23 June 2014

Kenya's Somalis - Caught Between Power and Profiling

Photo: Julius Kithuure/ Sabahi Online
Kenya Police man a check point at Kasarani stadium where thousands are being held in the Eastleigh terror crackdown in Nairobi (file photo).


The ongoing Kenyan government security sweep against Somalis has generated reactions both serious and comical. In May, the visiting Chinese Prime Minister, Le Keqiang, vowed to help Kenya in its efforts to repatriate illegal Somalis back to their country.

Beijing's offer was an attempt to curry favor with the Kenyan government, with which it then signed a trade agreement worth several billion dollars. The premier reiterated what his hosts wanted to hear: illegal Somalis and those suspected of having ties with Al-Shabaab must be deported from Kenya.

Even more absurd was the statement by Somalia's State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Buri Hamza, in its dangling of the khat card (a mild stimulant plant known in Kenya as miraa).

In an interview with the Standard on June 1st, Hamza alluded to the possibility of a trade war between Mogadishu and Nairobi. "If we stop importing miraa," the minister stated, "so much the better." Many in Somalia are addicted to khat, and it would be a herculean task - not to mention political suicide for the Mogadishu regime - to ban its importation from Kenya.

On a more serious note, the security sweep exposed fissures in Kenyan society and added controversy to the ongoing debate about the role and position of Kenyan Somalis in the country.

The Somali factor in Kenyan politics is paradoxical. On the one hand, Somali Kenyans have been gaining increasing power in politics and business, but they have also become victims of periodic profiling and mistrust.

In the 1960s, Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, became increasingly frustrated with the persistence of the Shifta fighters in the predominantly Somali-inhabited region of the Northern Frontier District - now the North Eastern Province - who were agitating to secede from Kenya and join their brethren in Somalia.

Kenyatta saw no difference between the Shifta and ordinary Kenyan Somalis - he was known to repeat the aphorism: "mtoto wa nyoka ni nyoka" (a child of a snake is still a snake). Kenyatta came up with his own solution to the problem when he told them plainly: "Pack up and go, but leave us the land." The Somalis understandably shunned this directive and stayed.

Five decades later, Kenyatta's son, President Uhuru Kenyatta, has cast a dragnet aimed at Somalis which directly and indirectly affects not only the country's large contingency of refugees and immigrants but also Kenyan Somalis.

Kenyan Somalis inhabit a vast north eastern territory which is one of the poorest and least-developed regions in Kenya and are also concentrated in the Eastleigh district of Nairobi.

The Somali Kenyan population has grown from several hundred thousand in the 1960s to approximately 2.3 million now, but still represents a minority among the country's 43 million people.

In 1989, two years before the onslaught of Somali refugees in Kenya, the Kenyan government singled out Somali Kenyans to carry a pink ID card in addition to the identity document issued to all Kenyan citizens.

This pink card, which highlighted the government's discriminatory stance toward Somalis, was declared unconstitutional in 2003, but, even so, Somalis still remain the target of harassment and extortion. In Eastleigh, police officers, whether assigned there or not, routinely make money by stopping and harassing Somalis, legal or illegal. Somalis in Nairobi call themselves "Human ATMs."

The label gained credibility when a large number of Somalis, briefly detained in the security sweep, secured their release by bribing police officers. Oddly, some elected Somali officials in the Kenyan parliament were themselves stopped and briefly detained, even though they had shown the police their Kenyan and parliamentary IDs.

Ali Abdi Bule, a Tana River senator, was stopped and detained for half an hour because police officers said his papers were false. The police then released him. In another incident, Senator Billow Kerrow's house was searched in clear contravention of his parliamentary immunity.

On the flip-side, Somali Kenyans are experiencing a golden age in terms of their high representation in the corridors of political power. They have solid representation in Uhuru's Jubilee Coalition Government, with three cabinet portfolios - foreign affairs, industrialization, sports/culture and arts--which are headed by Somalis.

A Somali is serving as the chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and two are sitting judges in the country's highest courts: One in the Supreme Court and the other in the Appeals Court. President Uhuru's legal advisor is also Somali.

In the past, ethnic Somalis have held important positions, including Minister of Defense, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, National Chief of Police and Head of the Election Commission.

The number of Somali parliamentarians on the legislative branch has increased from 13 a year ago to 32 today. Aden Bare Duale, a politician known for his bombastic rhetoric, holds the post of the National Assembly majority leader. He told a Somali audience in Eastleigh in April that elected Somali officials were, for all practical purposes, in control of the government. "We know how to unlock this government," he boasted.

In business, Eastleigh has become a residential haven and a booming business hub for Somalis. The district is the umbilical cord and the economic center of the Somali community and Duale asserts that Somalis manage most of the real estate developments in the country and 80 percent of the fuel trade; they own 80% of all of Kenya's imported goods, and one of every five cars. Many Somalis from the diaspora have also invested heavily in Kenya, particularly in real estate.

Is the increasing prominence of Somalis in politics and business the reason law enforcement is profiling and targeting them? Somali politicians and opposition figures have argued that the security campaign is an attempt to disenfranchise Somalis as a group.

The Secretary General of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) opposition party, Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, suggested that the security crackdown was a case of ethnic profiling with the goal of wining back the trust of the West and flushing successful Somali businesses out of the country.

Somali Senator Billow Kerrow also questioned the real motive behind the government's campaign. Somalis, stated Kerrow, are known globally for their business acumen, and the current security dragnet is "an economic war and not a fight against terror."

After almost three months of the campaign, the government has yet to arrest any suspected terrorist or dismantle a cell. In addition, Uhuru's government has been dragging its feet to appoint an independent commission to investigate the Westgate Mall terrorist bombing.

While human rights organizations have condemned the campaign, the dragnet has also shown the political divide among Somali leaders in Kenya and their ambivalent approach to security issues bedeviling the country. While all these leaders condemn terrorists, some have issued statements that further aggravated the situation and made some Kenyans question how committed Somali leaders are in the fight against terrorism.

In a televised speech, Duale told an audience in Eastleigh that those responsible for the bombings in that district should bomb elsewhere. Then, he oddly mentioned Machakos, a town and major urban center 64 kilometers southeast of Nairobi, as an alternative target. "Had the bombers targeted Machakos," Duale added, "Eastleigh would not have been harassed." Duale later denied making the statement.

The former deputy speaker of the Kenyan Parliament, Farah Moalim, has alleged in the media that the government, not Al-Shabaab, is behind the bombings in Kenya. Moalim subscribes to the conspiracy theory that the United States Government actually finances Al-Shabaab.

But not all Somali politicians in Kenya have spoken against the security sweep. For instance, the Somali cabinet ministers in the government and the former Minister of Defense, Senator Yusuf Haji, have yet to issue a statement about the crackdown.

Somali Kenyans exist in a precarious position. As a group they are prominently represented in politics and business, but they have also become a football, frequently kicked by the country's president, his deputy, and the security establishment. Some Kenyans still view Somalis as aliens who are business rivals and a security liability.

The dragnet is creating a climate of fear in the Somali community but we do not know yet whether this is a long-term trend or a consequence of the enduring success of Al Shabaab in Somalia and increasingly Kenya.

Hassan M. Abukar is a political analyst and can be reached at abukar60@yahoo.com.

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