Jabir, a Somali explosives expert, has hatched a plan in a secret location in Southern Somalia. To accomplish his mission, he recruits Njoroge and Mohamed, two twenty-something year old Kenyans. Njoroge is a radio presenter at Radio Salaam, a local radio station in Mombasa. Mohamed is the security guard at the station’s office.
It is early 2010.
Njoroge has pretensions of a wanna-be ideologue. He is enamoured of ideological currents constitutive of what is widely regarded as political Islam. In his weekday show, he rebukes makafiri—non-believers. He frequently quotes Anwar Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni Jihadist, who was nicknamed the Bin Laden of the internet before an American missile ended his life in 2009. He reads Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian poet who was hanged for his campaign for an Islamic revival in the Arab world.
Mohamed, the security guard, takes keen notice of Njoroge’s interest in affairs affecting the Umma, the international community of Muslims, and introduces him to Kenyan-Somalis who would facilitate their travel to Somalia. There, they will join a two-year Islamist insurrection against a newly-installed transitional government. Somalia has had no effective government since 1991.
In Somalia, Mohamed, light-skinned and Mombasa-born, becomes more battle-hardened than Njoroge. He gets involved in a number of guerrilla campaigns with Al-Shabaab—the militant group that has emerged out of the ashes of the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, an American-backed invasion that toppled the Islamic Courts Union that was based in Mogadishu.
After a brief stint, impressing senior Al-Shabaab commanders and gaining their trust, Mohamed and Njoroge are recruited by Jabir, the Somali explosives expert, for a slightly different mission. For the mission, Jabir asks Mohamed to rent two rooms in Kenya, one in Majengo, Mombasa, and another in Riruta Satellite, Nairobi.
Njoroge understands vulnerabilities in the Kenyan security system intimately. Back in Mombasa, he receives instructions from Mohamed, and calls his brother, Suleiman, who works as a tour driver in Arusha, Tanzania. Njoroge asks his brother to drive to the Nuur Mosque in Kawangware to pick four green bags. The bags, containing three suicide vests and an explosive, have been transported from Somalia, through Mombasa, and to the room in Riruta Satellite that is rented by Mohamed.
On arrival from Arusha, Suleiman meets two more accomplices—Christopher Magondu and Hassan Agade—who give him the four bags. The bespectacled and bearded Suleiman loads the bags on his pearl white Toyota Land Cruiser, registration number, T. 585 ADH. He crosses the Kenya-Uganda border at Malaba town, passing through a number of security check-points. Security is lax. The war is in faraway Somalia, and a few other places. For the first time, the FIFA World Cup will be held on the continent, in South Africa and Africans are excited. Shakira’s song, Waka! Waka! Eh! Eh! Is on everyone’s lips. This is Africa’s time.
Suleiman arrives unhindered in Najjanankumbi, Kampala’s outskirts. There, he meets the Ugandan leader of the mission, Issa Luyima, to whom he delivers the bags. He checks-in at Naigara Hotel where spends the night and drives back to Arusha the following day to continue his life as a tour driver.
Christopher Magondu arranges for the travel of Kaka Sule and Salman Al-Muhajir from Nairobi to Kampala. Like the rest, Kaka Sule and Salman have also fought for Al-Shabaab in Somalia. They board Gateway Bus Services along Accra Road, a stretch of tarmac running across Nairobi’s busy, poorly-lit, informal downtown district, where reluctant regulation and informality meet, and where all types of hustle merge.
In Kampala, Issa Luyima moves the suicide vests to a newly-rented apartment along Entebbe Road in Namasuba. Over the month of June, the apartment becomes the venue for a flurry of activities. Jabir visits from Southern Somalia at least four times to wire the vests. Issa has enlisted the support of his friend, Edris Nsubuga, and that of his brothers, Harun and Muzafar. The motley group carefully surveys and finds suitable targets.
And then they are joined by Kaka Sule and Salman.
