Corruption and Terror: Somali Community in Kenya Caught in the Crossfire

by Samira Sawlani

“The Country chose its prey. Seduced them, made them believe they owned it and then gobbled them down, often in the most tender of ways—like a python.”

“Kenya is treacherous.”

The above are excerpts from Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s novel “Dust”. Though they form part of a fictional story, for many in Kenya, these sentiments currently reflect reality.

Over the last two months the Kenyan Government has launched an exercise aimed at tackling the dark cloud of terrorism hovering above the country, an exercise which has inadvertently highlighted the many ills in society today, for in fighting one threat, others have been fuelled, particularly corruption and xenophobia.

As part of Operation Usalama Watch, raids targeted at identifying those illegally in Kenya have been sanctioned. The government has denied that any specific nationalities or ethnic groups are being targeted, yes there have been reports of individuals from Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda being arrested and screened, however, there is overwhelming evidence that the Somalis in Kenya have borne the brunt of this crackdown.

Many have defended the actions of the state as being in the interest of the people and not singling out any one community. Well, denial is often nirvana.

As a 35 year old woman from Eastleigh said to me, “The attitude of the Kenyan Government towards us is that of a landlord trying to get rid of his tenants. He cannot tell them to leave so he goes out of his way to make the house as unlivable as possible so that they will leave.”

Be it Somali refugees, Somali migrants or those who hail from North Eastern Province, I found one striking similarity in the views of those I spoke to: they all felt like they live on the cusp of a forced exodus from the Kenyan identity they possess.

Due to the long silences of the mainstream media (bar a few articles on this matter) it is very easy to be oblivious to exactly what reality is like for Somalis in Kenya, particularly Nairobi, at this moment.

As should be public knowledge, thousands of people are currently being screened at Kasarani Stadium in order for the authorities to determine their status.

Officials say that those held at what has been branded “Kasarani Concentration Camp” are being treated well and their human rights are being respected. Why then have no media organizations, aid agencies or local NGOs been allowed in to inspect conditions?

Some of those that shared their experiences of being held in Kasarani said the following: “It was cramped and dirty. The worst was what to do with our children who were frustrated, when we would ask the police how long we were to be kept for they would not answer.” Meanwhile, Fartun, a mother of two, stated, “Due to how cold it would get in there my daughter fell ill. I expected the police to help but they did not pay attention. Only after I paid a bribe did they go and get me some medicine. Most people that came in had been held in other police stations where they had been mistreated, and some ladies shared that they had been touched inappropriately by some male police.”

Shop owner Omar shared his story, “The police entered my home at around 2 am, and the noise woke up our 4 children, all of whom were very scared. We were then taken to Kasarani and split apart. My wife is pregnant and suffering from morning sickness – there were no decent facilities for her to even be sick in.” Upon release the family returned to Eastleigh. “As my phone was taken from me when I arrived at Kasarani, I had no way to let my staff know what was going on, so my electronics shop has suffered much loss. Because of all this trouble many of my neighbours have vacated their premises and gone. The Somalis who would come to the shop now do not because they know the police are always patrolling the streets looking for bribes. Unfortunately they have visited my home twice since we left Kasarani and demanded money even though we have IDs. This constant paying of bribes and slow business has put much financial strain on us, but the police know Somalis are economically successful and are vulnerable with no one to speak for them.”

Cramped cells, no access to food or lawyers and being asked for bribes are common experiences among those Somalis who have been arrested and held at Kasarani or police stations across Nairobi. Shrouded in mystery are the stories of those that have not been deported, but been sent to refugee camps in other parts of the country, often separate from their families.

Life, however, is not much better for those from the Somali community that are apparently “free” and not in police custody. One young man said, “My ancestors hail from Wajir, I have lived in Nairobi my whole life, I am Kenyan and all of a sudden people are getting off matatus when I board or telling me to go back to where I came from? I have no connections with Somalia, where exactly do they expect me to go? Kenyans are not like this, and it may be a one off, but it is very telling.”

I interviewed a gentleman living in Eastleigh who told me that the police try to target elderly Somalis because they are vulnerable and often do not speak much Kiswahili, so they are more likely to pay bribes out of fear, and to avoid being hassled. He mentioned that the police have visited his neighbour, who is an elderly man with a young family. Despite his having identification and a passport, they threaten to take him to the station knowing full well that because of his age the family will pay to stop this from happening. For this reason, they keep visiting his home, posing the same threat and increasing the amount of money they want every time.

In another case, a 60 year old diabetic man was arrested despite having a copy of his British passport, the original of which was away for renewal. He was taken to the Police Station at 6pm and his phone and documents confiscated while his family had no idea of his whereabouts. The following morning his family traced his location and the Police demanded KES 30,000 to release him, stating that otherwise, they would keep him in for another five days. Knowing his age and health condition would garner success, they received KES 26,000.

Other stories include trying to scare individuals into paying bribes by threatening to take them to the station with no intention to do so, threatening young women with rape, and destroying or confiscating Identification Cards or papers. The most bizarre story yet is of a man showing a police officer his Kenyan passport and the officer saying, “But where is your Kenyan visa?”

