Can Obama Push Kenya to Take Action on Terrorism and Human Rights?

As the president ends his historic visit to East Africa, many questions remain about issues that are critical to the region’s stability.
President Barack Obama reviews a Kenyan Defense Force honor guard in Nairobi. (Photo: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)
Jul 25, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jacob Kushner reports on foreign investment and human rights in Africa. His work has appeared in, Newsweek, Vice, Foreign Policy, and

NAIROBI—Last weekend, Barack Obama visited his father’s homeland for the first time as president, and he could hardly have chosen a more critical moment. Kenya was once a peaceful nation known for safaris and beaches. But it has, sadly, evolved into something resembling a police state—the result of the Kenyan government’s response to a recent onslaught of terrorist attacks.

In September 2013, gunmen affiliated with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab sieged Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall, killing 67 people, in the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in 1998. Kenyan authorities have since struggled with a steady uptick in terrorism: Dozens of people have been maimed or killed in bus bombings; 60 were killed as terrorists roamed from town to town on Kenya’s coast wreaking havoc; 148 were slaughtered at a university.

Al-Shabaab declared war against Kenya after the country invaded Somalia in 2011. Kenya’s soldiers have since been whooshed into an African Union peacekeeping mission designed to bring order to Somalia. But as the troops succeed at diminishing al-Shabaab’s influence in Somalia, the terrorist group began attacking Kenya at home.

The United States has much at stake in helping achieve peace here in East Africa. The majority of the victims of the Westgate Mall attack were Kenyan, but the dead included people from across the globe. With an estimated 100,000 Americans living in or visiting in Kenya each year, the U.S. has a large interest in keeping its citizens safe. And the U.S. itself has been a target of terrorist attacks here, having suffered from its botched intervention in Somalia in the 1990s, as well as the al-Qaida bombing of the American embassy. Now security analysts say the U.S. must play a critical role in preventing al-Shabaab, which has links to al-Qaida, from making further inroads in the region. Already, terrorism and other violence has displaced nearly 600,000 refugees to Kenya, where they linger in limbo in squalid refugee camps or Nairobi slums as Kenya’s government threatens to deport them en masse—a move that would drive East Africa’s humanitarian crisis.

But as Kenyan security forces attempt to defend their nation, terrorism analysts and human rights activists say they’re going about it all wrong—inflicting collective punishment on Muslims and clamping down on the press. One very big question remains: Can President Obama convince Kenya’s leaders to take action on terrorism and human rights?


In Nairobi’s Somali Muslim quarter, which is known as Eastleigh, harassment by police is an everyday occurrence. Last April, police arrested two Somali-born journalists (and me) as we walked along a crowded sidewalk along the aptly named Jam Street. The officers ordered us into the backseat of an unmarked car and drove to a dusty lot across from a police station. After allowing me to leave, the police held the Somali journalists for half an hour more until a friend arrived to furnish the 10,000 Kenyan shilling ($112) bribe that the officers demanded for their release.

That same month, police began massive roundups in which they arrested thousands of people and locked them in a nearby sports stadium—without legal representation or formally charging many of them with a crime. Some reports indicated they were denied food and water. Experts say Kenya’s security forces target Somali Muslim populations based mainly on their ethnic and religious affiliation.

The result is that law-abiding and peaceful young Muslims may become frustrated and perhaps even radicalized, not just because of the recruitment tactics of al-Shabaab but because of alienation by Kenya’s own government. “Yes, Kenya is ravaged and under threat from al-Shabaab, no doubt,” said Maina Kiai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. But “when security forces break the law, they use impunity, they attack an entire community—it doesn’t help the war on terrorism. In fact, it makes it worse: It breeds extremism.”


If Kenya is to win its war against terrorism, the first step may be to work with—rather than against—the many civil society and human rights groups here whose mission is to ensure that Kenya’s security activities snag the criminals and avoid abusing the innocents.

Two of the groups working to document police abuses against Muslims here are being targeted by Kenyan officials. In April, a top Kenyan police official named MUHURI—Muslims for Human Rights—and Haki Africa on a list of “terrorist organizations.” The government board that regulates Kenya’s nongovernmental organizations swiftly unregistered the two groups, prompting Human Rights Watch to urge Kenya to “stop harrassing” civil rights groups there.

Second, the U.S. will need to help Kenya focus on security tactics that do work. “To be successful, the U.S. needs Kenya to focus on real terrorism threats—not just the local opposition,” said Witney Schneidman, a policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says the question Obama will have to answer during his visit is, “How do we address threats and address them in a way that strengthens civilian oversight of the [Kenyan] military?”

Kenya’s government wants more help from the U.S. to fight terror. The U.S. has the world’s largest intelligence apparatus but is often hesitant to share information with partners like Kenya, and for good reason: As Obama took off in Air Force One for Nairobi last Thursday, an employee from Kenya’s part-government-owned airline, Kenya Airways, publicized the times the Nairobi airport would be closed. The security breach forced the Secret Service to scramble to find an alternate landing time.

The truth is, a secure Kenya must also be prosperous—and all its citizens must share in the wealth. Kenya is enjoying a relative boom in private investment, manufacturing, and tourism. Congress recently renewed the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which will extend the ability of manufacturers in Kenya, and across Africa, to sell duty free goods to the U.S. But Kenya’s leaders say it’s not enough.

President Obama meets with a Kenyan entrepreneur at an innovation conference in Nairobi. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst)

Despite Kenya’s enormous security problems, the primary purpose of Obama’s visit was to cohost the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi. On Saturday morning, Obama and President Uhuru Kenyatta delivered a keynote address to a room full of young entrepreneurs. The two leaders then met privately, and delivered a televised address from Kenya’s state house. Obama urged Kenya to more aggressively fight corruption. On Sunday, Obama is expected to address Kenyans at a sports stadium.

Nairobi’s streets are usually chaotic, but were quiet for most of Obama's time here. What remains to be seen is whether the most marginalized Kenyans—the refugees, the Muslims of Somali heritage, and the civil society leaders, all of whom are hoping Obama will pressure Kenya to reform its war on terror—will have cause for celebration too.