In the World Cup, European teams dominate. Holland makes it to the finals, and will be competing with the eventual champions, Spain, on July 11. At the Kyaddondo Rugby Club along Jinja Road, and the Ethiopian Village Restaurant in Kabalagala, football fans, some of whom are hardliners, others just casual followers, have all congregated to watch the match. Others are there for the sheesha. Others, just to drink. The venues’ plastic chairs are all taken.
A few minutes into the match, Kaka Sule and Salman blow themselves up, one in each location, using the suicide vests wired at Issa Luyima’s apartment on Entebbe Road. Nsubuga detonates the explosives.
The twin explosions kill seventy-six people—including the suicide attackers, Salman and Kaka Sule—injuring a hundred more.
In a taped message a few days before the explosions, Al-Shabaab’s spokesman, Ali Rage, was heard urging Al-Shabaab militants to wage attacks against the Ugandan government for their killing of Somali people in Somalia. Ugandan armed forces have been fighting Al-Shabaab through the African Union Mission in Somalia since 2007.
Three years later, the Kampala explosions are Al-Shabaab’s first attacks outside of Somalia. Ali Rage declares that they are a strong message to any country that is willing to send troops to Somalia.
As Al-Shabaab attacks Uganda, Kenyans are haggling over the contents of a proposed draft of a new Constitution.
It is mid-2010.
One of the big and acrimonious debates regards a formal recognition of Kadhis courts (which have existed legally since 1895) by a proposed constitutional draft. The debate has energized a number of Evangelicals and Pentecostals who, buoyed by funding from their American allies, are taking a keen interest in public affairs.
The visibility of Christianity is at an all-time high. On Sundays, all mainstream television stations air church services for a better part of the day. With the frequent televising of politicians at different church services, one can be forgiven for imagining that Christianity has been inaugurated as the state religion.
During the height of the debates over the new draft constitution, a pastor adorning a white, Italian, pinstripe suit unleashes prosperity gospel at his congregation. The Boglioni brand covers his broad shoulders almost perfectly, like a Congolese sapeur, as he struts across the pristine pulpit. His theatrics aptly tap into commonplace emotions: the desire to be successful, and an assumption—central in the thematic concerns of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches—that material prosperity is the reward of faith. This assumption resonates well with the dominant political culture of patronage, money, and material success. At the end of his sermon, the pastor offers his opinion on the on-going national debate about the Kadhis courts.
Lowering his tone from the high -pitch that comes with the charismatic preaching of new Churches, he says, ‘Christians are getting wary of the inclusion of Kadhis courts into the constitution since the September 11, 2001 terror bombings in the US. These courts would propagate Islamic extremism.’ He also sees ambivalence in the draft’s stand on abortion, demanding its unequivocal rejection at once, amid cries of ashindwe!
Despite the rhetoric, opinion polls issued severally before the scheduled referendum vote in August 2010 are showing that the majority of Kenyans believe that the new draft, if adopted as Kenya’s new constitution, will prevent a recurrence of the 2007/08 post-electoral violence.
Former adversaries President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga are encouraging people to vote in favour of the proposed draft. They appear together in public rallies, holding hands in the air. Their coalition government was birthed by an elite pact at the height of widespread violence after disagreements on the outcome of the 2007 general elections, where both politicians ran for president. They both command considerable influence within their respective ethnic communities: Kikuyu by Mwai Kibaki, and Luo by Raila Odinga.
This public show of unity is supposed to evoke images of reconciliation. Calls for peace are ubiquitous. Discontent can be discharged, but only privately. Seductive images of Kenya’s future are produced and circulated; Safaricom’s bamba fifti signals the veritable arrival of distance-demolishing technologies; the successes of Equity Bank emphasize the values of saving and community; while Tusker adverts display a combination of machismo and ideas of hardwork—baada ya kazi, kunywa Tusker!
