"Ambiguous Citizens"

The global discussion about xenophobia hits home


Police checkpoint in Eastleigh. Photo by Amnesty International

By Mariga Thoithi


To be a Kenyan Somali is to be a stranger in your own home; it’s a precarious existence that hinges on the benevolence of the State; it’s a life subject to exclusion through Kenya’s citizenship laws; it’s an unfortunate intersection of birthplace and negotiable humanity based on the happenstance that is your origin.


Back in 2014, the Kenyan Government initiated what they dubbed as operation “Usalama Watch”, which roughly translates to “security or peace watch.” The police campaign was in response to several small-scale terrorist attacks that had happened in the previous few months killing 12 people and injuring dozens more. It was through this operation that they arrested over 4,000 Kenyan Somalis. The operation was carried out through a raid in Eastleigh’s ‘Little Mogadishu’ neighbourhood and involved the arbitrarily arrest of people off the street.


Thousands were detained in secrecy at Kasarani Stadium in what could rightly be described as a concentration camp.


During the operation, John Akiya, a Kenyan married to a Somali refugee, who is legally in the country and documented, experienced this harsh discrimination through his family’s ordeal. His harrowing narration to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights explained how the police dragged his wife and his three-month old child to jail from their home during nighttime house to house raids. Despite his wife possessing all the necessary documentation, the cops moved her and the infant from police station to police station. Akiya had to beg and plead with the police for days to let him seek treatment for his baby who had developed malaria, typhoid and pneumonia from the move through police stations. His wife was also forcefully transferred to Daadab refugee camp (almost 500Km away.) The baby recovered after three weeks of hospitalisation, but John lost his job because of all the time off work between hospital visits and trying to get his wife out of a spiraling tumult of apparent police harassment.


The government denied the detainees access to their families or legal representation and by the time the world could access them, the government had summarily deported over 100 people who it claimed were undocumented. The operation was a brutal, violent crackdown that was later condemned by international human rights organizations. But it only got worse for Somalis living in Eastleigh after the Westgate Attack.


The Kenyan Armed Forces including the Regular Police, Administration Police and General Service Unit have a record of human rights abuses over decades and Usalama Watch wasn’t any different. Human Rights Watch, through a report on the police action, described how Kenyan police arbitrarily detained, arrested, tortured and raped over 1,000 Kenyan Somalis.


This wasn’t the first or last time that the State acted with such hostility towards Kenya Somalis, but it was the first time in a long time in the 21st century that the discrimination and violence that Kenyan Somalis had complained about for decades, was finally brought to light for the world to see. It was national shame on an international stage.


The worst part wasn’t even that the state was meting out violence against Kenyan Somalis; it was that this was done with the support of the general Kenyan public who have fallen for the unfortunate stereotypes that casts all Somalis as terrorists.

Orwa Ojode, the then Assistant Minister of Internal Security was on record saying that “the presence of refugees has also resulted in insecurity. Manifested by increased banditry, ease of availability of illegal firearms and light weapons fuelling local conflicts.” He was also on record saying that the “tail of Al-Shabaab may be in Mogadishu, but the head is very much in Nairobi's Eastleigh.” Kenyan Somalis were not only made out to be refugees, but also as a body of people that represented an inherent security risk to Kenya. As the press reported this story, many Kenyans ignored Kenya bombs falling on innocent civilians in Somalia over the same period. How, then, can we not expect the cycle of reprisals and terror to continue as it has over these years.


An analysis of the politics of North Eastern Province by Mwanaume, through a four part-series, starts to explain the general treatment of Kenyan Somalis through the analysis of the history of Northern Kenya.


“In spite of a report prepared by a commission in 1962 showing that 88% of the inhabitants of the Northern Frontier District wanted to be part of the Somali Republic, Britain went against the people’s wishes. On March 8th 1963, the North Eastern Region was carved out of the Northern Frontier District and given to Kenya and the Somali Republic as a response severed diplomatic relations with Britain.


The Kenyan government was not willing to give up the region and this led to immediate protests in the region and a declaration of a state of emergency. There was dissent over the next few years with both political dissent through the Northern Province People's Progressive Party (NPPPP) and violent dissent whose members were later labeled the “Shifta”


The government set up repressive measures aimed at curbing it including curfews and military intervention over the years which led to scores of massacres and human rights violations over decades.


