Another casualty of the Kenyan government crackdown on Somalis

Most of what needs to be said about the Kenyan government’s heavy-handed and indiscriminate crack-down on Somalis and Somali-Kenyans in Nairobi has already been stated many times over the past few weeks. The criticisms have included the following:

  • It is exactly what Al-Shabaab wants the Kenyan government to do – overact and engage in collective punishment against all Somalis, which could drive Somalis back into the Al-Shabaab’s arms;
  • It is a violation of human rights and due process;
  • It is fueling dangerous levels of communal tensions and unfairly demonizing an entire ethnic group in Kenya;
  • It is reinforcing a sense among Kenya’s many Somali-Kenyans that they are marginalized, second-class citizens;
  • It risks economic consequences as the large Somali business community considers relocating businesses and selling assets in Kenya;
  • It has quickly morphed from a security operation to yet another opportunity for corrupt Kenyan security forces to extort money from Somalis;
  • It is poisoning already tense relations between the Kenyan and Somali governments, and exposing Kenyans working in Somalia to security threats.

But there is one other casualty in the Kenyan crackdown on Somalis that has not gotten as much attention – the Somali experience with democracy and “normal” politics in Kenya.

Somalis from across the eastern Horn – in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, Puntland, Somalia, and Kenya – pay close attention to how politics is pursued in the different political systems within which they live. Kenya has been of special importance in this regard. For decades, Somali Kenyans had no voice or role in Kenyan politics – indeed, until 1992 northern Kenya was governed under martial law. Over the past decade, however, Kenyan Somalis have fared much better, not only in the economic realm, where their business community presides over booming commerce in Eastleigh and Garissa, but also in politics, where Kenya’s democracy has opened up new avenues for Somali Kenyan influence.  Somali Kenyans have risen to top positions of power in recent Kenyan governments, including Minister of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief of Police, Head of Intelligence, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, and head of the Electoral Commission.  Thanks to devolution, in 2013 Somali Kenyans elected their own governors and legislative assemblies in the three Somali-inhabited counties of Garissa, Wajir, and Mandera.

What all this means is that Somalis in Kenya have been learning how to play – and win – in a democratic political system. And other Somalis from the wider region have been watching, and learning too. This is a very good thing. The more Somalis come to appreciate the benefits of working out disagreements with ballots, not bullets, the sooner Somalia can enjoy sustained peace. And the more that Somalis feel that they are stakeholders in the political systems in which they live in the eastern Horn, the more stable and secure the region will be.

The Kenyan experience thus has the potential to have major impact on Somali political orientations in the rest of the region.  This point was hammered home to me two years ago while on a short research trip to Jigjiga and Gode in Somali Regional State, Ethiopia (if you’re wondering, yes, it was a difficult trip to arrange, and yes I was watched closely). At one point a Somali Ethiopian interviewee pulled me aside and said, “look, we accept now that we are Ethiopian citizens – we no longer seek to be part of a Greater Somalia. But we want to be full citizens of Ethiopia, with all the benefits.” He paused and then added, “We want in Ethiopia what we’ve got in Kenya.”

That was a powerful statement – a reminder that Somalis are playing close attention to how politics is played across the wider region, and are learning lessons from it.  The Somali experience in Kenyan politics could have a ripple effect across the wider Horn, encouraging Somalis to play, and win, via political engagement rather than political rejection.

All that is in peril in Kenya today. The new lesson Somalis are now learning in Kenya is that they are still not seen as full citizens; their loyalties are suspect, and their political status can be revoked at the stroke of a pen even in a democracy. All of the external and domestic efforts inside Somalia to encourage a new culture of rule of law and checks and balances on abuse of power are undermined by the meta-message the Kenyan crackdown sends.