At the Riyadha Mosque in Pumwani—the oldest colonial neighbourhood of black Africans, and mostly Muslims living in Nairobi—these cultural tropes, of what it means to be Kenyan—English, trousers and Christianity—are increasingly getting rejected. The debate over the Kadhis courts has enraged a section of Kenyan Muslims, and a few are beginning to make radical proposals about what needs to be done to address their grievances. On May 19, 2010, a public meeting is held at the mosque. The meeting’s participants can be described as either radical or moderate, though they all hold broadly similar ideologies. The discussion: the status of Islam in Kenya and the role Kenyan Muslims should play in the on-going conflict in neighbouring Somalia.
During the discussion, the radicals gain ascendancy and drown-out the moderate voices. Aboud Rogo, the resident imam at Masjid Musa in Mombasa, takes the podium.
He shouts, ‘Dini ni AK mabegani!’—Religion is about carrying an AK on your shoulders. Hecontinues, issuing a polemic yet gently delivered speech.
‘Nyinyi mwafkiri twapigana na Kenya?’ You think we are fighting Kenya? He poses, and continues, ‘sisi twapigana na Amerika.’ We are fighting Amerika. ‘Waislamu wenzangu, musidanganywe kwamba vita wanapigwa Wasomali.’ My fellow Muslims, don’t be cheated that the war is against Somalis. ‘Vita vimeelekezwa kwa Wasomali kwasababu ni Waisilamu.’ The war has been directed at Somalis because they are Muslims.
A man in the audience shouts, ‘Takbir!’ And almost all respond, ‘Allahu Akbar!’
Rogo’s onstage persona is smug, scathing and sarcastic. He breaks his diatribes with harsh laughter. He also draws from the performances of old Swahili male speakers, the bearers of a distinctive coastal sociality, steeped in rhetorical style and Islamic erudition. Over time, he’s developed into a great public speaker—every time he takes the stage he is mesmerizing, especially for the audiences he’s targeting. He mixes an incredible mishmash of global politics, Islamic doctrine and history. His natural authority reassures those who have been locked out of theological ruminations that are usually settled by reciting the Hadith in Arabic. Instead, he provides a widely accessible narrative of international injustice to the effect that those of his listeners who cannot quote influential Islamic scholars can talk about the invasion of Iraq. Rogo’s narrative is broad enough to bring together those who rage at nebulous ideas about the global oppression of Islam and those who are more aware of the exclusion of Muslim interests within Kenya. To convince his listeners that joining Al-Shabaab will not necessarily mean that they will be going to war with their own country, Rogo continues, ‘Hatusemi Kenya ni nchi, ni kijinchi.’ We are not saying Kenya is a country, it is a miniature country.
Waislamu hawapigani na Kenya. Muslims are not fighting with Kenya.
Kenya ni taabali ya Amerika, haiwezi hata nusu ya Waislamu. Kenya is just but an outpost of America, it can’t fight even half of Muslims.
Silaha wanazo, wanajeshi wanao, lakini hawawezi kuwalipa. They have weapons, they have soldiers, but they can’t even pay them.
Pesa zatoka nje. Amerika. The money comes from outside, America.
Sasa ni nchi gani hii ya kupigana nayo? So what kind of a country is this to fight against?
Since his acquittal in 2006, after he was charged for involvement in Kenya’s second terrorist attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kikambala, a village north of Mombasa, Rogo’s speeches are mainly public exhortations for Kenyan Muslims to take part in what he sees as a global insurrection by Muslims against the international system: led, according to him, by America. The focus is not in attacking Kenya, but encouraging Kenyan Muslims to go to Somalia and join Al-Shabaab, where (according to Rogo), the militant group is waging a religious holy war against Western, Christian powers.
