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

In Uganda and Kenya, the sight of a Somali is equated to seeing a terrorist. Yet, Somalis are by far the biggest victims of terrorism!

Following the surge of Al-Shabaab attacks in the region, the Kenyan government launched several operations to fight or guard against the attacks. These operations were both local and regional. In 2011, ‘Operation Linda Nchi,’ that is, ‘Operation Keep the Country Safe,’ saw the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) enter southern Somalia. The Government of Kenya noted that the overall objective of the operation was “to reduce the Al Shabab effectiveness and to restore Transitional Federal Government (TFG) authority in order to achieve enduring peace in Somalia.” However, this operation also had implications at home including the surge of abuses on Somali refugees and any Somali identifiable persons in Kenya as several reports showed. The rhetoric in the media and popular discourses around this operation and the subsequent ones stereotyped all Somalis, not just as having connections with the terrorists but as being the terrorists themselves.

In April 2014, the Kenyan government launched another, this time internal operation dubbed, “Operation Sanitization of Eastleigh.” Also known as “Operation Usalama Watch,” Usalama being the Kiswahili word for safety, the operation intended to “arrest foreign nationals who were in the country unlawfully and anyone suspected of terrorist links.” Since the Al-Shabaab terrorists were of Somali descent, the crackdown on alleged Al-Shabaab conspirators targeting a Somali-dominated business area of Nairobi, Eastleigh, was telling enough as it turned being of Somali ethnic into a securitized and profiled identity. By the operation’s name, it was evident it had reduced all Somalis to having affiliation with the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab; it quickly turned into an elaborate ethnic profiling platform. In the course of the operation, “at least 4,000 ethnic Somalis and foreign nationals from neighbouring countries were arrested”. Analyst, Mathui Mutuma’s opinion, ‘Are we just going to sit around and wait to be blown to bits by terrorists?’ wrote in one of Kenya’s lead dailies, Daily Nation sums up the general state of popular ignorance in Kenya. Mutuma, who was also the managing editor of Daily Nation wrote that he had “learnt to recognise the frozen, blazing eyes of the killer; the unblinking, reptilian stare of those who had crossed the line from human to monster…” Mutuma’s technique of identifying possible monsters was simply ethnic: ‘every little, two-bit Somali has a big dream – to blow us up, knock down our buildings and slaughter our children.’ In other words, once one would be identified as Somali, largely by appearance, they fitted into Mutuma’s criteria of monsters. What a load of nonsense this was!

In a language which seems to suggest that the ordinary people ought to take matters in their hands, the managing editor despondently remarked: ‘They [the Somalis] declared war on us and we thought it was a small matter that some guy in government was going to take care of. We were wrong.’ This remark returns us to the rhetorical question in the headline of his editorial: Are we just going to sit around…? Throughout Nairobi, there were cases of Kenyans of other ethnic identities disembarking buses and taxis on seeing anyone physically identifiable as Somali. It didn’t matter whether these were Somali Kenyans or Somali Somalis (an unnecessary dichotomy, I should add)!

When profiling goes regional

One outstanding example involved Adnan Mohamed, a Kenyan of Somali ethnicity who had won the 2013 ‘Uongozi Season One,’ a popular leadership-related reality TV programme in Nairobi. Mohamed had boarded a taxi to his work place, but the taxi could not take off as those who were already aboard alighted after seeing a Somali on board—a potential monster. One would imagine that the fact that Adnan Mohamed had won a show which involved several other Kenyan Somali contestants would have changed perceptions about Somalis. This could be true, but the Kenyans’ ignorance about Somalia, and the Somalis struggles against violence and terrorism inside Somalia, clouds their knowledge of even the Somali Kenyans. Since Somalis across the different citizenships—Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya—have tended to be distinctively identifiable, in the context of war and violence, ignorance clouds any positive knowledge ending in racial and ethnic profiling.

