After a spate of grenade attacks in Nairobi, the coastal region and the Somali-inhabited North Eastern province, the Kenyan government has launched a massive crackdown on ethnic Somalis. More than 4,000 people, mostly Somali refugees, have been arrested since Kenya launched Operation Usalama Watch on April 2, ostensibly in response to the deteriorating domestic security situation.
The security sweep in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood, home to a substantial number of Somalis, has touched raw nerves, highlighting an already fraught relationship between Kenyan-Somalis and the state.
Kenyan-Somalis’ sore relations with the government of Kenya have a rich history. Carved out of Somalia by the British, the arid northern region was neglected by both colonial and post-colonial administrations. Born out of this history of marginalization, Kenyan-Somalis identify more with their ethnic group in Somalia than with the rest of Kenyans.
In a 1962 referendum, residents voted overwhelmingly to join Somalia. But Kenya refused to accept the results, hampering Mogadishu’s plans to form “Greater Somalia” by annexing all Somali-populated areas in the region, including Djibouti and Ethiopia’s Ogaden state.
When secession through referendum proved untenable, Kenyan-Somalis launched a separatist insurgency that lasted from 1963 to 1967. Kenya branded the revolt unlawful banditry — recasting legitimate local grievances as a treacherous gambit by Somalia to annex its North Eastern province. Despite brutally defeating the insurgency, however, the Kenyan government did little to reconcile its strained relations with Kenyan-Somalis. This deepened the community’s sense of marginalization.
Since the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991, Kenya has generously hosted more than half a million Somali refugees. However, in the last few years, the Kenyan government has singled out refugees as the source of the country’s insecurity. Kenya sent its troops into Somalia in October 2011, following a spike in cross-border attacks and kidnapping of aid workers. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali Islamist group Al-Shabab responded by announcing plans to take the battle to Kenyan streets. Security in mainland Kenya has since deteriorated, with more than 50 attacks involving grenades or improvised explosive devices. The Kenyan government believes some of these incidents, including the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall last September, which left 67 people dead and more than 100 wounded, were planned in the refugee camps.
Kenya faces indisputable security threats emanating from Somalia, especially from Al-Shabab. But rounding up all ethnic Somalis, including young children, is a flagrant case of racial profiling akin to collective punishment of the entire community for the crimes of a few.
Further, the detainees are being held longer than the 24 hours required by the law before arraignment. Last week, Human Rights Watch observed “hundreds of detainees packed into cells designed to accommodate 20 people” after visiting the Pangani police station in Eastleigh. “Detainees had no room to sit, and the cells were filthy with urine and excrement,” the group said in a statement.
In the post-9/11 era, where security serves as the overarching lens, states enjoy immunity from criticism domestically and abroad. This false dichotomy of “you are either with the state(s) fighting the terrorists or with the terrorists” underscores Kenya’s boldness in targeting Somalis.
By directly funding and training the Kenyan police, the United States is implicitly supporting Kenya’s high-handed counterterrorism tactics.
Kenya is the United States’ key regional ally in the “war on terror.” Since 2003 it has received extensive aid from Washington through the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism program, which aims to reduce the operational capacity of militant networks by providing enforcement, military and development assistance to countries.
“Kenya is one of the top five global recipients of State Department Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) funding, which supports border and coastal security and law enforcement programs,” according to a 2013 report by the bipartisan Congressional Research Service. “ATA funds support counterterrorism training for the Kenyan Police, and have averaged $8 million annually in recent years.”
One year after sending its troops into Somalia, Kenya passed an antiterrorism law that coincided with an upswing in the extrajudicial killings of terror suspects, especially Muslim clerics. It also saw extensive profiling of Somalis.
By directly funding and training the Kenyan police, the United States is implicitly supporting Kenya’s high-handed counterterrorism tactics. Further, Washington is reluctant to pressure Nairobi, given Kenya’s service fighting Al-Shabab on America’s behalf. Additionally, having inspired a slew of antiterrorism laws around the world and engaged in domestic spying on Muslims and Muslim organizations, the U.S. lacks the moral authority to question other countries on their counterterrorism efforts.
A long-term solution
Nairobi sees the Kenyan-Somali community as the lowest-hanging fruits in the war on terror. But such collective criminalization has stirred old wounds. The community feels it is once again being scapegoated. Systemic and structural problems within Kenya’s security apparatus have further eroded trust in the state. The ongoing incessant harassment of Somalis by deeply corrupt Kenyan police is a knee-jerk approach rather than a long-term solution.
Massive targeting of refugees will not solve Kenya’s security situation. Nairobi needs to employ a mix of policy endeavors. First, its counterterrorism operation should be linked with a clear exit strategy from Somalia. The lack of an exit timetable has created a sort of open-ended withdrawal, which will inevitably lead to mission creep. Kenya hasn’t made clear how long its troops will be in Somalia or what its endgame is, even as the homeland security situation deteriorates rapidly.
Second, a counterterrorism effort that doesn’t follow the money trail will not be complete. Kenyan authorities should track Al Shabab’s source of funding. Since it lost the strategic port of Kismayo, external money has been the lifeline for Al Shabab to carry on its mission. Establishing the source of its income and the networks through which money flows will no doubt be a complex process, but it is essential.
Finally, the Kenyan government needs to allay the trust deficit between its Somali community and the central administration. The current security operation will deepen that mistrust and further antagonize ethnic Somalis if not carefully managed.
In the war on Al-Shabab, Kenya needs to win the hearts and minds of its Somali population. Mutual suspicion between the Kenyan state and Kenyan-Somalis has gone on for too long. The latest standoff provides a good opportunity to engage in frank national discourse about their citizenship and development in the peripheries.