Somalis: Kenya is our home too and we are not a security threat

Ahmednassir Abdullahi
 Ahmednassir Abdullahi


Kenya: When Operation Usalama Watch began nearly a month ago in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate, a tinge of sadness came over Hussein Guleid, a prominent businessman there.

He is a Kenyan in every sense of the word, just like his father, who served the Kenyan people with loyalty as a police officer until his retirement. But when hundreds of policemen descended into Eastleigh ostensibly to weed out terrorists suspected to have taken refuge there, a feeling of despondency descended upon him.

“I saw the way those people’s lives have been torn apart and I thought to myself this could easily have been my own fate,” Mr Guleid says.

The security operation has elicited a lot of reactions: Support for it from the Government and a majority of Kenyans and condemnation from the civil society and the Somali community. For Guleid, who also chairs the Eastleigh Businessmen Association, the crackdown has had him interrogating his identity as a Kenyan Somali.

“I am a Kenyan through and through. I was born here and I do not know anywhere else to call home. But when such things happen, they make me feel like an alien. Does Kenya want us, does Kenya appreciate us?” he said.

Xenophobic feelings

These same questions are probably in the hearts and minds of nearly three million Somalis in Kenya, even as Somali leaders fear for what they see as increasing xenophobic feelings by non-Somali Kenyans.

“The trend has been that security forces have been against us, but we have had the ordinary wananchi on our side. But there is a worrying element of intolerance against Somalis from the streets and even in the media,” he said.

This sentiment, he noted, has taken root over the past five years in which Kenya has suffered more than 80 terrorist attacks attributed to Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants.

Nairobi lawyer Ahmednassir Abdullahi blamed the Government for sowing the seeds of anti-Somali sentiment through its fight against the militant group.

“A small group of top security officials has been instrumental in selling the message that Somalis are the cause of all security problems and more so in this country,” he said.

Even after 50 years of independence, he said, the identity question and the place of Somalis is something that people are still coming to terms with, a question that is yet to be fully settled.

Yet this is ironic because for the first time in decades, Kenyan Somalis have every reason to feel part of Kenya. The new county governments have brought resources closer to the people. If the success story of farming coming out of parched and far flung Mandera County is anything to go by, then one can conclude that the new system of government has a positive impact.

But, what worries Guleid more than the profiling done by security agencies against Kenyan Somalis is the profiling that takes place in the streets by ordinary citizens.

“For example, some people call us thieves, others tax evaders, pirates and so forth, to explain why Somalis appear to be thriving in business,” he said.

Tax evasion

He added: “They are easily demonised as a threat to Kenyan identity and stability, and perceived to have business practices that are discreet and exclusionary,” he said.

Indeed, the origin of Somalis’ wealth has been a source of much speculation with the dominant street narrative being that it was acquired  through illegal activities. For a long time, there was belief that Somali businesses have grown tremendously by evading taxes or through proceeds from piracy activities.

Eastleigh metropolis is the most known symbol worldwide of the Somalis’ entrepreneurial spirit. But a wider view of the situation reveals the imprints of this community’s spreading economic influence throughout the country.

From Luanda to Kapsabet, Migori to Mombasa, Lodwar to Malaba, Somali businessmen are to be found almost everywhere today, engaged in all manner of businesses. For a long time now, they have dominated the electronics and the mobile phone markets in Nairobi. Shops in Eastleigh are known for their cheap clothes.

But they have since spread to other sectors of the economy, including real estate, transport and currently, a good number of petrol stations are owned by Somali businessmen.

Abduallahi says the fear about Somali businesses because of the manner in which Somalis have acquired their wealth does not conform to the patterns in which some of the most prosperous communities in Kenya acquired wealth.

“The richest people in this country have been in power or close to it. This is not the case with Somalis. So people form all manner of theories to explain why Somalis appear to be getting ahead,” he said.

Well, there has never been proof of a widespread scam of tax evasion by Somali businessmen – a report released last year by the World Bank found no link between piracy and property boom in Nairobi.

So, in the absence of concrete evidence of tax evasion, one has to interrogate closely the claim by Somalis that they simply are better businessmen than most Kenyans.

Suna East MP Junet Mohammed, who describes himself as “a Somali by birth and a Luo by association,” offered an explanation of how Somalis become good businessmen.

“Whereas other communities emphasise a lot on education as a way of making it in the world, Somalis traditionally encourage their kids to start businesses first and then consider education later,” he says.

But Dr Emmanuel Kisiangani of the Institute of Security Studies argues that these are the same kind of business values that other “business-minded communities” inculcate in their children.

Trust is key

What, therefore, has given the Somalis an edge over their competitors from these communities and generally the rest of the country?

“Culture,” said Guleid.    

“I tell you, if I wanted to raise Sh3 million today, all I need to do is simply go to Jamia Mosque during lunch time and I bet you, by four o’clock, I will have it,” he says.

Somalis operate on quite a different code in terms of how they run their businesses, he explained. “To us, a handshake means much more than a signed piece of paper. Trust is key.”

He explained that he would not have second thoughts lending money to a fellow Somali because he knows it would be paid back. But not for a non-Somali.