In fact, the open declaration of support for Al-Shabaab by Rogo is possible because the authorities in Kenya are yet to perceive of his activities as a local threat. Rogo’s speeches, matching the content of low quality newsletters and cheaply recorded tapes and DVDs that are distributed in mosque forums such as these, evoke images of the global Muslim condition of oppression—the conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Yemen. The strategy: to articulate local Muslim grievances within a language of global Jihad. As Rogo speaks, an issue of a weekly magazine published by the Riyadha mosque’s youth association, the Muslim Youth Centre, is circulated: ‘This newsletter contains some of Allah’s names. Do not throw in trash. Either store, share, or circulate. Shukran,’ proclaims the front page. There is also an advertisement for T-Shirts on sale, emblazoned with ‘Jihad is our religion.’ Adult size, Ksh. 300; Kids, Ksh. 250. The other pages present the work of Anwar Awlaki, ’44 ways of supporting Jihad’. On the dais, Rogo laments, ‘Wao wafurahia kuwauwa watoto wetu.’ They are happy killing our children.
‘Kule Afghanistan, Iraq, wametumia silaha za sumu. In Afghanistan, Iraq, they have used chemical weapons.
Silaha za sumu. Chemical weapons.
Silaha za sumu.
He mixes opinion on religious struggle and politics with Quranic verses, ‘Allah asemaje katika aya? What does God say in the verse? Na aya yataka watu wawafwate mashehe, hebu niwatafsirie aya hii.’ In interpreting the verses, people are supposed to follow the interpretation of clerics.
He issues a verse in Arabic and translates it in Swahili, ‘Msiogope kupigana na makafiri, Uoga utoeni katika mioyo yenu.’ Do not be fearful in fighting unbelievers. You should remove fear from your souls.
On hearing this, another man in the audience shouts, ‘Takbir!’ And almost all respond, ‘Allahu Akbar!’
The Pumwani Riyadha Mmosque, where Rogo is speaking, was largely built by donations from members of the neighbourhood’s Muslim community, a cosmopolitan urban community that defied colonial categorizations of all Africans as members of exclusive and pristine tribes. In fact, Pumwani is synonymous with the history of Islam in Nairobi. From the early 1900s—when the British were colonizing much of East Africa—the majority of black African migrants in colonial Nairobi were Muslims from the coast of East Africa.
The British had brought these members of the literate societies of the Swahili coast to work in Nairobi—what was then an emerging and more favoured city than Mombasa—as clerks, translators, servants and guards. Over time, and as Nairobi was declared the capital of colonial Kenya, they converted other migrants to Islam, most of whom originated from the neighbouring Central and Rift Valley highlands, including those who came from as far as Uganda and mainland Tanzania. And so, in Pumwani, a new African identity emerged: de-ethnicised, organised by Islamic traditions on property ownership, and founded on Swahili culture.
Pumwani, literally meaning take some air, or simply relax, also became a refuge for young men and women escaping patriarchy in the rural homesteads. There, they cultivated new urban networks that made life in colonial Nairobi bearable. Men worked as clerks, meter readers and gardeners in the new colonial system. Women, denied participation in the formal economy, serviced this urban working class as petty traders and concubines, and in the process, accumulated the money required to buy plots and put up houses—inadvertently helping the colonial state in housing and feeding its urban workforce.
Most of these houses were put up in Pumwani and adjacent areas, like Pangani. Conversion to Islam was, among other things, strategic, as it conferred and protected women’s property rights. And it was under Muslim law that many donated their plots and houses to the Riyadha mosque of Pumwani —regarded by the Pumwani community as a symbol of this de-tribalised urban community of Muslims.
Similar to Muslims elsewhere in East Africa, Pumwani’s Islamic and cultural institutions were largely left unmodified by colonialism. Islam continued to play a central role in Pumwani life—the building of mosques and madrassas, and the promotion of Islamic education, for instance. Beyond Islam, culture and arts were also important. Many of Kenya’s most famous actors of the post-independence era—Mama Kayayii, Mzee Ojwang, Inspekta Nyuka Kwota—honed their skills at the Pumwani Social Hall. The recording studio, Calif Records, which spawned the forerunner of Kenya’s latest sonic obsession, Gengetone, was conceived by twenty-somethings inside a room at California Estate, a formal housing estate in Pumwani. But a period of stagnation, loss of power and autonomy set in during the austerity years of the 1990s, when politically-connected elites, having exhausted the opportunities for rural agrarian land acquisition in the 1960s and 70s, increasingly turned their attention to urban property, and parts of Pumwani found themselves vulnerable.
