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Africa’s epidemic of mutual ignorance: Lessons from the Horn and East Africa – PART I

East Africans know so little about the Horn of Africa and Africans in the Horn know so little about East Africa

The creation of continental and regional bodies to collectively maintain progress or deal with any challenges reflects the realisation that although events in one country have the power to affect the entire world, some regions and countries are more connected to each other and, as a result, the effects (negative or positive) are stronger than for others.  As wars, epidemics, economic downturns have showed, when one country suffers, an entire region is affected. Surprisingly however, decades after the creation of these regional entities, the scourge of mutual and popular ignorance about each other remains one of the major hindrances to security, development, collaborations, anti-colonial resistance in the region and perhaps the entirety of Africa.

I learned this while doing fieldwork in Somaliland – as a Ugandan, East African. In Mogadishu in 2012, and later Hargeisa 2013-2018 for short and long-stays, I quickly confirmed my fears—that had become more concrete over the war against Al-Shabab—that East Africans know so little about the Horn of Africa and Africans in the Horn know so little about East Africa.  This is not only true about ordinary people, but also about security service-people, and other officials.

This ignorance often ends in smouldering (or actually manifest) hostilities, xenophobia, racial stereotyping, and complicity with foreign exploiters, which combine to complicate regional peacebuilding efforts, cultural integration, development, anti-colonial resistance and generally, business. Often, criminal groups and individuals (corrupt security officers, human traffickers), and more significantly, new colonial missionaries have exploited this ignorance and fear about each other, and turned us against each other—yet, sadly, these new colonial exploiters see the entire continent as one exploitable block. Because of the regional configuration of otherwise national conflicts (Burundi, South Sudan, Somalia, DRC), and security ceasing to be just a function of the uniformed officers, but also ordinary people, my contention is that all our worries—as a continent—could be significantly reduced with the cultivation of avenues of “popular knowledge” production about and amongst each other.

I will tell stories from Somalia, Somaliland and East Africa to make this point more vivid. I will start with the story of Hamdi Ahmed Hussein.

Being Somali in East Africa

In October 2014, Hamdi Ahmed Hussein (not real names), a “half-refugee” living in Uganda, visited the Turkish Embassy in Kampala to learn about the visa procedures for persons interested in visiting that country.  Many refugees in Uganda (Somali, Eritrean, South Sudanese and Ethiopians) could be called “half refuges”, as they do not live in camps but live like any other member of the community, in the neighbourhoods and villages.  As a recent graduate from one of Uganda’s universities, and having spent five years in the country, she had started longing for opportunities elsewhere, which saw her at the embassy.

At the reception, mistaken for an Ethiopian by a team of Ugandan workers she was received cordially and showed to the next window.  Having reached the window, she pulled out her passport identifying herself as Somali.  To her surprise and to that of the receptionists (she’s not Ethiopian, one of them exclaimed), she was Somali.  Being Somali acquired a new meaning between them.  There was unease on their hitherto jocund faces.  She was asked to step aside and wait for a while.  Immediately, an armed security officer stationed at the gate was called on to keep her under close watch, before the embassy employees resumed attending to her.  When the officer came, he stood right behind her, not too close not too far, but evidently watching over her was his new and urgent assignment.  As Hamdi was showed into the computer rooms to place herself an appointment, the armed security officer followed every single step she made.  Since there were several other people visiting the embassy, who were unattended to by security guards the way she was, this exclusive treatment prompted an angrily reaction.

“What is the problem? Am I a threat?” she asked amidst the unease. The security guard did not say anything.  Looked on and smiled mirthlessly as he tightly held on to his rifle.  It was bizarre.  Although she went through the process of placing herself an appointment for her next visit to the embassy, Hamdi had already made up her mind not to return.  When she visited the Rwandan embassy the following day, and presented her Somali passport, she was told, without explanation, they did not issue any visas to Somali passports.  Despite being not dramatic as had been at the Turkish embassy, the experience was thoroughly devastating.  The overt message was that identifying as Somali was to be a threat to regional, and perhaps international security. But from whence did this stereotyping of an entire community come from? Whose narrative are we using to segregate against and be afraid of the Somalis—using a broad brush?

Consider the Kenyan situation: In 2013, following news reports of human rights violations of Somalis in Kenya, 101 refugees living in Nairobi were interviewed. The report of these interviews documents harrowing stories of rape and other abuses of Somali identifiable persons living in Kenya.   In one of the stories, a 34-year-old woman refugee, we’ll call her Halima, who had lived in Nairobi since 2008 narrates how, one day, walking home on 4th Street, three Regular Police officers stopped her.  One of the officers was female.  Halima showed them her refugee documents but they just attacked her.  The female officer grabbed her breasts and shoulders and tried to lift her veil before pushing her into a ditch by the roadside.  Halima continues that ‘all three hit and kicked me and tore at my clothes.  The female officer was shouting ‘you are a prostitute’ and ‘you Somalis are all Al-Shabaab and terrorists.’

Since she had her refugee papers with her, it would be understandable to the police officers that she had entered Nairobi escaping the violence in Somalia, part of which is blamed on the Al-Shabaab.  Her attackers, instead, lumped her onto the group she has been trying to escape.  Halima narrates further that they then put her a car and they drove off to a place she couldn’t recognize because it was dark.  Suddenly, the vehicle stopped and the female officer alighted.  One of the men hit her legs with his truncheon as he also slapped her.  ‘Then he raped me.  When he finished, he got out of the car and another man got in and raped me. When it was over, they drove me for some time and then shouted at me to get out of the car.  Then they just drove away,’ Halima narrates.  Certainly, they did not have case against her.  She was neither terrorist nor thief.  The men in uniform only exploited the environment of fear, suspicion, and popular ignorance about the Somalis.