In late 2014, similar incidents happened in Uganda. Several security raids were mounted in Kampala and people of Somali and Ethiopian descent were arrested. The arrest followed some form of vigilantism on the part of Ugandans. On September 18, 2014, New Vision, Uganda’s government-owned newspaper reported that operations in Nateete, one of Kampala’s suburbs, were carried out “after local authorities reported a recent influx of Somali nationals.” The paper noted that “most of the suspects were holding dual citizenships (determined, perhaps by holding two passports) or claiming refugee status.” No one cared to explain how holding dual citizenship became evidence for criminal activity.

On September 19, 2014, other arrests were reported in eastern Uganda, coming after a tip-off from guesthouse management that reported the “unusual” behaviour of its clients. The unusual behaviour was described thus: “They kept mostly to their rooms,” and “spent most of the time making phone calls and talking in Kiswahili.” After the arrests, some of the suspects were paraded in court. On October 8, 2014, describing Somalis in the dock, the media pointed out their “unkempt hair and bushy beards,” and the women were “dressed in hijab and veiled.” By implication, the above, including talking a lot on the phone and speaking in Kiswahili is the expected outward image of a potential terrorist. Of course, the features pointed to for culpability suggest a profiling of an entire community, the Somalis, and Muslims. Most importantly, this does not point to deliberate misrepresentation in an orientalist sense, but festered and reified ignorance.

Consider the claim of holding multiple passports or dual citizenship. This is something that Somalis joke about every day. The joke involves an elderly Somali woman in possession of three passports, Ethiopian, Somalia, and Somaliland at an airport in Nairobi. Received from one of her most dynamic sons, she did not know the right one to present at an airport in Nairobi, and every time one was rejected, she pulled out another until all three had been presented. The import of this joke is that after decades of conflict, the present Somali state in Mogadishu controls a tiny percentage of the country, too small to monitor all outside travel. Thus, Somalis have had to find their own means to make mobility possible. With difficulties in getting the Somali passport from Mogadishu, one which is also treated suspiciously across the region, survival has taken different forms including buying, forging, and getting other passports from neighbouring countries. This isn’t a statement of criminality, but basic survival as clearly, that elderly amiable woman in the joke, could never have been to anything criminal.

Also, if one sought to sympathetically understand the Somalis on their own terms keeping “unkempt hair” (as East Africans tend to see their curly hair using their local standard), spending a lot of the time on their phones (majority Somalis used to use Orange Telecom especially because of plenty of free talk time then—and Somalis are baroque conversationalists), one quickly appreciates, and if I may generalise here, this is simply “the Somali way.” The proliferation of these negative, hostile, and sweeping generalisations masquerading as informed security responsiveness is not only dangerous to regional security, but makes the region easily exploitable by foreign and local criminal units, and easily end in more conflict.

Exploiting the fear of Al-Shabab

When Rooble Ahmed [not real names] flew from Hargeisa to Kampala in 2013, he was interested in getting an education in Uganda’s well-publicised universities. When he reached Entebbe International Airport aboard a flight filled mostly with Somali nationals, because of his relatively good English, he was asked to help the other non-English-literate Somalis complete their emigration forms. At the end of this rather generous and tedious exercise, this act of generosity would be used against him. It is mindboggling. His good English suggested good breeding and perhaps affluent background. His Somalia passport, for which, like many Somalilanders, he had spent days in Mogadishu to get, would not be accepted. Taken away from him and after hours of scrutiny and waiting, Rooble Ahmed would later learn that the accent with which he spoke his English was one of the reasons for the standoff. Ahmed had picked a fluid English accent (a weak one though) from just watching movies. (Throughout my journeys in Somalia, I have met many Somalis with an accent picked from simply watching movies). Denied entry on claims of his “British” accent, which was construed to mean, he was told, “radicalised in the UK and had connected through Hargeisa ahead of his final destination of attack,” Rooble Ahmed’s ordeal lasted a week. Under arrest at the airport, Rooble Ahmed found several other people including Somalis and Eritreans in this makeshift detention room.

