As Kenya prepares to host the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Cross-Country Championships on March 24, the country’s Muslim community has planned a series of protests timed to coincide with the championship games in Mombasa. The protests have developed out of a series of measures taken by the Kenyan government that have incensed the country’s Muslim population.
The anger originates out of the possibility of the government hosting AFRICOM, the proposed U.S. military command center that is intended to consolidate Washington’s military activities in Africa. Since the announcement of the project, Muslims in Kenya have intensified their protests against what they are calling religious harassment in the guise of the “war on terrorism.” Kenya’s Muslims fear that with the establishment of the command center in Kenya, they will become targets, basing their argument on the recent and frequents arrests made in Kenya in connection to the crisis in Somalia. Kenya’s Muslims allege that the United States is pressuring Kenya to arrest Muslims believed to have any connection with the former Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia. They also allege that the arrests are being carried out under the instruction of the United States. A Muslim leader belonging to the Muslim Human Rights (MUHURI) organization said that they could not rule out that the AFRICOM base would be used to carry out strikes similar to the ones on Somalia last December.
On February 17, Kenyan Muslim leaders in the coastal city of Mombasa announced the start of the protests, during a well-attended demonstration. The peaceful, but angry demonstrators issued specific demands to Nairobi, a key one being the disbandment of the government-funded Anti-Terror Police Unit. The police unit was created in 2003 to monitor Kenya’s Islamic militants, to recover weapons and to establish links with outside security services (Terrorism Monitor, October 5, 2006). Other demonstrator demands included an end to indiscriminate arrests and incarcerations of Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism (East African Standard, February 18).
Sheikh Mohammed Dor, the general secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK), has been one of the most outspoken critics of Kenya’s treatment of its Muslim community. He has asked the government to pressure Somalia and Ethiopia to release all Muslims who were deported to Somalia from Kenya over their alleged connections to the ICU—the number of deported suspects is approximately 70 (Daily Nation, March 17). Muslim leaders argue that 25 of those deported are Kenyans who should be returned to the country.
The government’s failure to accede to these demands is what has led Kenyan Muslim organizations to plan for protests during the IAAF championship, with the aim of paralyzing Mombasa. They are appealing to all Muslims to converge in Mombasa for three days of demonstrations. They say that they will start demonstrating three days before the event opens and hold the biggest demonstration on the day of the event. The government is taking the threat seriously and in turn promised Muslim leaders that they would look into the matter. On March 8, Sports Minister Maina Kamanda called the leaders for talks, but since then Sheikh Dor and other Muslims leaders have remained non-committal, saying the disruption may or may not occur.
The IAAF championship is a large event and the hosting of it has been a source of pride for Kenya. At the moment, there is significant government pressure to save the cross-country championships from any threat. The leader of MUHURI, Alamini Kimathi, said one way of dealing with the issue is intervening for the release of Kenyans held in Somalia over terrorism charges (Daily Nation, March 9). On March 7, Sheikh Dor said in an interview with The Jamestown Foundation that Muslims will demonstrate peacefully until their brothers are returned to the country. Furthermore, the chairman of the National Muslims Leaders Forum, Abdullahi Adan, said that they will disrupt the cross-country championship if the 25 suspects are not returned to Kenya (Saturday Nation, March 17). This weekend could mark a showdown between Muslim protestors and the Kenyan government.