Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Ethnic profiling and the case of the Kenyan Somali

Posted  Wednesday, May 8  2013 at  01:00
Garissa and Eastleigh are two business centres that are worlds apart. One stands, lonely and sunbaked, on the vast and gasping territory that is Kenya’s northern frontier, while the other towers over the Eastlands area in Nairobi, every day extending its tentacles to surrounding areas like Pangani, Majengo, and Kimathi.
Yes, these two towns, if we may call Eastleigh thusat, are worlds apart, but they are joined at the hip by a common denominator: the enterprising Somali. And it is that Somali man and woman who makes the bulk of this story, that young man who has been struggling for decades to find identity and acceptance in a community that is growingly becoming averse to anything Somali — anything other than their food.
It is a story that many have run away from, either because they did not want to face the realities on the ground, or because they feared they would be accused of ethnic profiling. But the story of the Somalis’ struggle for acceptance is a big one. It cannot, should not, be wished away.
So let us begin in Nairobi.
There is something about Eastleigh that is not right. When you stand in the middle of First Avenue, dwarfed by the monstrous buildings on either side and swallowed by the tens of thousands who visit this bustling Nairobi neighbourhood every day, you know for sure that something is not right about this place.
Something is amiss here.
And the stories coming out of this locality for the past one year have helped cement that feeling. In late 2012, Eastleigh was rocked by a series of bombings that caused deaths, destruction, and trauma. At the height of it all, fingers were pointed to the predominant Somali community that has colonised the area, and, for Ahmed Adam Hefow, it was the aftermath of these violent events that destroyed his sense of identity and belonging.
At 11.30pm on November 18, Ahmed’s home was raided by police. Despite producing his national identity card, the 21-year-old says he was arrested without reason, along with 91 others. Three factors linked the arrestees: they were young, they happened to be in two neighbouring buildings at the time of the raid, and they were of Somali descent.
In Garissa last month following a series of bombings and shootings, the same story emerged after the police were ordered to do a house-to-house search for suspected terrorists and their sympathisers. Residents accused the police of targeting them simply because they were Somalis and soon a raucous protest emerged, amplified by local MPs and other leaders.
Wrongful arrest
For Ahmed, things took a heady turn when the University of Nairobi student was detained in prison for three nights before being taken to court, where he discovered, for the first time, that he was accused of being involved in the bombings.
After two more nights in prison, his family managed to raise the Sh100,000 bond to secure his release. Ahmed explains that it took several more weeks of judicial proceedings before the case was dropped due to lack of evidence.
Though several of his constitutional rights were broken over the course of this incident, the young man is most troubled by the reason behind his arrest.
“When I’m arrested in connection with what criminal gangs have done, I feel that I am a lesser Kenyan because I am from the Somali community,” he said. “I was born in this country and thought I was part of the Kenyan fabric, but, due to this ethnic targeting, I now feel like a lesser Kenyan.”
Despite a beaded bracelet of the Kenyan flag on his arm shouting to all his Kenyanness, Ahmed’s voice is laced with sadness and hurt as he comes to terms with his disillusionment, and that “misplaced” sense of patriotism.
“The government is working against us, trying to incriminate us on issues that are baseless. The Kenyan government is really targeting the Somali community,” he says.
It is difficult to prove whether this sentiment is grounded more in perception or reality, but the fact remains that it is a feeling shared by many in the Kenyan-Somali community. Incidents of unequal access to justice, government services, employment, and educational opportunities are fuelling an identity crisis among Kenyan-Somalis. And although some are second- or even-third generation Kenyans with their ancestral links to Somalia growing increasingly distant, they do not feel as if they belong in the country where they were born, raised, and educated.
Feelings of isolation
Historian and writer Salah Abdi Sheikh points out that the scapegoating of this community is a perennial problem in Kenya. While the issues have changed over the decades, from poaching to inflation to terrorism, those responsible for Kenya’s problems are always the same: Somalis.
But while the discrimination might not be new, Sheikh believes that recent events, such as several police raids and mass arrests in Eastleigh and Garissa, have heightened feelings of isolation and an “us versus them” mentality.
“It has become an issue of ‘Somalis against others’,” says Sheikh. “It used to be Somalis against the government, now it’s like the people and the government are hitting the Somalis.”
The Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK), a non-governmental association which provides legal support to asylum seekers and refugees, has also noticed intensification in the animosity between the Kenyan-Somali population and the rest of the country.
“The physical attacks had not been there until very recently,” says RCK programme officer Leila Muriithia-Simiyu. “But before that, I wouldn’t say that Nairobi or Kenya in general was a place where you could say there were physical attacks. Of course there was the verbal sentiment of ‘these people, these people’, but it never elevated to that level... until recently.”
The list of Kenyan-Somalis grievances range from the benign to the illegal and unconstitutional. Sheikh, also born, raised and educated in Kenya, realised that the playing field was tilted against him due to his appearance and ancestry when he first left home.
“I was charged three times (more) when I got my first apartment,” he explains. “You see, you are paying Sh10,000 in rent and the guy next to you is paying Sh3,000, yet both of you are young, just starting to work.”
Access to government services, most importantly obtaining identity documents, is also perceived to be a major issue. Ahmed was among those who had to provide extensive documentation to get his national identity card. To prove he was a Kenyan citizen, he had to provide his mother’s payslips to prove that she worked as a teacher, as well as her passport, her national identity card, and other documents. Still, he says, it took him an inordinate amount of time before he received his card.
“I waited for three years for my ID card while some of my classmates from other communities waited for just one month. That should tell you a lot,” he says.
While it is difficult to know how many people are affected by this problem, Sheikh offers an estimate: “About 25 per cent of Somalis born here, born even in Nairobi, don’t have documentation,” he says. “They can’t own a car, they can’t own anything.”
Identity card hitch
According to the National Registration Bureau, all those applying for a national identity card must satisfy general requirements, irrespective of their background, ethnicity, and religion. The most important requirements are proof of citizenship and age. However, how these criteria are proven depends on whether applicants are in rural, urban, or bordering areas.
The clearest way to demonstrate Kenyan citizenship is by proving the connection between the applicant and his or her parents, which can mean providing some of their identity documents.
While the requirements of applicants in bordering areas may be different from those of people in rural or urban settings, Mumia Kisabuli, a deputy director of the National Registration Bureau, asserts that these demands are applied equally to all, whether they are Luo, Pokot, Maasai, Luhya... or Somali.
“The requirements are only meant to facilitate the process, they are not meant to discriminate or place road blocks to any applicants,” Kisabuli explains.
While he acknowledges that the waiting time for identity cards might be longer than those established by the bureau’s service charter (16 working days in urban centres, 26 in rural areas, and 35 in border areas), Kisabuli points out that delays can be caused by the applicants themselves, some of whom provide incomplete or incorrect documentation.
Another recurring grievance is the relationship between the Somali community and the authorities, particularly the police service.
Muhamed Abdullah, a religious leader in Eastleigh, believes that religion is the root of this targeting. “People should not raid my house just because there is a Somali terrorist on the loose,” says Abdullah. “They should follow due process. Suspects should be taken to court... an investigation carried out. My individual rights should not be abused simply because someone who looks like me committed a crime.”Such claims of harassment by the police were made by several Kenyan-Somalis in the course of preparing this report, but DN2 tried repeatedly to contact the police service for comment on this issue without success.

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