In the following days, the story of his arrest kept changing as rogue security officers struggled to string it as circumstances changed. He was being ransomed for money to be allowed into Uganda. From then on, no one was interested in looking at his documents including the other supporting documents he had with him such as his birth certificate. There was clearly no investigation. Six of the Somalis he had found inside the makeshift cell were allowed into the country after they had paid a ransom of between US$450 – US$600. Often, there would be a “friendly” Somali talking to the detainees and advising them on what to do. Quickly, Rooble Ahmed understood that it was a cartel of extortionists inside the airport involving fellow Somalis. Asked to call his family for ransom to enter the country, Rooble was left cold in Entebbe for five days.

In complete detention now, the detainees would be allowed to the canteen once a day. His parents are not wealthy and had sacrificed a lot to raise the air ticket to Uganda. Luckily, the US$100 on him was not taken away, and convinced that he could not afford much more, the officers turned him back to Somaliland going through Nairobi. Somehow, without a boarding pass, Ugandan authorities at the airport managed to get him onto one of the flights to Nairobi, but he could neither enter Kenya nor connect to Hargeisa.

It is easy to explain Rooble’s story as one of corruption and extortion of the officers at Entebbe. But this would be to miss the discourse upon which this racket thrives. It would be to miss the ingredients upon which both Ugandan and Somali officials conspire to behave like pirates on the high seas, targeting specific nationalities. It is evident that the absence of a clear understanding of who the Somalis are by East Africans has created an environment that victimises all Somalis, and emboldens aggression against them. Because of the rhetoric surrounding the regional war on terror, a general sense of animosity towards people of Somali descent has brewed over time.

In one of the comments in an online article critiquing the use of stereotypes to arrest people of Somali descent in Uganda, one reader noted:

[Don’t] forget, the Somalis invite the suspicions and stereotype on themselves. First of all, these people are racist and/or separatist to speak. Like Indians, they don’t integrate with the people they live among: e.g., in spite of being here for ages, and even born in Uganda; how many male or female Indians and Somalis have you come across who married Ugandans? With Jesus’ beard I guess none. In other words, if they are suspects and persona non grata, it is their fault. This type of exclusivism was the more reason Amin didn’t give a damn to expel Indians in 1972. If look down on your host, what would be wrong throwing you out, especially if, in addition you are clandestine.

Without focusing on the stereotypes that this comment knowingly or unknowingly reproduces, it is evident that Indians and Somalis are treated as one and the same: Aliens who ought to be resisted. Notions such as being looked down upon are often repeated in a generalising manner. The comment above points to the smouldering hostility between these communities, which identify mutually as the ‘Other,’ with potential to degenerate into xenophobic profiling and violence.

The invocation of Amin’s treatment of Indians in 1972 to explain a present condition over Somalis suggests a wide gap between the region’s nationalities at the level of knowing each other. It is upon this environment, intoxicated with fear and hate that the cartel at the airport thrives. In one other even strongly worded comment, a reader identifying as Andrew noted that no Somali was innocent:


If every Somali has a relative in the Al-Shabab terrorist group is enough proof of what a friend who lived in Kenya told me, “There is no innocent Somali.” These relatives of theirs consult them as they plan their attacks on us. It is these distant relatives who provide information to their relatives to ease their work. They hide them when they come to visit and cross check their areas of target. The Somalis will continue to be victimized since they cannot give in their terrorist relatives (ibid, emphasis mine).


That a Kenyan made the comment and is agreeable to a person living in Uganda is evidence of finely etched indifference towards an entire constituency. What is evident here is that the sight of a Somali is equated to seeing a terrorist––yet Somalis are by far the biggest victims of terrorism! This ethnic profiling thrives on a mutual ignorance shared in Uganda and Kenya about Somalis. It certainly does not matter to these overzealous ignorant commenters that some of the worst victims of terrorism have been the relatives of terrorists themselves—coming not only in the form of suicide attacks in Mogadishu but also in the form of murders of young men who have refused to join the group. As we have seen in Rooble’s story, linking rather innocent individuals to Al-Shabaab, provided by an environment of fear, hatred, and popular ignorance, has become a technique of extorting ransom. The unfortunate consequence of this is this state of affairs—of stereotypes, racial profiling, and cultural amnesia—is that it slows down mobility causing undue anxiety all of which hamper business and political engagement within and across the region.


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