Nairobi's solution to terrorism: blame the Somalis

Last week’s crackdown on Somali refugees reads like a show of force by a government that desperately wants to hide the cracks in its counter-terrorism efforts.

Flavie Halais
17 April 2014

Perhaps due to the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide last week, the Nairobi police’s substantial crackdown on Muslims and illegal immigrants failed to hit international headlines. Over 4,000 people were arrested in just a few days, in response to  yet another grenade attack killing six in the infamous Eastleigh neighbourhood on March 30th. Although most were released shortly, an unknown number of detainees who have failed to present proper ID remain held at the nearby Kasarani stadium in substandard conditions, and police sweeps have since expanded to other neighbourhoods. Human rights and humanitarian organizations were initially denied the right to visit the stadium, despite children being among the arrested; they were finally allowed in at the end of the week. At least one woman gave birth while in detention.

Eastleigh, a largely Muslim neighbourhood near downtown Nairobi, nicknamed “Little Mogadishu” for its large population of ethnic Somalis, is a frequent theatre for both terror attacks – the previous one, a bomb blast in a local bus, claimed four lives last December – and police harassment. Arbitrary arrests and physical abuse are known to routinely target Somalis, many of which are refugees who escaped the squalid, overcrowded camps of Dadaab and Kakuma in the country’s north (Kenya hosts 610,000 documented and 500,000 undocumented refugees from Somalia).

The current crackdown is no exception to this routine abuse. Although Kenyans from other ethnicities and other foreign nationals have been arrested, ethnic Somalis are clearly the main targets. To be sure, the arrests come as Kenya’s Interior Minister Joseph Ole Leku’s announced that all Somali refugees living in Kenya’s urban areas should head back to the camps, citing “emergency security challenges” after the March 30th blast and another attack that killed six near the coastal town of Mombasa on march 23rd.

For the refugees, this is simply history on repeat. In late 2012, a bomb blast in Eastleigh had already led Kenya’s government to order them back to the camps, a decision that was later quashed by the country’s High Court. During the following 10 weeks, at least 1000 refugees were arbitrarily detained and some raped, beaten or tortured. “The current crackdown is not only in breach of the High Court judgement, but has also been implemented unlawfully,” reads a release from Amnesty International from April 11th.

The recent wave of arrests demonstrates the intensification of the repression since Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for last September’s attack on the Westgate shopping mall, which killed at least 67. The attack gave Kenya’s government the validation sought to hold Somali terrorists responsible for the sad state of Kenya’s interior security, while allowing president Uhuru Kenyatta to conveniently divert public attention away from his trial in front of the International Criminal Court and from a yet-to-be-formed commission of inquiry into the Westgate debacle that would likely put part of the blame on Kenya’s military and its intelligence services.

In recent months, Kenya’s government has readily associated Somali refugees with terrorists, claiming some of them have ties to al-Shabab or its local affiliate al-Hijra. This connection was once again invoked last autumn as the government announced a three-year plan to repatriate refugees to Somalia. Although the return of refugees is supposed to be voluntary and focusing on Somalia’s most stable areas, a recent investigation led by Amnesty International revealed that a large portion of returnees[F1]  felt compelled to leave because of intimidation and worsening conditions in the camps (last November, the World Food Programmme was notably forced to reduce its food rations in Dadaab and Kakuma by half due to a shortage of funds).

The Kenyan government has never concealed its wish that all refugees eventually return home. “All the camps should be closed and the debate on whether or not it is appropriate has been passed by time,” said interior minister Joseph Lenku last November, in direct opposition to conditions of the tripartite agreement signed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Somalia’s government. Meanwhile, Kenyan authorities have mostly ceased to register new refugees coming into the country, thereby forcing them to remain in a legal void and face arrest and deportation. Already, 82 of those arrested last week have been flown back to Mogadishu, with more deportations to be expected.

Connections between al-Shabab and Somali refugees have yet to be proven. The biggest threats to national security, security experts say, are instead to be found in the porous border between Kenya and Somalia, failed counterterrorism and intelligence efforts, corruption of immigration officials, and the radicalization of some of the local Muslim youth. This latest point seems largely ignored by Kenyan authorities, who consistently undermine the effects that poverty, lack of education, and unemployment have had on local youth, regardless of their ethnic background. For ethnic Somalis, police harassment and historical marginalization only adds to the long list of factors that might lead them into radicalism.

Framing Somali refugees as terror suspects has inevitably led to racial profiling against all Somalis – with local media generously participating – many of whom, hailing from Kenya’s North Eastern province or having immigrated to the country years ago, hold Kenyan citizenship. Kenya’s authorities have similarly failed to underline the economic role played by ethnic Somalis, notably in Eastleigh, now a thriving business hub in spite of years of neglect by the city government.

The current plight of ethnic Somalis in Kenya should be framed within a decades-long national counter-terrorism effort that has targeted the country’s Muslim population, notably the coastal Swahili people, who have historically been marginalized for religious, ethnic and political reasons. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the Kenyan government – heavily influenced by the U.S., which considered Kenya to be a “breeding ground” for terrorism – sought to prove that Muslims from the coast and in Nairobi were involved in terrorist attacks, without success. The investigation into the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, for instance, was initially directed at Muslims from Mombasa, before revealing that most participants in the bomb plot were foreigners.

Since the early 2000s, Kenya’s various security agencies have received considerable financial support, assistance and training from the U.S. “American aid has allowed Kenyan authorities to expand their security infrastructure significantly; however this infrastructure has yet been seen to affect authorities’ ability to identify terrorists, foil terrorist plots, and bring criminals to justice,” wrote Jeremy Prestholdt, from the University of California, San Diego. Indeed, Kenya’s security agencies have often been accused of infringing on human rights. The Kenya Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU), for instance, has been accused of torture, unlawful killings and disappearances, and renditions of detainees to countries where they faced a risk of torture.

Pressure from the U.S. to intensify counter-terrorism efforts and concentrate on the supposed threat posed by the local Muslim population has undoubtedly reinforced pre-existing ethnic and religious tensions in the country. Similarly, good relationships between Kenya and the U.S. have likely pushed Kenya to take part in peacekeeping operations in Somalia, starting in 2011, first as part of a coordinated military operation with the Somali army, then within AMISOM (Africa Union Mission in Somalia).

Kenya’s government has vowed to pursue its military operations in Somalia in spite of the increased terrorist threat – the attack on the Westgate shopping mall was conducted by al-Shabab in direct retaliation for Kenya’s presence in Somalia – without having addressed the factors that are likely to facilitate the entrance of terrorists on the territory. It is still likely easy to procure a fake ID through the government’s corrupt immigration services, for instance. In that regard, the crackdown on Nairobi’s ethnic Somalis and its Muslim population at large will likely only serve to increase racial profiling and religious tension, without preventing the next attack.



 [F1]Figures of returnees vary according to sources. It’s unclear how many have returned so far.

For more on the series go to the Cities in Conflict main page.

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