The post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-08 sent shockwaves across Africa, as people and parties alike pondered the fragility of their own countries if the comparatively highly stable Kenya could collapse following an exercise in democracy.  Now Kenya is facing very testing multifaceted challenges to national unity.

The deterioration in the value of the domestic currency, the Kenyan shilling, has inflated the cost of imported essential food staples, and facilitated the entry of cheap Chinese products while keeping highly desired imported high-tech gadgetry just beyond the reach of many of the growing Kenyan middle class.  The current International Criminal Court pre-trial hearings into charges of crimes against humanity in the 2007-08 violence, with defendants from both sides of politics, is set again to remind Kenyans of the fragility of their democracy.  This is especially so with the ICC’s decision as to whether the charges will proceed to full trial expected to be announced in the coming couple of months, ahead of new national elections scheduled for next year.

As if that isn’t enough, vast areas of the country are being ravaged by drought and famine, as well as being inundated with hundreds of thousands of Somalis crossing the border in search of food, or refuge from protracted violence, or both.  Currently, an estimated 4 million Kenyans are extremely vulnerable to malnutrition and starvation (including 400,000 children already malnourished), and the number of Somalis now in refugee camps inside Kenya is close to half a million (almost all of whom are in Dadaab camps that have a capacity for 90,000 people).  The government of Kenya has been trying to redirect its own scarce resources to those Somalis — albeit with much assistance from the international community — as it tries to balance the increasing needs of many vulnerable Kenyans with those of its displaced Somali populations in such areas as Dadaab.

It may be something of a small blessing that Kenyan politics — with a tenuous power-sharing arrangement between the two presidential aspirants in 2008 — is spared the worst of the current Australian opposition-style divide and attack opportunism in dealing with multiple humanitarian issues.  Political unity is critical at such times (across Africa, at least, even if unlikely at home).  But this could easily change closer to the 2012 electoral cycle, especially in the event that the ICC finds leaders of one or the other party more culpable for the 2007-08 violence.

Even so, the past week has seen new and much more serious layers of vulnerability emerge.

This has been the culmination of a steady stream of incidents affecting Kenya’s territorial integrity and national security.  First, a brief digression.  The focus of Kenya’s east coast near the Somali border is Lamu.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site deemed one of the most vulnerable and fragile in the world and the focus of regional plans for East Africa’s primary seaport, especially in catering to nearby landlocked countries including Uganda and South Sudan.  In the latter regard, Kenya is reliant on the Chinese, including for the proposed development of oil facilities for pipelines, refineries and supertanker access.  The main threats to such development are Somali political instability and Somali pirates.

Added to this in recent weeks has been a series of abductions in the area that generally includes Lamu and Dadaab, purportedly by the al-Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab (which has, significantly, denied responsibility).  A British tourist was abducted and her husband killed, followed by the abduction of an older and disabled French woman who died in captivity.  A week later, on October 13, two Spanish aid workers for Médecins Sans Frontières were abducted.  Three days later, Kenya announced that it was at war with Al Shabaab and promptly sent troops over the border into southern Somalia in pursuit, in an action called Operation Linda Nchi.

Last Tuesday (two days after that announcement), Al Shabaab announced that it would carry out actions inside Kenya in retaliation.  This past Saturday, the US Embassy in Nairobi issued a warning of “credible information” on “imminent terrorist attacks” on areas “frequented by foreigners”.  Less than two days later, in the early hours of Monday, a grenade lobbed into a Nairobi nightclub reportedly injured 14 people, all of whom were Kenyan nationals.  A second blast occurred Monday evening, less than 24 hours after the first attack, this time at a crowded Nairobi bus stop, with 13 people injured and one person killed.

Understandably, many of the details of current dialogue and operations remain unclear.  What actions attributed to Al Shabaab has it assumed responsibility for?  To what extent has Kenya liaised with parallel operations in Somalia?  Did Kenyan incursions into southern Somalia predate its announcement of October 16, and is this a genuine Kenyan initiative or is the US strongly in the background?  These and other questions are being raised in regional media reports.

The US Administration is reported to be providing intelligence support to Kenya in its operations against Al Shabaab.  There are some reports that US involvement may be broader or deeper, although Nairobi is keen to emphasise that its war is unilateral, albeit co-ordinated with the Somali Transitional Federal Government’s army.  Meanwhile, the Somali President has voiced his opposition to Kenya’s actions in sending the military into Somalia, claiming that the recent bilateral agreement was for Kenyan military training assistance, not a military incursion.  And Al Jazeera is citing Kenyan Police as saying that both Nairobi bomb blasts have characteristics that suggest they are domestic actions rather than Al Shabaab attacks (national rather than foreign targets, type of grenade used and similarity to an attack in Nairobi last December).

It is not clear to what extent Kenya has similarly liaised with AMISOM — the African Union Mission for Somalia.  AMISOM is a UN-backed and Uganda-led force that includes troops from one other African country: Burundi (contributions from several other countries are only token at best).  Recent reports from Kampala suggest little formal co-ordination from Kenya with that AU Mission.

AMISOM’s recent successes in driving back Al Shabaab within Somalia reportedly have at least as much to do with the impact of the drought as with military prowess.  This is mainly because Al Shabaab had derived strong rural Somali support by curtailing food importation and associated profiteering to the benefit of Somali farmers, but the drought has turned that situation around and weakened Al Shabaab influence.  However, a series of Al Shabaab successes against (especially Burundian) soldiers within AMISOM during 2011 is likely having a devastating cumulative impact (see here and here).

Quite apart from the implications of all these concurrent pressures on domestic Kenyan politics and development, is the issue of regional balances of power and influence within the Horn of Africa and the East African region.  Ethiopia’s traditional alliance with the US remains strong.  Uganda’s President Museveni is committed to securing his legacy, including via AMISOM’s actions within Somalia.  Kenya’s actions against Al Shabaab may carry (are carrying) domestic civilian — if not military — costs, but are likely seen as an opportunity to strengthen its own regional role and credibility and to perhaps balance its diplomatic links with the US and China.

It is still early days in this multidimensional regional power play.  For now, the civilian situation on the ground — whether on the streets of Nairobi, in the refugee camps of Dadaab, or the famine-afflicted areas of Lodwar — dwarf the wider geopolitical issues, at least from where I am sitting.