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In pursuit of Al Shabaab, Kenya is back to 1984

The Kenyan government has thrown a security cordon over a part of the city of Nairobi most populated by the Somali. Why? Because al Shabaab operates from Somalia and therefore its face in Kenya is Somali-like. The Kenya state really has no reason to take the country back to 1984 by profiling such an integral community in the country.

Kenya is back to 1984. This was a time of political consolidation in the country. The second republic had just endured a scare two years back when members of the country’s air force attempted a military takeover in August 1982. The regime began to retire those who had served in the previous government and were deemed a threat to the new regime men. The country was slowly creeping towards authoritarianism. The media was progressively censoring itself. The politicians were falling over each other to swear allegiance to the president. The air was filled with fear but Kenyans put on a brave face, as they had always done. I was in elementary school but I could sense the omnipresence of that most enduring invention of the British colonial system in Africa: the Chief. You saw this khaki-clad government functionary and you knew serikali (the government) was among you, with you, onto you; if not in you.

I hadn’t read George Orwell’s book. In 1984 it probably would have just been another fantasy tale for an 11-year-old schoolboy then. I read 1984 for the first time in 1990 when I was in high school. Kenya was in the throes of a political life-threatening duel with itself. Tyranny had settled into the body and soul of the country. Politicians were declaring that political freedom wasn’t the same as democracy. Politicians threatened to cut Mao Zedong’s fingers. Politicians said they would castrate Karl Marx. Politicians had made the ruling party, Kenya African National Union (KANU), bisexual – it was mama na baba (mother and father rolled into one). And in Africa you don’t contest the authority of your parents lest you be cursed.

Reading 1984 was an eye-opener, politically and literally. I now knew why adults talked politics only where newspapers were sold. One could not be blamed for ‘inventing’ or ‘fabricating’ stories because reference to any ‘political’ issue was right there in the newspapers. But men were being profiled. Kenyans were being trailed by the then so-called Special Branch, a dreaded secret police unit. Swoops to arrest political agitators, sudden sackings of imagined dissidents, disappearances of those opposed to the state (either in the hands of the police or into exile) happened just like that. One knew, without being told, that although it was in the 1990s, Kenya was back to 1984. Today Kenya seems to be heading back to 1984; I mean the Orwellian kind.

CCTV footage from the attack on Westgate mall in Nairobi (September 2013)

Kenya is under siege. From terrorism to politics of tyranny of rule by numbers to a stumbling economy to the tragedy of one of its supposed regional geo-political achievements – the collapse of South Sudan – to a new experiment in administrative devolution, and such self-inflicted or fated troubles. And attacks by supposed al Shabaab actors in Nairobi, Mombasa and parts of North Eastern province have thrust the country into a security paroxysm. All government officials are threatening all manners of fire and brimstone against the increasingly unseen, unknown and unknowable al Shabaab. Al Shabaab is in the shadows; it is the shadow.

And since the government can’t see al Shabaab, it has decided to pursue it where it could be hiding. The government has thrown a security cordon over a part of the city of Nairobi most populated by the Somali. Why? Because al Shabaab operates from Somalia and therefore its face in Kenya is Somali-like. Swoops, arrests, intelligence, screening, surveillance, watch over, alien, foreigners, terrorists, national identification card, citizenship papers etc. These words now define being Kenyan; or not being native to Kenya. To be or not to be a Kenyan is now defined by one’s ability to speak Kiswahili and or English, especially if you are Somali. Forget the fact that there are millions of non-Somali Kenyans who can’t speak either language.

Kenyan police trying to control a crowd during attacks on Somali businesses in Eastleigh, 2012 (photo: Carl De Souza / AFP - Getty Images)
Kenyan police trying to control a crowd during attacks on Somali businesses in Eastleigh, 2012 (photo: Carl De Souza / AFP – Getty Images)

And new name categories have emerged. I had never heard of Kenyan-Somali in my 42 years of life in Kenya. Let’s say in my 32 years of life; that is to say, since when I started to know the ethnic profile of Kenyans different from me. The Somali, commonly known as wariah in Busia where I partly grew up to 1984 were a ‘mysterious’ people, to us children. They fascinated us. They spoke a language different from ours. They chewed some leaves – which I later learnt were called miraa. They worshipped differently, always obeying the behaviour of the sun/time/call from the mosque. But most importantly, they drove ‘long’ lorries with many wheels – fuel carrying tankers.

In other words, these men and women who now have to go back to 1984, who have to identify themselves even to ordinary Kenyan tea girls and cab drivers, have been the cog in the wheel of the Kenyan economy and that of extended Eastern Africa. Somalis delivered petrol, diesel and paraffin to much of the Eastern African region all the way into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many Kenyans would have been immobile or without light in the years after independence but for the strength, business acumen and adventurism of the Somalis. Somalis not only delivered fuel into the interior of Kenya, they also opened businesses where few Kenyans would have dared to. Somalis are credited with establishing the many small towns that dot the Kenyan road network.

I grew up knowing the Somalis as no nonsense but humble businessmen. Although they kept to themselves all the time, we too kept to ourselves all the time. It is from the Somali trader that one bought exotic items in many rural Kenya such as a ready made suit, perfume, a sword, wraparounds commonly known as leso/kanga etc. In other words, the Somalis introduced global commodities in many places in Kenya beyond the internationally connected cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. The Somali was a harbinger of modernity in parts of Kenya. And then there was the legendary shopping mall in the part of Nairobi known as Eastleigh. It was called Garissa Lodge.

Garissa Lodge is known throughout Eastern Africa. Traders came from near and far to buy goods from this ‘lodge.’ Merchandise was quite affordable here compared to the shops in downtown Nairobi. In some cases the goods were too cheap. Of course they were counterfeit. But why worry about a fake phone if it satisfies your technical and social needs. I want to have a Blackberry and I can’t afford the original; I’ll get a ‘Chinese’ one in Eastleigh. There are such places all over the world.

In short, apart from Kenyans of Indian ancestry, Somalis are actually the next most entrepreneurial community in Kenya. Partly this is because of the Somali diaspora, which has a network built on trust that can deliver anything, from cash to the latest TV model set to locally unavailable medication across the world in just hours or days. But also, the Somalis are a people who know hardship. Much of northern Kenya is very arid and human survival depends on knowing how to utilise limited resources and frugality.

So, undoubtedly there are Somalis in Kenya who may sympathise with al Shabaab or have even been coerced into supporting terrorism, but the Kenya state really has no reason to take the country back to 1984 by profiling such an integral community in the country.

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