Kenya’s Somali intervention in its quest to crush the terrorist group al-Shabaab is producing a potentially devastating dynamic for ethnic harmony in Kenya.
For two weeks now, I documented an average of two to three daily articles in Kenyan papers extolling the mighty powers of the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) and their defeat of Somalia’s al-Shabaab in many parts of Southern Somalia. Nationalistic flashy titles such as “Kenya’s Military Has Proven Its Might in Somalia” are found not only in printed news, but also in TV and radio programmes.
Juxtapose this to the twin bombs that shook parts of Eastleigh – a residential district in Nairobi – within the span of one hour last night. Unknown persons succeeded in detonating two powerful explosions near the site of another deadly attack less than a fortnight ago.
As a Somali who has lived in Canada and the US for over two decades now and who has been fortunate enough not to have personally experienced the nightmare of violence and forced migration of millions of my compatriots, this was the first “lived” experience of terror.
This latest bombing took place just a hundred metres from a church on Juja Road that was targeted on September 30 in a different bombing attack, resulting in the death of a child. Fortunately, there were no deaths last night – only a few injuries.
The reaction from these explosions amongst the Somalis that I was with – who all fled from their houses and apartments for fear of a follow up bombings – was mostly one of disgust at the perpetrators. Many I have spoken with really expressed a heighted sense of panic about the devastating repercussions that they fear they will face. I heard tremendous distress of bearing the wrath of the Kenyan law enforcement agencies, but also fear of mobilisation of other ethnic groups within the Kenyan mosaic against all Somalis.
I also heard many references to the 2007 post-election ethnic butchering that left thousands dead. A sense of panic currently prevails amongst the Somali-Kenyan and Somali refugees residing and working in Nairobi’s Eastleigh.
Somalis’ dread of physical violence is in fact accompanied by apprehension of possible looting and destruction of their hard-earned thriving businesses in this slum-like area. Eastleigh is a business and residential area which attracts billions of dollars of investment from Somali entrepreneurs around the globe. Glittering malls and hotels claiming to offer four-star experiences are scattered here, amidst open sewages running in pot-holed avenues that have long ceased any semblance of what a major capital city should be.
With the earlier deadly church bombing two weeks ago, all Somali businesses closed their doors, expecting that criminals may capitalise on this attack to loot these establishments. I expect that the next few days are going to be one filled with apprehension for all Somalis in Eastleigh in the aftermath of last night’s events.
Worthy of mentioning is that it is not only criminals who bring up this apprehension, but also the Kenyan police who are synonymous with corruption. Thus all Somalis expect that these attacks will give the law enforcement agencies new opportunities for more “legitimate” means of abusing and extorting thousands of Shillings from the many undocumented Somalis who live and work in this area.
For every non-Kenyan Somali stopped, frisked and often taken to the police station, a bounty ranging from 5,000 Shillings to 10,000 Shillings buys his release. Bribes can in fact get you anything imaginable in Nairobi, and both Kenyan underpaid civil servants and the socio-economically very diverse Somali residents of Eastleigh have become experts in this dance of corruption and the economy of the margins.
Distrust towards law enforcement is further enhanced by the many conspiracy theories that I have heard around the community during these two rounds of attacks. Some Somalis genuinely believe that Kenya itself is engaging in these bombings to push the “terror bill” under discussion in parliament in order to further oppress its Muslim population, but also to gain financial aid from – and alliance with – the United States in its so-called “war on terror”. Others say that the Kenyan government is responsible for these bombings as a way of legitimating its Somali intervention and possibly long-term occupation. Many already know about Kenya’s role in a quest to create a Bantustan-like buffer region in the Juba region and thus cite the Kenyan government’s motive of further entrenching its increasing role in Somali politics. Yet, others point to Kenya’s interest in a weakened Somalia, given the contested maritime boundary disputes with Somalia and Kenya’s push for oil explorations in disputed waters
Regardless of these diverse thoughts however, everyone I have met agrees that the place of Somalis within the Kenyan state may be changing for the worst. The fragile co-existence of different ethnic groups within Kenya, a fragility underscored by the 2007 extremely violent post-election clashes, is coming under more pressure from al-Shabaab and its attacks and alleged attacks on Kenyan soil.
The Kenyan example showcases the complex consequences of political interventions in the Horn of Africa region and the multiple types of terror that victimises poor citizens and non-citizens who end up being collateral damage of a global power game that they may not fully comprehend, though they may rightly distrust all stake holders.
Dr Cawo Mohamed Abdi is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota and a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.