Kenya: where all Somalis are suspects?

Residents of Eastleigh, a Nairobi neighborhood known for its Somali immigrant population, walk on January 18, 2010 in a commercial street.
Credit: Simon Maina

NAIROBI, Kenya — These days everyone in Nairobi is afraid of something.

Armed guards search vehicles and bags outside offices, hotels and shops. Armed police patrol the streets. Advertised events in busy shopping malls and bars are canceled or poorly attended amid fears of attack by members of Somalia’s Al Shabaab extremists.

Over in Eastleigh, a Somali enclave in the city, residents are fearful for yet a different reason. They worry that they are being judged and condemned on the basis of their ethnicity.

They have cause for concern, since many Kenyans view Somali immigrants as potential Al Shabaab terrorists.

“[Al Shabaab] is like a big animal with the tail in Somalia, and the head of the animal is hidden here in Eastleigh,” said assistant security minister Orwa Ojode to Parliament last month.

He promised Kenya’s security services would undertake “the mother of all operations” in Nairobi in order to root out Al Shabaab members and sympathizers.

More from GlobalPost: Kenya bus attack kills 4 near Somalia border

Such comments worry Kenya’s ethnic Somali population which numbers 2.4 million, roughly 8 percent of Kenya's 40 million population, according to the country’s 2009 census.

Hussein Mohamed Haji, a 70-year-old hotelier and deputy chairman of the Eastleigh Business Community, angrily dismissed Ojodeh’s suggestion that Eastleigh is full of Al Shabaab supporters. “He was talking rubbish,” he told GlobalPost.

But was he?

The discovery of “extensive Kenyan networks linked to Al Shabaab, which not only recruit and raise funds for the organization, but also conduct orientation and training events inside Kenya,” was among the findings in a United Nations report published in June that covered infringements of the arms embargo on Somalia. 

The UN investigators singled out the Muslim Youth Center, accusing its leaders of fundraising for Al Shabaab and training aspiring jihadis. The youth center is based in Majengo, a slum next door to Eastleigh.

But another significant observation in the report was that Al Shabaab influence and support was not limited to Somalis. “Non-Somali Kenyan nationals … today constitute the largest and most structurally organized non-Somali group within Al Shabaab,” said the UN report.

Apparent proof of this came last week: A 28-year-old Kenyan man convicted of this month’s grenade attacks in Nairobi was a non-Somali, a Muslim convert from western Kenya.

Nevertheless it is Kenya’s ethnic Somalis who are feeling the heat of suspicion, and not for the first time. Kenya’s security forces regularly haul dragnets through Eastleigh arresting hundreds at a time often with little basis except the ethnicity.

Haji is an ethnic Somali, born in Kenya, and living in Eastleigh alongside what he calls “Somali-Somalis,” many of whom have fled 20 years of fighting in their homeland.

He resents the “shakedowns” by Kenyan police but believes their techniques are a little more advanced — and more sensitive — these days.

“So far the Kenyan security has not taken the action they have in the past. This time they have arrested several people in Eastleigh suspected of being Al Shabaab but they didn’t make a major sweep, they identified elements they want,” he said.

Somalis in Kenya are living in fear, according to Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “In Eastleigh today there is a community that is extremely worried, very anxious,” he said.

More: Kenya troops fight Al Shabaab rebels in Somalia

“There has been a growing xenophobia against Somalis whipped up by the establishment over the last two years — ‘They are taking over the economy, taking over real estate, destroying our security, flooding the country with guns’ — everything is blamed on Somalis and Somalis will pay the price for this,” Abdi said.

“So far there hasn’t been a major crackdown but there have been promises from the establishment and some terrible official rhetoric that fuels paranoia,” he said referring to Ojode’s speech in Parliament.

Eastleigh has developed as a world of its own like the Chinatowns and Little Italys of other capital cities. This one is nicknamed Little Mogadishu and is home to around 350,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Somalis.

The Kenyan-Somali and Somali-Somali distinction means little outside of the Somali community.

A young Kenyan-Somali journalist described to GlobalPost how he was singled out on his way to work one recent morning. Police called him out of the minibus taxi he was traveling in and, not believing he was a Kenyan, subjected him to a humiliating search and identity check.

Other Somalis have suffered far worse treatment at the hands of the authorities as documented extensively by Human Rights Watch in a report published last year showing the range of abuses suffered by Somalis as they try to cross into Kenya as refugees.

In Eastleigh the concern is palpable.

“There is a general sense of suspicion and fear of any Somali, whether from Somalia or Kenya,” said Guled Bille Mohamed, a 28-year-old university student born in Wajir, northern Kenya.

“They believe that all Somalis are the same and their fear of us is escalating. If it is not stopped we are going to see Somali-phobia here in Kenya,” he said.

Part of the problem is revealed in the way that Kenyan Somalis refer to other Kenyans as "they" and certainly there is no love lost between the communities.

The rift between the two communities has a long history. Kenya’s independence from colonial rule in 1963 was followed by a four-year conflict called the Shifta War which broke out as Kenyan Somalis fought for separation from Kenya and unification with the rest of Somalia.

That seeming betrayal has not been forgotten and Kenya’s Somalis have been regarded with suspicion and neglect ever since.

“At independence we were afraid of discrimination because we did not look like the rest of them,” recalled Haji. “And that dream became true.”

“I am 70. I was born in Kenya. I speak six Kenyan languages. But when other Kenyans see me they just make the assumption that I’m a Somali,” he said.

“I never went to Somalia, I don’t know where Somalia is, but that phobia is still there. There is discrimination. They see Somalis and think we are Al Shabaab.”

More from GlobalPost: Somalia's Al Shabaab rebels warn of reveng attacks against Kenya

Related Stories