The government wanted to keep the region by force but at an arm’s length without developing it or treating residents like citizens. Kenyans of Somali origin were Kenyan by legally enforced boundaries but not Kenyan enough to be treated like human beings.”


The Kenya government then subsequently initiated discriminatory measures in 1963 right after independence, which have, to date, included a tedious fight for recognition of citizenship for Kenyans of Somali origin. While other Kenyans get their identification cards within a month of application, for many Kenyan Somalis it can take over a year, during which they not only have to prove their own citizenship but the citizenship of their entire family members sating three generations back. According to a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation report, Kenya Somalis also subject to citizenship interviews. The interviews began during the Somali Screening of 1989, where the panels assembled for the interviews asked questions as ridiculous as identifying specific trees in the areas from which they came. The screening affected Kenyan Somalis all over Kenya in the very familiar name of “national security”, and even though it was clearly unconstitutional and illegal, the precedence was already set.


Mariam Bishar, a Kenyan of Somali origin best expounds on the “secondary citizenship status” she has in her Popula article. She explains that over and beyond the requirements needed for other Kenyans to get an Identification Card, she had to go through extra hoops of vetting. She needed to additionally bring her complete school records from primary school including all her transcripts, letters of admission and leaving certificates. She also had to show proof of her parents employment history including their letters of appointment and termination. She also had to present her immunization cards, notwithstanding the fact that immunization happens during childhood and the last time she was immunized was when she was six—saved only by her mother’s meticulous organisational and record keeping skills. It then took another three months of weekly visits and interrogations over details, including clan and sub-clan origin details despite being been born and raised in the city. She finally got her citizenship, but the feeling came back when her younger brother needed to get his because the state views young Somali men as potential terrorists. Against the standard wait time of two weeks, her brother took six months and this was admittedly quicker than most young men his age who go well into their mid 20s without identification.


In Martiam’s words, “As I went through the process of getting a national ID and then witnessed my brother go through an even more difficult process, I understood how the term Walalo describes a relationship between Somalis and the Kenyan state. It is not simply a descriptive nickname—it names, instead, a series of obstacles. In fact, it names Somalis as obstacles to Kenya’s idea of itself. I lost all sense of the term as benign.”


The eventual historical effect over time is that Kenyan Somalis live in another Kenya that most of us have never experienced—Kenya B; the Kenya where their day to day existences are peppered by jokes about Al Shabaab. They live in the fear of terror attacks from Kenyan police when terrorist attacks happens even when they are victims of the same terror groups. For months and even years afterwards they will face violence by police and suspicion by the general public. They exist in Kenya where people look at them strangely when sitting next to them on public transportation and it’s become a countrywide debate over the “growing number of Somalis in Kenya”— a country where any business successes they make are attributed to piracy money and money laundering; in a country where they’ve been forced to live among each other not only for security and community, but also because they face open discrimination when looking for housing. A country where they struggle to get identification documents, which should in theory prove citizenship but in practise be up for interpretation based on the government in office and the political leanings of the State.


Abdiwahad Mohamed, a matatu operator speaking about the Westgate terrorist attack, who is a resident of Easleight (which is a primarily Kenyan Somali neighbourhood) explained how residents didn’t leave their houses for a week after the attack. They experienced indiscriminate police round ups before that and knew that it would be dangerous from them in that heightened sense of fear and caution because at that point, there would be public support for it. They were scared of violence from the police during arrest or from other Kenyans who were angry about the attack.


Tabea Scharrer, in her paper ‘Ambiguous citizens’ avers that “In the multi-ethnic state of Kenya, there are other groups as well who are “ambiguous citizens” – including Asians, Whites, Nubians and Arabs – for whom two main dimensions along which “Kenyanness” is constructed come into the foreground: a racial dimension and a cultural dimension. Kenyan Somalis seem to be ambiguous in both of them.”

At a point in the continent where attention has been drawn towards South Africa and the xenophobic attacks against African immigrants, it’s important to look at our own local contexts too and challenge how we contribute towards the oppression and ‘othering’ of fellow Africans. We must ask ourselves what it really means to be Kenyan enough.

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