Ahmed Iman Ali—of mixed Meru and Kamba origin—emerged in the mid-2000s as the voice of the marginalized community of Pumwani’s Muslims. Born in 1972 in Pumwani, he attended the primary school of the District Education Board of Meru in Kenya’s Central Highlands, where his father relocated after separating with his mother, who owned a flat in Majengo, Pumwani’s largest location. According to Al-Amin Kimathi, who knew Iman Ali as a young man, Iman Ali spent his childhood commuting between Meru town and Majengo in Pumwani. He was later admitted into the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology where, in 1998, he graduated with an engineering degree.
Ali quickly found employment, first with Shell, and later with Mobil. But he was still very much a mtaa boy: he wore dreadlocks, was a fan of LL Cool J and after work in the evenings, often chewed miraa with his friends, while watching a local football match]. Of interest to Iman was how the committee of the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque was managing the mosque’s wealth.
As a young man in his early 30’s, he challenged the committee—dominated by old men—on how it was using rent collections from its land holdings, most of which had been donated by community members, and on which Nairobi’s largest informal market, Gikomba, stands. Together with his friends, he formed the ‘Pumwani Muslim Youth’, a pressure group to mobilize the community and channel these concerns. To bolster the legitimacy of his involvement in mosque affairs, Iman left his job at Mobil—including the perquisites such a career promised in corporate Kenya—and enrolled at the Mahad school, an Islamic reformist academy in Kisauni, Mombasa. At Mahad, he was introduced to the works of leading Islamic reformers—those who clamour for a return to the classical traditions of Islam for inspiration and guidance under the context of the dominance of Western culture, rather than reliance on the mystical knowledge of Islamic saints, or those seen as mediators between Muslims and Islamic knowledge. But he was also introduced to the works of leading Islamist ideologues, such as Anwar Awlaki.
He lost his dreadlocks, and returned to Nairobi as a devout Muslim, ready to challenge the mosque committee at Pumwani’s Riyadha Mmosque, most of whom he was accusing of colluding with land grabbers to steal mosque property; and to challenge them for the leadership of the mosque. Iman Ali quickly gained notoriety in Pumwani, and in January 2007, he led a mob of angry youth who interrupted a mosque committee session, removing the committee from office, and installing themselves as the new committee.
Iman Ali became the Riyadha mosque’s new secretary. In 2008, he registered the ‘Pumwani Muslim Youth’ as the Muslim Youth Centre, by which time he had brought all property belonging to the mosque under the firm control of Pumwani’s youth.
It was Iman Ali’s generosity that endeared him to Pumwani’s Muslims: he lived in an austerely furnished rented apartment with his wife and two children, and was penniless most of the time because he was giving away most of his money; to pay school fees for needy pupils; to pay bail for arrested Pumwani youth; to support local football tournaments; to settle hospital bills and the funeral expenses of poor Muslims. His control of the relatively wealthier Pumwani Riyadha Mmosque, and his leadership of the Muslim Youth Centre that was based at the mosque, attracted the admiration of people like Aboud Rogo of Mombasa. In fact, Iman Ali may have met Rogo during his sojourn at the Mahad school in Kisauni. At the time, Rogo was already known for his involvement with Muslim activism, and had already acquired acquaintance with the leader of Al-Qaeda’s East African cell, Fazul Mohamed, a Comorian national who spoke fluent Swahili.
After 2007, Rogo and Iman Ali, including a group of other preachers who shared similar ideologies concerning the place of Islam in Kenya and beyond, shared podiums at the Pumwani Riyadha mosque, including in other mosques located in the poor neighbourhoods of Kenya’s urban centres—in Nairobi, Nyeri and on the Coast—constituting these podiums as alternative platforms for political debate and mobilization. These preachers formed a distinct network, berating other Muslim clergy, claiming that they hadhave succumbed to the modernizing forces of the West and sold Islam cheaply there.