Destruction of property, breaking gates of homes and asking for bribes and using threatening language in front of children are all common. Police now frequent the same areas of Eastleigh every night, extracting more and more money from innocent people who just want to be left in peace. Many officers allegedly go to the area after their shift is finished (ironically, they are also making a huge profit out of those who do not have IDs or papers to be in Kenya, so if there are any potential terrorists around, they too are able to pay their way out of arrest). In an attempt to fight one problem another has been fuelled: corruption.

Somalis in Kenya not only live in fear of terrorists like the rest of the country, they also live in fear of those very agencies meant to protect them. Through “legal looting”, men and women who work hard to feed their families, run businesses which aid the Kenyan economy and largely mind their own business are being exploited. As if this is not enough, they then experience humiliation in police stations, in their homes and on the streets only to find that when they speak out, no one is listening. How many media houses have continuously reported on this? How many public figures came forward to clarify to people what their rights are?

As a 20 year old Somali-Kenyan student said, “The media are of no help, in fact sometimes their reporting on Somalis and Muslims in general has stereotyped us and led to us being held out as scapegoats. The media are supposed to speak against injustice but they have been mainly silent or quietly taken part.”

Terrorism is a very real threat to Kenya and urgency is required in tackling it, however these tactics are simply encouraging alienation which in itself is the cause of much dissatisfaction. A culture of police impunity is not the solution to terrorism, nor is targeting and marginalizing a particular community or racial profiling. Screening for those in the country illegally is important, however, locking individuals and families up without legal basis or using them as ATM machines does not read as a legitimate strategy, and it reinforces the view that the police are above the law they are meant to exercise and protect.

At a time when social cohesion and a feeling of “being Kenyan” and being valued should be encouraged the exact opposite is taking place.

As Nairobi born and bred 26 year old Abdi Sheikh said, “I will never be Kenyan, always Somali Kenyan and that translates to not Kenyan enough. We keep one foot out the door, not because we want to, but because we don’t know when the foot inside Kenya will be chopped off, forcing us to run.”

Samira Sawlani is a writer/journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa. She can be found on Twitter @samirasawlani

18 Replies to “Corruption and Terror: Somali Community in Kenya Caught in the Crossfire”

  1. all these inhumane actions taken against somalis be it a refugee or a kenyan citizen is terribly painful. we don’t deserve to suffer just because a terrorist who’s not yet proved somali or a muslim of which they only claim.only the stereotypes they have makes us suffer in their hands.Kenya is a big disappointment to all of us! it’s like you paying rent on a house you own . It’s madness to ne honest and the international community should do something about these and the culprits running this country Kenya.

    otherwise your article was great! keep up with the good job samira.we don’t have no media that’s speaking for us.We appreciate x

  2. And where are the terrorists coming from. In whose name do they perpetrate the shameful violent acts. Right now we are so fed-up with those two words. do not try and push your luck.

    Would we be doing through the same if Somali was not our neighbor? That country should be divided between the three countries surrounding it so that it ceases to exit.

    1. Omams, thank God, then, that He received your letter requesting not to be born a Somali before you were born and granted your request. Such kind of talk serves to demonstrate just how ignorant and selfish people can be. It is such kind of talk that emboldens the Al shabaab, for they know in the midst of hate and confusion, they reign.
      Think about the innocent Somali or Muslim family who know nothing about the terrorist activities carried out (and I know many of those), who are victimized for professing a certain religion or having been born in a certain community.

  3. The ill treatment of the somali community by the Kenya Government only leads to the radicalization of those somalis who are proud to be kenyans and only escalates the threats of terrorism. As many of us are fully aware of the somali community’s contribution to the economy of the nation and has employed many kenyans in so many capacities, it would be appropriate for the government to laud them for their immense contribution and show love and belonging to them thus defeating terrorism together in a dignified Manner.

  4. great article Samira.It is very unfortunate what is happening to our Somali brothers and sisters.This same government got overwhelming support from them during the last election and frankly even in the name of security you can’t just bundle a whole segment of society and throw them arbitrarily into a concentration camp.It is inhumane and just goes to explain why these two thugs who are running down our country will forever have the name ICC attached to them.These Knee jerk reactions to crisis after crisis will be their undoing.Here is a link to a mini documentary showing just how bad things are .Once again great journalism here.

  5. I think targeting Kenyans whose only crime is that they have their Origins in Somalia is a bad move. We have all lived together since miaka nenda rudi, so why assume that all Muslims are Terrorists and all Terrorists are muslims from Somalia???? Worse still, suspects that have been arrested or identified as Al Shabaab so far are the njoroges, weres, otienos of this nation, BORN and BRED here….then in that case si then every kenyan will be a suspect basi….And the cops using this operation as a cash payout have no business being even considered defenders of this nation. We are all affected by threats of terror whether my last name is Kenyatta or Omar…..the sooner the government can see that, the better….

  6. All of this is fear based discrimination. We desperately need someone to blame and since our President is so likable we would rather target ” Those ones” especially fueled by the War on terror crap from the west and the likes of Jack Bauer on 24.

    Problem is more guys like Aboud Rogo who were not reprimanded by the rest of the community and thus seemed to echo their sentiments.

  7. Great Article. I would just ask, on top of bringing to light the truths and struggles of our fellow Kenyan Citizens who have been marginalized, Kindly also equip them with the knowledge and means to defend themselves and guard their rights. A lot of Kenyans are being harrassed due to their ignorance of their rights.

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