. This cannot become a popular mass movement. [169]

So worries about large-scale recruitment and rebellion may well be overblown. However, they also miss the point. As one politician and businessman suggested:

As long as there are grievances here al-Shabaab will be able to continue. So it won’t get to a civil war, but also we won’t have a solution. [170]

The West’s current obsession with CVE marks, in some ways, progress from the overly securitised war on terror. But as Kenya demonstrates, it has by no means replaced securitised thinking, and countries such as the United States have made this clear through putting their money and diplomatic support behind Kenya’s military-security approach in both Kenya and Somalia. Nevertheless, even with CVE, which is in theory open to addressing causal factors and community perspectives, outside actors risk getting it wrong in contexts like Kenya.

In the best case scenario, this leads to the misallocation of resources and attention. In the worst, it could fuel an escalation of violence and a divisive response. There is no reason for forward strategy to be unclear though. First, Lamu needs a peace strategy rather than a range of counter-terror crackdowns and CVE projects. Such a strategy can easily be developed by listening to voices like those we spoke to with a view to identifying the issues that could lead to conflict (rather than merely looking for ‘push and pull factors’ that could lead to recruitment). Second, as a general rule, the most sensitive issues are typically the most pertinent to progress.

The priorities that came through most clearly from our research in Lamu were as follows. Firstly, Lamu deserves a changed approach to security provision that treats all groups equally and respects rights and due process even when dealing with violent individuals. Secondly, there needs to be quicker progress on providing equal access to land titles, jobs, education and political representation for all people in Lamu. Third, dialogue and bridge building will remain important, but dialogue does need to feel meaningful: it is up to Kenya’s government – encouraged by its international friends – to demonstrate that it is listening to local people and acting decisively to address their concerns.


154. Cherono S (2016)), ‘War on terror being won by brain power, not gun power, Security bosses reveal’, The Daily Nation, 28 November
155. Key Informant Interview with businessman, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
156. Women’s focus group discussion, 1Lamu Town1 December 2016
157. Key Informant Interview with businessman, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
158. Key Informant Interview with businesswoman, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
159. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
160. Mixed focus group discussion, Lamu Town, 30 November 2016
161. Key Informant Interview with businesswoman, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
162. Key Informant Interview with businessman, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
163. Key Informant Interview with civil society activist, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
164. Key Informant Interview with journalist, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
165. Key Informant Interview with businesswoman, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
166. Key Informant Interview with politician, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
167. Key Informant Interview with group of religious leaders, Lamu Town, 1 December 2016
168. Key Informant Interview with official, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016
169., p 22
170. Key Informant Interview with politician, Lamu Town, 29 November 2016

Header photo: Thomas Wheeler/Saferworld