Kenyan youth who harboured grievances of marginalization attended their sessions in large numbers, and the preachers explained to them that they were the products of a global exclusion of Muslim rights. It was this open vilification of other Muslims, and the identification with the goals of international Islamist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab that turned a large section of Pumwani’s community against Iman Ali’s activism much later. By 2009, mothers were lamenting that their children had been sent by Iman Ali to join Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Iman denied the allegations, but the increased attention by the police that was given to his Muslim Youth Centre concerned him, and he was hoping that Rogo and others would come up with a solution.
Speaking after Rogo—at the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque meeting—is Abubakar Sharif, commonly known as Makaburi. He is an ideologue, activist and operative, and is well adept at performing multiple roles, constantly bridging the gulf between genuine social protest and extremist violence.
In more ways than one, Makaburi seems to have tighter links with militant Jihadists in Somalia and beyond than Rogo, always bringing up the fact that he once served in the Omani military during his many interviews with foreign journalists.
Slightly tilting the subject of the on-going discussion, from encouragements to join Al-Shabaab in Somalia, to what needs to be done to keep Kenyan authorities at bay, Makaburi says, ‘hili jina la Muslim Youth Centre hivi sasa lishaharabika.’ The name, Muslim Youth Centre, has now been muddled.
‘Tumeskia limeingizwa kwa ripoti ya Umoja wa Mataifa, kwamba nyinyi ni Al-Shabaab.’ We have heard that the name has been included in a report by the United Nations, that you are Al-Shabaab.
‘Najua kuna wengine hapa hawataki mambo ya Al-Shabaab, lakini bado ni wanachama wa Muslim Youth Centre.’ I know that there are some people here with us who do not want to associate with Al-Shabaab, but they want to continue being members of the Muslim Youth Centre.
‘Ina maana kwamba tunaweza tukawapa jina lao wale wanaotaka kwenda Somalia, alafu tuwaaachie wale wengine hili jina la Muslim Youth Centre.’ This means that we can give another name for the group that wants to travel to Somalia and join Al-Shabaab.
The meeting’s participants remain silent, waiting in anticipation, then Makaburi breaks the silence, ‘nafkiri hawa wakutaka kwenda Somalia tungewaita Al-Hijra.’ I think we should name the group that wants to travel to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab Al-Hijra.
A man in the audience shouts, ‘Takbir!’ And almost all respond, ‘Allahu Akbar!’
It is late morning, 28 November, 2002.
Fumo Mohamed and Haruni Bamusa, Kenyan-Arabs with indentations on their foreheads, an indelible mark of piousness, are driving in the sweltering heat of the Kenyan coast and arrive at Paradise Hotel. After a brief chat with the hotel’s security guard, Fumo detonates a suicide vest strapped around his chest and blows himself up at the reception. While this is happening, Haruni speeds the brown Pajero further into the hotel, where it explodes. Their bodies are burnt beyond recognition. The explosions kill fifteen people, most of them the hotel’s workers. Al-Qaeda in East Africa claims responsibility.
A few months later, the newfangled Anti-Terrorist Police Unit is ready to make its first arrests. A younger Aboud Rogo and his father-in-law are the first to be arrested and arraigned in court. They live in Kikambala—a few meters from the luscious Paradise Hotel—which is a typical poor Kenyan village, ignored by government service and left to its own devices. Their neighbours, Kubwa Mohamed, the village headman, and his son, Kubwa Seif, are also arrested. They are all charged for planning the attack.
Kubwa’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Amina, is briefly married to Abdulkarim Hussein, a Yemeni national. Abdulkarim has lived undetected in Kenya since 1998, when a bomb exploded at the U.S embassy in Nairobi. The explosion killed more than two hundred people. It was the first suicide attack on the African continent.
Abdulkarim and his associates are all alumni of the Afghanistan war, having fought on the side of Al-Qaeda in the 1980s. They are led by Fazul Mohamed from the Comoros Islands. After he arrived in Kenya in the early 1990s, Fazul married Rogo’s relative in Siyu, another poor village in Lamu.
