Somalis in Kenya face mistrust

Kenyan police have rounded up thousands of illegal Somali immigrants and refugees as part of their battle against Al Shabab. But they’ve detained hundreds of Somali-Kenyans, too.

One side effect of Kenya’s new war against the Somalia-based terror of Al Shabab is the new level of aggressive behavior against ethnic Somalis who are Kenyan citizens. 

Somali-Kenyans make up a minority of 2.3 million people, or 6 percent of the Kenyan population, and they can boast that the current foreign minister and chief speaker of Kenya’s parliament are Somali.

Yet the group is also the target of rising fear and bias. Somalis have been pulled off buses, subjected to police checks, and crudely depicted in Kenyan news media in ways that hark back to ugly practices in the 1980s. Since April in its war on Al Shabab, Kenyan police have rounded up thousands of illegal immigrants and refugees from Somalia. But they’ve detained hundreds of Somali-Kenyans, too, despite claims that they don’t engage in ethnic profiling.

“When you are walking in a group and pass some police, the other Kenyans might not be asked for ID, but you’ll be picked,” says Abdullahi Warsame, a Somali-Kenyan corporate employee in Nairobi, Kenya. “We’ve had cases where people produce national IDs, but still they are taken [to the police station] for days for further verification, something that rarely happens to others.”

Mr. Warsame grew up in the green hills of western Kenya, home to the Luhya tribe, one of Kenya’s largest, where his was the only Somali family in the neighborhood.

“When a policeman tells me I’m not a Kenyan it really gets into my nerves,” Warsame says. “I don’t even speak Somali fluently.”

Police say they stop and check for papers on an equal basis. But as of late May, 71 percent of those screened were ethnic Somalis or Ethiopians, who share similar physical characteristics, according to police documents, which have a special category for “Kenyan-Somalis.”

Kenya’s government has always treated Somalis differently. During the 1960s, a chunk of the nation along the Somali border tried to secede. Kenyan forces put down the effort, but bad blood remained. In the 1980s Kenyan security forces massacred thousands of Somali-Kenyans and made them carry a special pink ID card. Today’s random ID checks and roundups bitterly recall that past.

This spring a war on terror declared by Kenyan authorities also came with media attacks that brought mistrust and put-downs of the minority.

“It would appear that every little, two-bit Somali has a big dream – to blow us up, knock down our buildings and slaughter our children,” wrote the managing editor of Kenya’s leading newspaper in a March opinion article responding to continued terror bombings.

A clothing vender in Nairobi says she won’t get on a bus if there are riders who look Somali.

Yet one dirty little secret is that some bias and xenophobia in Kenya is due to jealousy of Somali business acumen. Somalis dominate Nairobi retail and real estate sectors and are often accused of being condescending toward “black” Kenyans. (An unfounded rumor has Somalis using pirate ransoms to price non-Somalis out of desirable neighborhoods.)

Still, many Kenyans work and live happily alongside their fellow ethnic Somali countrymen. And a very different narrative in Nairobi depicts Somalis as never having had it so good, citing the arrival of a raft of high-profile Somali politicians.

“I will always believe I’m a Kenyan,” Warsame says. “But I will always be seen as a foreigner, just because of my looks.”

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