This environment of anxiety and anarchy came after unknown people attacked a bus in Eastleigh killing seven people and injuring over 30 others on 19 November 2012.  As the interviewers would learn, these abuses (including torture, detention, rape, beating, extortion and several others) came as retaliation over the killings in Eastleigh.  As the abuses unfolded, it was evident all Somalis came to be associated with terrorism. Indeed, in all the 101 interviews, victims reported being accused of terrorism. Sadly, however, in all cases, the police ended up extorting the victims, which means, the arrests were not for national security reasons, but selfish ends, taking advantage of the atmosphere emergent of our collective ignorance.

Imported discourses, child-like ignorance

As Islam has been securitised in Western Europe so has been the securitisation of identities in the pursuit of secular subjects.  East Africans have borrowed these narratives and are using them against Ethiopians, Somalis and Muslims who have been their brethren and kindred for entire generations.  The problem with these securitization discourse—and responses such as Hamdi received—is that they assign entire communities a ‘first intelligibility’ to use Edward Said’s term, a way of thinking and working.  The idea is not necessarily to profit, alienate, marginalise, deny access, or exclude from the comity of nations (although it actually ends in these manifestations).  The genesis of all these is some form of “innocent ignorance,” a sort of childhood ignorance, if you like, especially as an effort to understand the unknown.

This is not really in the Foucauldian sense of knowledge and power, or the Edward Said sense of orientalism—both of them being deliberately engaged practices—this is simply about ignorance that is not seen from the vantage point of knowledge, but ignorance in its independent conceptual existence.  This type of ignorance signals a benign absence of knowledge produced by processes including especially time and distance.  Because of time, that is, being of a young age, a baby will be ignorant about the complex process of adult sexuality, and because of distance, large sections of East Africans will be ignorant about the cultures of Vietnamese concerning marriage and death.  Without a deliberate effort to fill this vacuum with learning and exposure, this absence becomes filled with suspicion, malice, labels and which ends in stereotyping entire communities.  An array of falsehoods, all innocently and genuinely attempting to define the unknown—without ulterior intentions—become commonplace.

In the context of hostile political and economic relations often seen through civil wars, refugee crises, and competitions for resources within nation-states and across the region, these negative labels tend to become not only attractive but also hegemonic descriptions of the unknown.  This could be the making of power and politics, although it may not necessarily be.  In the East African-Horn of Africa context, once one is identified as Somali, Kenyan, or Ugandan or as the other, the labels take centre stage.  In the process this has potential to legitimate not just suspicion and exclusion, but also aggression and conspiracy against each other.

The Somali crisis continues to take a regional configuration, and it is engulfing both the Horn and East Africa—with both security and economic challenges such as piracy on the Indian Ocean, terrorism, mass movement and displacement of people.  Despite the violence that spread to Uganda and Kenya in 2010, East Africans continue to see it as an essentially Somali problem.  In truth, to put it more poetically, when the Horn sneezes, East Africa catches a cold (and the other way around).  Unfortunately, however, the region’s security infrastructure and related peacebuilding initiatives have no initiative towards bottom-level, informally-responsive approaches to peacebuilding, especially relating to generating popular knowledge of and about each other, for the consumption of the everyday people.

The usual focus of security interventions and peacebuilding initiatives in the region has often centred on identifying the root causes of conflicts such as the presence of negative forces in the region (including illegal armed groups, rebels, and terrorist groups) and the persistent climate of tension and mistrust among political leaders. The proliferation of arms and small weapons across the region, illegal resource exploitation, contested boundaries, population displacement, land, and concerns over food availability are, among others, discussed as causes of conflicts. Other approaches have focused on identifying the actors (local and international), their interests (political, economic, and sometimes, cultural-religious); and the strategies of the different parties involved in the conflict.

Sadly, except for instances where the neighbouring country is seen as actively involved in the conflict (say Eritrea and Ethiopia, Somaliland and Puntland) or politicians of one country interfere with another, most of these approaches often describe security challenges in a rather national sense, micro sense, which means, conflict is understood as mainly contained within the borders of one country, and it is just its effects that reach the neighbouring countries. As a result, ordinary people are often denied agency and participation yet in their ordinariness, they are intimately connected with the folks of other countries. The deepening of these connections, however, remains stunted by mutual ignorance about each other, which fuels prejudices, exclusion, and abuses.

Al-Shabaab remains largely unknown and this is true, not only about its operations but also its foot-soldiers. No one can, with certainty, identify an Al-Shabaab affiliate, spy, or bomber.  Since the Somalis have been claimed to possess identifiably distinctive features, and since Al-Shabaab is based in Somali territory, and is an offshoot of the Somali postcolonial predicament in Mogadishu, identifying as Somali—legally, say by use of one’s passport, physically and linguistically—has become synonymous with Al-Shabaab connections.  Additionally, since Somalis identify as Muslims, to also identify as Muslim, which is a performative tradition (in fashion, speech, makeup, association, cuisine, gait, etc.), is also taken to suggest terrorist connections.  Kenya’s threat to close Dadaab refugee camp, was informed by a mind-set that sees all Somalis through Al-Shabaab lenses.  The rise in cases of racial profiling of ethnic Somalis by both police and ordinary people reflects this mind-set and explains the current state of affairs.


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