The trial proceeds, the cast of the accused changes, and Fazul and his team, the real perpetrators, shift base to Somalia, where Al-Shabaab will soon be formed. Two years later, Rogo and others are declared innocent. The judge states that the evidence fails to link the accused to Fumo and Bamusa, the suicide bombers. The judgment leaves a lasting legacy on the operations of the Anti-Terrorist Police Unit, but also on a younger Rogo.
After the trial, Rogo’s image as a defender of Muslim rights received a major boost. His personal struggle for respect and social status had been long. Born out of wedlock, Rogo began challenging the position of Ma’Sharifu (Sharifian saints) in Lamu from an early age. The Lamu archipelago, where Rogo was born, remains the undisputed capital of the Ma’Sharifu of East Africa. The Ma’Sharifu claim descent with the Prophet Muhammad, and originate from Hadhramaut—which literally means, the Court of Death—a semi-desert region in central modern-day Yemen. Many of their ancestors migrated to Lamu in the 1800s, and set up a local system of madrassas and mosques, lending East African Islam its distinctively Shafi intellectual outlook. Today, their status is confirmed by a series of rituals referred to as Sufi: the celebration of maulid, the prophet’s birthday, spiritual mediation, the performance of dhikri, a congregational salutation at the end of prayer.
By the time the British arrived in East Africa in the 1800s, it was the Ma’Sharifu who had provided Islamic religious leadership and instruction for decades in an almost uncontested manner. In the facefact of the threats posed to Islamic culture by British rule, there was a period of religious renewal, which involved an emphasis on the basic tenets of Islam and the figure of the prophet, so as to challenge the largely syncretic ‘Sufi’ practices, and the role of religious mediation that had been assumed by the Ma’Sharifu. Those who clamoured for such religious renewal were referred to as Salafists.
The term Salafi refers to a group of Muslims who subscribe to the purest form of Islam, supposedly passed down by the companions (Salafs) of Prophet Muhhamad. According to the Salafists, the companions were able to learn Islam directly from the Prophet, thereby commanding the correct understanding of the religion.
Subsequent generations of Muslims have been accused by the Salafists of religious innovation after the demise of the first Muslim community, leading to the emergence of reformist movements demanding for the purification of the faith in accordance to the strict observance of the Quran, the Sunna (the traditions of the prophet) and the consensus of the companions.
Sometimes, Salafists are also called Wahhabists, in reference of Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth-century Saudi-Arabian Islamic reformer, and who, together with the Saud Family, established the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia out of the tribes of the Arabian desert.
Mombasa, a respected centre of Islamic study in East Africa, established itself as the base of Islamic reform from as early as the 1920s. Muslim Arab men in the town engaged with global Islamic debates—sparked by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924—as a way of talking about the reform of Islamic practice, but also to wind these ideas about religious reform (or debates about proper religious practice) together with wider political agendas. One agenda was Pan-Arabism, a geopolitical discourse that emerged as a response to the European colonisation over an entire maritime space—the Western Indian Ocean—that had symbolized the union of Islamic belief and politics for more than a thousand years.
The local manifestation of this agenda came through a failed attempt by a number of Arab-led political organisations along the Kenyan coast that demanded for a separation of a ten-mile strip of coastal territory from mainland, Christian Kenya in the 1950s and early 1960s—in the event Kenya gained independence from the British. The strip—running from Vanga on the Kenya-Tanzania border in the south, to Lamu in the north—had not been colonised, but was simply administered as a Protectorate, as it was regarded, through a treaty between the British and the Omani Sultan of Zanzibar, as part of the Sultan’s dominions on the coast of East Africa.
Rogo, born in Lamu in 1968, and not part of the local hegemony of the Ma’Sharifu, moved to Mombasa in the late 1980s, where a dense trans-local network of Islamic reformist charities, study groups and youth associations were emerging; many of them established by a generation of Muslim clerics and teachers that had graduated from leading centres of Islamic study: Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Opportunities for study in such centres was offered through scholarships from Saudi-Arabia which, buoyed by petro-dollars, was promoting its own brand of Islam called Wahhabism, so as to compete with Iran.
