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Losing Hearts and Minds in Kenya
Losing Hearts and Minds in Kenya
Could Talking to Mali's Jihadists Bring Peace?
Could Talking to Mali's Jihadists Bring Peace?
Commentary / Africa

Losing Hearts and Minds in Kenya

The Crackdown on Somalis Will Probably Backfire

The round-up and mass detention of Somalis in Nairobi, which began in earnest on 31 March, deliberately conflated immigration issues with counter-terrorism and has widened dangerous communal divides. Al-Shabaab and its extremist allies in Kenya will be very satisfied. What the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall last September failed to do – sow division among Kenyans – might well be achieved by these detentions and deportations. This month’s events brought out the worst in Kenya, from the prejudice shown, especially in social media, by ordinary citizens, to petty point scoring by the political class, to police extortion of bribes from lawfully resident Somalis, to the extrajudicial execution of the controversial Muslim preacher known as Makaburi (“graveyard”).

The terrorist threat is real enough. In March, security forces seized a pick-up truck packed with explosives, reportedly part of a planned multi-pronged attack in Mombasa. (Authorities believed the truck was one of several devices.) Soon thereafter, armed gunmen killed six worshipers at a Christian Church in the Likoni area of Mombasa. There was also a spate of grenade attacks targeting Christians, and claiming another six lives, in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, where people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds live side by side.

The Westgate mall attack killed indiscriminately and brought a unified response: private Kenyan citizens, including of Somali origin, were applauded for their individual heroism and community support, and the nation, led by President Kenyatta, stood as one. By contrast, the recent attacks were targeted and the government’s security operations in response quickly exposed divides between majority and minority communities, even between MPs within the ruling Jubilee coalition. The operations also drew a belated but firm responsefrom the opposition Orange Democratic Coalition.

The security sweep – at one point 6,000 police descended on Eastleigh and neighbouring Majengo and Pangani – and mass arrests are particularly poignant for Kenyans of Somali heritage, a significant minority population whose districts were for long years under a state of emergency. Security services’ abuses were common there; a memorial to one such infamous instance, the 1984 Wagalla massacre, was recently unveiled. Kenyan Somalis face stringent requirements for acquiring national identity cards – the vetting process can be arbitrarily suspended for months on end – even though widespread corruption enables others without birthright to acquire these documents illicitly with relative ease.

Concerted action against illegally resident Somalis was announced last year but halted at the eleventh hour by a legal ruling. Legality aside, the latest operation was poorly handled: that some 4,000 citizens were arrested in a few days suggests due process might well have been trumped by paranoia. Many Kenyans and Somalis with valid documents have been stopped in the street or visited by police in their homes, often in the middle of the night: 5,000 shillings ($60) was the going rate for a bribe to avoid being carted off into detention.

In the space of little more than a week, Kenyan Somalis (almost 2 million people), along with half a million refugees and migrants, have found themselves to be in a targeted class. Their experience resonates all too well with the sermons and speeches of radical preachers – a number of whom, most recently Makaburi, have been assassinated by persons unknown – who play upon Muslim marginalisation to promote support for Al-Shabaab and other radical groups. The government’s recent action threatens to create a greater constituency for Al-Shabaab, uniting grievances that are specific to the Somali community with those of the wider Muslim population. This includes the largely Muslim coastal counties, whose social indicators are among the lowest in Kenya. Security forces’ excesses also undermine the anti-Shabaab messages of Salafi/Wahhabi clerics – especially those of Somali heritage like Sheikh Umal and Sheikh Shibli – who turned against Al-Shabaab in 2009 and gave comprehensive theological condemnations of the Westgate attacks.

Another own goal, given Kenya’s fragile economic recovery, is the negative impact on the Somali business community. From their hub in Eastleigh, Somalis direct trade, transport and manufacturing from South Africa to South Sudan, and further afield in the Gulf and South East Asia. This enterprising community brings in an estimated $780 million per annum in foreign currency to Kenya’s exchequer. According to Somali business sources, many Somali-owned businesses, fearing further state reprisals, are sending their dollars to safer havens. This could devalue the Kenyan shilling, adding inflationary pressure.

The plight of Kenyan Somalis also reveals more general ailments, most particularly with regard to the police. Police reform has been very slow despite the promises that followed the post-election violence of 2007-2008 and the rights enshrined in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution.

Now, as the makeshift detention centre in Nairobi’s Kasarani stadium begins to empty, with more than 80 Somalis deported direct to Mogadishu and more expected to follow, along with several hundred refugees transported back to the camps on the border, what is the ongoing operation achieving? Not necessarily a safer Kenya, but rather an experience of persecution that risks being only of benefit to Al-Shabaab and their ilk. They have been quick to exploit the disturbing images of huddled Somalis in detention, as well as portraying the Somali Federal Government as weak and complicit.

Kenya can and must do better than this in countering the terrorist threat, as well as addressing illegal migration. Blanket actions that look like collective punishment of a particular minority and faith group can only marginalise – and radicalise – further. The president and senior security officials need to call out the terrorist tactics of communal division – as they did after Westgate – and build greater community and national cohesion. This is not only the right thing to do: such actions will enhance intelligence gathering and help interdict terrorist plots. The damage done in the past two weeks is not irreparable, but it is a real setback for a country that needs the trust and cooperation of all its citizens.

Podcast / Africa

Could Talking to Mali's Jihadists Bring Peace?

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, Crisis Group’s Sahel expert, about whether it is time for a new strategy in Mali as the government and its allies struggle against jihadist insurgents. 

The war in the Sahel appears to have reached a stalemate. In Mali, fighting pits the Malian security forces, backed by regional militaries and French special forces and airpower, against an al-Qaeda-linked jihadist coalition, JNIM (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims). Since Mali’s crisis in 2012-2013, efforts to defeat jihadist militants have only seen their influence expand. Violence has spread across the Sahel at terrible human cost. Two successive coups in Bamako, Mali’s capital, have fuelled political instability. French officials appear exasperated by the lack of progress. Yet militants themselves are also under pressure, with several leaders killed over recent years. 

In this episode of Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, Crisis Group’s Sahel expert, to ask whether it is time for a new approach. They take stock of the insurgency’s current state, its aims and JNIM’s relationship with al-Qaeda. They discuss the future of the French presence and the consequences of the recent coups. They also speak at length about prospects for talks between the government and JNIM leaders, what such talks might entail and the challenges such a path would pose. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Sahel and Mali regional pages as well as our work on Jihad in Modern Conflict. Be sure to keep an eye out for Ibrahim’s upcoming report.


Interim President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Consulting Analyst, Sahel