Politics and Society
The indiscriminate detention of Somali Kenyans
By scapegoating an entire ethnicity with the arrest and detention of thousands of Somali Kenyans, the Kenyan government is doing what the British did to us under colonialism. This and the continued invasion that opens old historical wounds will not bring peace.
Compare the photo of Kenyan Somalis herded together in a large cage by Kenyan security forces to one below of Kenyans suspected of being Mau Mau herded together by British colonial forces. Add another photo of Muslim men in cages in America’s Guantanamo Bay. Then tell me what the difference is between colonial criminalising of an entire population, Kenyan indiscriminate criminalising of Somali Kenyans and the US torture and detention of Muslims suspected of terror without trial.
I am not surprised that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto would resort to the colonial practice of criminalising a whole population. Kenyan politicians have been running their campaigns along ethnic lines for generations. In fact the ICC charged them for crimes against humanity because the post-electoral violence of 2007 pit ethnicity against ethnicity. If the case against them in the ICC is in shambles, they should be careful not to build another one, this time against Somali Kenyans!
And what has happened to the great Pan-African spirit Uhuru was appealing to when rallying African countries to stand with him united against the ICC? In his address to the African Union last year, he could say, “The spirit of African pride and sovereignty has withstood centuries of severe tribulation. I invoke that spirit of freedom and unity today before you. It is a spirit with a voice that rings through all generations of human history. It is the eternal voice of a majestic spirit which will never die.” And today he sanctions the indiscriminate arrests and torture of a whole population – over 4,000 people detained, including a Somalia diplomat who was subsequently released.
If we are moved by “the spirit of African pride and sovereignty [that] has withstood centuries of severe tribulation,” an African in Kenya cannot be illegal. The Pan-African spirit should extend hospitality to the refugee and citizen alike.
What has happened to his anti-imperialism? As he rallies against US and Western imperialism, he has in practice been opening up another front for the US led war on terror, not just through continuing the Kenyan army invasion of Somali but the criminalisation of Kenyan Somalis and refugees. The war on terror started by George Bush in 2001 in Kenya has become the war on Kenyan Somalis.
This is how useless the whole operation has been: Anyone with money can bribe their way out of the security cauldron. In the same way anyone with money can buy a Kenyan national ID card and passport. It is quite possible to argue that the biggest threat in Kenya today are inept politicians and corrupt government officials who will let any well funded Al Shabab operative into the country.
Born in 1971, I remember the fear of the Somali people fighting then for a greater Somalia; Shiftas we called them. One of the stories I remember hearing over and over was how the Shiftas would kill a Camel or a cow, hide inside the carcass and then ambush the gallant Kenyan army. But now I know behind these myths to turn Somalis into an untrustworthy cowardly and elusive enemy was a very different reality.
In 1962, a year before Kenya’s formal independence, a referendum was held to see whether Somalis living in North Eastern Kenya and cut off from the greater Somalia wanted to remain Kenyan or to rejoin Somalia. They voted overwhelmingly for rejoining the greater Somalia. The British government refused and the Kenyan government from 1963 onwards has held on to the borders. Somali nationalists took to arms against the Kenyan government.
Indiscriminate torture and killing of Kenyan Somalis was the norm with an occasional massacre perpetrated by the Kenyan army. The 1984 Wagalla massacre for example left an estimated 5,000 people dead. At the heart of Kenya-Somalia relationships is this history. And it is this history we need to reckon with if there is going to be peace in the region.
By way of a solution, Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, a security and policy analyst on the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes regions, argues that Kenya’s “counterterrorism operation should be linked with a clear exit strategy from Somalia,” and at the same time the Kenyan government needs to find a way to shut down Al Shabab’s money trail, “while restoring trust between its Somali community and the central administration.” These are good places to start.
With Al Shabab and terrorism, no one is safe and there is no standing on the right of history. At the Westgate Mall last year, no recitation of history and past wrongs, of believing that colonial borders should be restructured so that they make sense, or of calling for justice for Somali Kenyans and just peace in Somalia would have saved anyone’s life. Kofi Awonoor the politically progressive Ghanaian poet who was amongst the 67 shot and killed is a testament to the sheer wanton terror of Al Shabab violence.
But I also know that joining a war on terror that has been going on since 2001, scapegoating whole ethnicities, policing them with a corrupt police force, and continuing an invasion that opens old historical wounds will not bring peace.