Who benefits? Terrorism in Kenya and the scapegoating of Somali refugees

One year ago in Nairobi, Wole Soyinka gave a stirring lecture in memory of his fellow poet, Kofi Awoonor of Ghana, who was killed in the 2013 Westgate attack. Awoonor was one of at least 67 people killed when al-Shabaab fighters stormed into the Westgate Mall and occupied the building for four days; another 175 were injured. Addressing violent movements such as al-Shabaab – and Boko Haram in his own country, Nigeria – Soyinka made an urgent and poetic case for humanity and denounced “religious predators” across the continent. He also directed his anger at those political leaders who remain passive in the face of this threat and play it down in the “spineless language of political correctness.”

It was a larger-than-life Pan-African moment, but I felt a pinch of unease. Where was this vein of righteous anger heading and what might it be used to justify? The Westgate attack had already sparked a far-reaching securitisation of the asylum discourse in Kenya. Since 2013, proposed radical legislative changes and the mistreatment of refugees – especially of Somalis – on orders from Kenya’s executive have created an increasingly hostile climate, while civil society and the judiciary struggle to balance security against basic rights. The winners of the ongoing disputes around refugee rights in Kenya remain unclear.

Dadaab from the air.

Dadaab refugee camp. Photo courtesy Oxfam International.

The first fallout from Westgate was the call by Kenyan Parliamentarians to close the Dadaab refugee camp. Located in the northeast of the country, Dadaab is the largest camp in the world and currently home to more than 350,000 official residents, most of them from Somalia. The chairman of the Parliamentary defense committee warned that al-Shabaab was using the camp for training and recruitment. Fired up by the media, politicians went on to suggest repealing the Refugee Act of 2006, which had previously served as the basis of an accommodating refugee regime. Meanwhile, NGOs charged with refugee welfare in Kenya carefully manoeuvred between highlighting international commitments and maintaining good relations with the government.

In the heated atmosphere following Westgate, the Kenyan government concluded a tripartite agreement with the government of Somalia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the right to voluntary return, a development generally commended by international NGOs working for the rights of refugees. On the basis of the agreement, it was argued that Somalia had ceased to be in a situation of generalised violence and therefore no longer warranted a prima facie right to asylum (i.e. blanket protection for all Somali citizens coming to Kenya). In November 2013, Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph ole Lenku announced the closure of all refugee camps hosting Somali refugees. His reasoning strayed from supporting voluntary return, however, toward the rhetoric of expulsion that amounted to a blanket accusation toward Somalis in Kenya. While Lenku’s decision was not enforced, the government continued showing aggressive public support for voluntary returns and claimed that up to 100,000 Somalis had returned to those areas of their country that were declared safe in the tripartite agreement. However, a UNHCR pilot project to assist spontaneous returns reported only 3,338 people going back to Somalia between December, 2014 and August, 2015.

During 2014, after recurring smaller attacks by al-Shabaab and ensuing populist statements from politicians, Kenyan security forces cracked down on Somali refugees and also Kenyan citizens of Somali origin living in Nairobi and other towns across the country. Following another grenade attack at the end of March for which al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, the police detained more than 3,000 people at Kasarani Stadium to verify their identities and status as part of a country-wide sweep, on orders from Interior Minister Lenku to relocate all refugees present in the country to the camps. The arrests, deportations to the camps and expulsions of persons without refugee status were criticised internationally. In the same vein, the Kenyan High Court later ruled the summary (mis-)treatment illegal and re-affirmed the basic human rights of all refugees and particularly the estimated 33,000 Somalis then residing in Nairobi.

The interplay between terrorist attacks and government threats against refugees in the name of security had been a pattern since at least 2012, but the Westgate attack raised the stakes. The reflex to call for the closure of camps was renewed after this year’s horrific attack against a university campus in Garissa. Al-Shabaab militants continue to carry out incursions into Kenya, putting up their flags and preaching for hours just to prove that they can, while policy proposals by the Kenyan government remain shrill and un-pragmatic. This month, the construction of an “anti-terror wall” along the 700-km border to Somalia was announced, following the example of Israel.

The propaganda war between Kenya’s government and the terrorists downplays a number of key issues. Rampant corruption in the Kenyan police force means that some officers have been reported to use the mass round-up operations against Somalis and other undocumented persons for extortion. Others were accused of failing to protect Garissa students. What is more, no perpetrator in any major attack convicted so far has proven to be a refugee or asylum seeker. In Nairobi, the livelihoods of urban refugees are being destroyed while the wealthy profiteers of piracy and the arms trade across the Somali-Kenyan border go unharmed. More generally, unresolved land disputes in Kenya’s north and huge social inequalities across the country feed into home-grown terrorism. The 2007 post-election violence exposed the deep inequality and the dangers of angry, disenfranchised masses in a clientelistic democracy.

In the end, blanket crackdowns by the police and reactionary statements by Kenyan politicians against refugees and migrants in general mean that al-Shabaab is winning. The most democratic government in the East African region sees fit to roll back civil liberties and refugee rights, and curtail the rule of law. The government’s antagonistic policies would drive any refugee holding grievances against them (and considering violent action) toward the side of the terrorists. Beyond that, the Kenyan political elite might also benefit from pointing the finger at outsiders, allocating easy blame and brushing over the complex issues of corruption and inequality that perpetuate terrorism.

Wole Soyinka’s grappling with the horrors of terrorism in Africa brought home all the unresolvable dilemmas that the world at large has been dealing with since the beginning of this age on September 11, 2001. The rhetoric of “standing together” against an external threat should be questioned by Kenyans if the implied consequence is rounding up people on the basis of their “foreign” exterior and pushing them out of the country.

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