In the year since Mehmoud Hassan arrived in Nairobi from Baidoa in southern Somalia, he says he has been arrested more than 10 times by the Kenyan police and paid more than US$300 in fines to secure his release. His crime, says the 29-year-old former civil society activist, was being a Somali national in a city increasingly hostile to the flood of refugees from the battered Horn of Africa state.
Even this cycle of arrest and release failed to prepare Hassan for his latest encounter with the police. He and his 80-year-old grandmother were among more than 2,000 people - including Somali members of parliament in Nairobi for a meeting - who were rounded up in a week of raids and arrests following a 15 January protest against the detention and subsequent deportation of a radical Islamist cleric by the Kenyan government. Muslim human rights activists claimed five people were killed in the demonstration while the government has limited the official death toll to one.
A spokeswoman for the Internal Security Ministry, who declined to be identified, told IRIN the raids were a direct result of the “threat posed by the foreigners. The riots were not caused by citizens of this country, but by the foreign extremists.”
Despite holding identification papers issued by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Hassan and his grandmother were held for two days as illegal migrants, and released only after paying a substantial sum to the police.
“They said I was Al-Shabab [insurgents fighting the Somali government]. But I was not even at the demonstration! What happened was wrong; we are hosted here by this government and yet the government of Kenya targeted us,” said Hassan. “There is a rank hostility towards the Somali people and we are feeling hunted here.”
Many of those arrested were in fact ethnic Somali citizens of Kenya, which shares a long border with Somalia.
Photo: Allan Gichigi/IRIN
|Kenyan police were accused of targetting ethnic Somalis|
“I am a Kenyan but that did not matter because I am a Somali; it is very unfair to be treated like that in your own country," said a tea-seller, who asked to be identified only as Halimo. "Why don't they arrest others who look like Somalis? We are being singled out. I can understand the police arresting people who break the law but I am only a single mother trying to make a living yet I was treated like a criminal.”
Another Kenyan Somali said: "It is a fact that Eastleigh has become a huge business conglomerate, with Kenyan Somalis being the majority owners of the buildings in the area. This has prompted jealousy and business rivalry from non-Somali business operators and they would like nothing else than to see the Somalis' expansion curtailed.”
In response to such widespread and well-publicised accusations of malfeasance by his men, Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere insisted that “any officer who engages in unethical or unprofessional behaviour during these operations will face stern disciplinary action”.
He said more than 1,000 illegal immigrants had been detained and would now “be dealt with according to the law”, insisting that “no community, race, faith or nationality had been targeted”.
He conceded, however, that “some innocent people have been inconvenienced”.
Although the violence that swept Nairobi after disputed 2007 presidential polls was largely confined to long-standing animosity between ethnic groups, there is a growing sense – corroborated by security analysts – that the government is fomenting hostility against the comparatively well-to-do migrants to deflect attention from its own failings in the run-up to 2012 elections.
“Most Kenyans are really quite frustrated that nothing has changed [since the 2007 elections]; the government is still engaging in the same repressive action, the security machinery is unchanged, and people are fundamentally worse off financially,” said Deborah Osiro, a Kenyan researcher with the Institute for Security Studies.
“So the government is using [Kenyan] frustration to possibly take advantage, to cultivate resentment against a population that is perceived as doing well, to deflect responsibility for their failures to really change the status quo.”
That open hostility manifests itself both overtly, in police harassment, and covertly, in the disregard for maintaining public infrastructure and utilities in the predominantly Somali neighbourhood of Eastleigh in eastern Nairobi.
Photo: Allan Gichigi/IRIN
|Police raids have prompted widespread discontent|
“Eastleigh is the fastest growing and one of the most thriving neighbourhoods in Nairobi and that is annoying Kenyans, who are trying to maintain their commercial and economic footholds but are unable to do so,” said Osiro. “And they see the Somalis pricing them out of the lower or middle-income real estate market and wonder how refugees can be doing better financially than their hosts. Of course there are deeper influences at play here, but it’s easy to blame the stranger – something that seems entirely new for Kenya.”
Extremes at play
Though far from being the only neighbourhood in the capital to suffer power outages, water shortages or irregular rubbish collection, Eastleigh has its own particular travails. The visible wealth of the commercial sector is in sharp contrast with its decrepit surroundings.
Soaring above zinc-roofed market stalls are well-constructed multi-storied buildings with sweeping staircases that connect small apartments to storefronts. The roads are virtually impassable, rutted with potholes and crowded with minibuses and gleaming SUVs emblazoned with Arabic slogans. There is no road drainage and passers-by dodge mounds of rubbish on nearly every street corner, weaving around lorries unloading merchandise from dry goods to tyres and electronics.
There are no public clinics in Eastleigh, few state-run schools and men still ply the roads with carts filled with jerry cans of water, to supplement the inconsistent municipal supplies. Such neglect is grating for Abdisak, who asked that his surname not be used. After fleeing Mogadishu in 2007, he has run a small dry goods shop in Eastleigh, supporting a family that includes a young son.
“We pay taxes, lots of taxes, to the city council and other authorities, but when we ask for simple repairs to our roads, or to the sewers, they say no,” he said. “And when the Somali business community asked to be allowed to rebuild the roads ourselves, with our own money, they said no. We are at the mercy of gangs, who extort money from us, and of the police, who collect fines.”
For Mohammed Ali Mukhtar, the raids following the mosque protest only heightened a feeling that has been brewing within him for several months: even though home is not safe, at least the danger is a known quantity. He is making plans to return to his home in Galkayo, in central Somalia, before the 2012 vote.
“We came here because it was supposed to be safer than at home,” he said. “But if they are attacking us now, when there is no reason to do so, what is going to happen with the elections when they have political motivation?”