BALBINA, a woman from Mombasa, Kenya’s main coastal city, remembers fetching her neighbour Abdullah’s body from a police station. “It wasn’t so terrible,” says Balbina (not her real name). Surprisingly, “there was not even any blood.” The wound was hidden at the back of his head; his face was serene. He was killed by police, in what they claimed (but she does not believe) was a shoot-out. “Abdullah did wrong. He went to Somalia, maybe he killed innocent people.” But he deserved justice, she says, not to be shot in the back of the head without a trial.
Such stories are easy to find on the Kenyan coast, where young men are often recruited to fight for al-Shabab (“the Youth”), a Somali jihadist group. Some go to fight in Somalia; some carry out terrorist attacks at home. In recent years the government has cracked down on anyone it suspects might have joined al-Shabab. In December Haki Africa, a human-rights group, published the names of 81 people, almost all young Muslim men, who it says were killed or “disappeared” by police since 2012. The real number is probably much higher, says Francis Auma, the group’s co-ordinator, since many cases go unreported or leave few clues implicating the state.
The coast of Kenya has long felt different from the rest of the country. Under British rule a ten-mile littoral strip was nominally part of a protectorate administered by the Sultan of Zanzibar, rather than part of the colony of Kenya. Unlike the rest of the mostly Christian country, the coast is largely Muslim, with a large ethnic Somali population to the north. And since independence from Britain in 1963, it has had a rebellious streak, built on anger about the unequal distribution of land and jobs, perceived persecution of Muslims, and dislike of rule by elites from Nairobi, the capital.