As a result of these developments, Islamic debates about proper religious practice, and how to live an accepted social life as a Muslim, became much more public and fierce during the late 1980s all over the Muslim world. In addition, amongst many advocates of Islamic reform (or those who demanded a purge of Sufism from local Islamic traditions), it was felt that calls for religious reform would be insufficient to improve the Muslim condition of exclusion in Kenya. In turn, many began to talk about the importance of political involvement.
When the Kenyan government tried to tame the influence of foreigners in these Islamic debates by deporting a group of Tanzanian reformist preachers, Aboud Rogo was deeply affected. In Mtongwe, South of Mombasa, where he had set-up a small retail shop, he was enamoured with the speeches and sermons of a local Wahhabi-inspired preacher known as Sheikh Abdulaziz Rimo. It was in 1972 when Rimo, then thirty years old, obtained an eight-year long scholarship from the Saudi Arabian embassy to study at the Islamic University of Medina. On his return to Kenya, Rimo embarked on da’wah (Islamic propagation) activities, which he referred to as Jihad, amongst his local Digo Muslim community of the South-coast of Kenya.
According to Rimo’s brother, Athman Rimo, Sheikh Rimo was probably the first Kenyan Aboud Rogo had heard articulating a vision for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate, as a cure all solution to what some Muslims regard as improper Islamic behaviour, and the commonly-felt Muslim global sense of powerlessness. Not entirely convinced at the time, Rogo moved to Kisauni, north of Mombasa, and began preaching at a local mosque. Eventually, he would join the Islamic Party of Kenya, the IPK, that was formed and denied registration in 1992, the year Kenya held its first multi-party elections since it gained independence in 1963. Rogo had plans to vie for a ward seat representing Bondeni, part of Mombasa’s ancient old town, using an IPK ticket. But his hopes were dashed, when the government refused to register his favoured party.
The government’s refusal to register the IPK—because of its religious labelling—caught the attention of a street preacher outside the Konza mosque of Mombasa. The name of the preacher was Khalid Balala. Like Rimo, Balala had also spent time at the Islamic University of Medina. In Mombasa, he had been condemning Sufism, and what he saw as the blind following of Ma’Sharifu. However, Balala’s speeches became increasingly political as the debate over the registration of the proposed IPK raged. In defending the IPK’s application for registration, Balala argued that Islam does not separate religion from politics, and that politics is a central part of Islam. Balala quickly rose to become the de facto leader of the unregistered party, overshadowing its nominal officials, and drawing large crowds in demonstrations against the regime of former President Daniel Moi.
In a community that was hungry for leadership, Balala’s confrontations with the police and other Mombasa politicians, including his frequent arrests, drew the support of people like Rogo. But Balala’s popularity also alienated him from some of the party’s leaders. As a result, he was expelled from the party, but the media would continue to refer to him as the Islamic party’s leader. Street battles in Mombasa pitting IPK activists and the police became common. In the midst of the chaos, Rogo was appointed as part of a committee that was tasked to find new IPK party officials. Balala got holed up in Germany, after the Kenyan government, without warning, withdrew his passport. By 1997, it had become clear that the IPK would never be granted formal recognition. A generation of young Kenyan Muslims, including Rogo, were left in suspended animation, without a formal platform to air their grievances. Ten years later and further North, a new breed of militants appeared on the streets of Mogadishu. They called themselves the Harakat, Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen, or simply Al-Shabaab.
Part two of Ngala Chome’s Gaidi Mtaani appears on the drr issue of Asphyxia. Order your copy here.
Ngala Chome is one of the founders of Sahifa, a platform for research, literature, art and journalism. The research for this story took place in 2014-2018. The author thanks filed informants for sharing valuable information regarding Kenya’s Al-Shabaab network. The author bears full responsibility for the final narrative.
Photo courtesy of Joel Lukhovi.