“It has nothing to do with hatred or anything, it’s just the way our business works. Somalis place a much higher premium on trust than any other community I know of,” he said.

This, argued former National Assembly Deputy Speaker Farah Maalim, has enabled Somalis to avoid financial red-tape and acquire loans to expand their businesses quickly and cheaply.

“Have you seen Somalis looking for jobs? We start businesses and create jobs. We do not take jobs for other Kenyans, but we contribute immensely to the economic growth of this country,” he said.

Yet it is these kind of exclusionary tendencies that Dr Joy Kiiru, a lecturer of economics at the University of Nairobi, argues could be perpetuating the xenophobic sentiment against Somalis. Kiiru says it is difficult to measure objectively the worth of the Somali businesses in Kenya, since much of their transactions are done informally.

“We have heard of people who come with boxes full of money to pay for a house or a plot. These guys do not go through banks, and there is very little documentation that is exchanged in the process and therefore it becomes extremely difficult to get accurate figures on how much they are worth,” she said.

However, Emmanuel Manyasa, the director of Centre for Ethnic Mainstreaming, warns that pursuing this line of argument could produce negative effects.

“We do not want to go back to the old days when individuals and certain communities were sabotaged economically for whatever reason. Sabotage against anyone is a sabotage against Kenya,” he said. 

Remittances from abroad have also played a key role in the expansion of Somali businesses in Kenya. It is estimated that there are more than three million Somalis in the Diaspora today.

The Somali Diaspora worldwide pumps an estimated $1.3 billion (Sh112.7 billion) to $1.6 billion (Sh138.8 billion) back into their homeland every year, representing about $165 (Sh14,313) for every citizen in Somalia, according to a 2013 Oxfam report.

Piracy money

Most of this money is invested in Kenya where it is safer than the lawless Somalia. These remittances, argues Ahmednassir, are responsible for the steep rise in property prices in the last 10 years.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch claims that 55,000 Somali exiles are living in Nairobi, and some of them have gone into business and become wildly successful in the process.

The government seems not convinced. Suspecting that piracy money had found its way in to the country, the Ministry of Internal Security ordered for an audit of all the property owned by Somalis in town, although it is not clear whether this was followed through.

Ahmednassir rubbished the notion of an economically ascendant Somali community as wishful thinking. “Somalis do not own even one per cent of the wealth that Kikuyus and Kalenjins own,” he said.

Nonetheless, never before has so many Somalis featured so prominently in the top echelons of power or in the business circles of the country than today.

It usually follows that with economic success, people seek political influence to secure the economic gains they have made. A good number of Somalis are today in positions of influence in Government and the corporate sector.

Garissa Township MP Aden Duale is the Leader of Majority in the National Assembly.  There are three Somali Cabinet Secretaries, making it the third most dominant community in the Executive after the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, from which the President and his deputy come from respectively.

They are Amina Mohammed (Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary) Adan Mohammed (Trade and Industrialisation) and Hassan Wario (Youth and Sports).

Other notable Somalis close to power include former Mandera Central MP Abdikadir Mohammed, who is President Kenyatta’s legal advisor, and Amina Adballah, who has been nominated to Parliament by President Kenyatta three times in a row.

Interesting to note has been the ability by candidates from the community to win elective political seats far away from their traditional homelands.

Yussuf Hassan, a former international journalist, became the first Somali to win a parliamentary seat in the capital Nairobi, when he won the Kamukuji seat in 2007 and retained it in 2013.

Defence league

In Migori County, Junet was elected as the Suna East MP on the opposition ODM ticket, after serving as the town’s mayor from 2007 to 2012.

Before that, in 2011, councillors in Nakuru town had elected Mohamed Surow as their mayor before the 2013 elections in which the position was scrapped.

In the Judiciary, Justice Mohammed Ibrahim sits in the Supreme Court while Justice Mohammed Warsamme sits in the Court of Appeal. Until recently, Ahmednassir sat in the Judicial Service Commission.

In Kenya’s ethnically divided politics, where appointments to strategic positions spark off ethnic maneuvering, Somali candidates have often been preferred as compromise due to their perceived neutrality.

But for a long time now, the words “shifta” and now “al-Shabab” have been routinely used stereotypically by most Kenyans to connote the otherness of the Somali people. 

Guleid worries that this continued stereotyping could easily turn into something ugly if not addressed soon. “You can see the levels of intolerance from ordinary Kenyans seeping through in the messages left in social media and other forums. That is dangerous,” he said.

Ahmednassir said they were in the process of forming a “Somali Defence League”, a body of lawyers that will offer legal help to Somalis whenever the need arises.

The concept is fashioned along the Jewish Defence League in the US. “I have a deep faith in our Constitution and it will address most of our grievances,” he said.

However, if the courts fail them and if the State persists in “persecuting” Somalis, he says, the community has a right to ask for autonomy from the national government or greater federalism to guarantee their interests.

Mr Guleid said that while ordinary citizens have been much tolerant and accepting Kenyan Somalis, the Government has been unnecessarily harsh.

He said his association is now engaging elders from other communities to address the cause of whatever grievances they might hold against the Somali businessmen wherever they operate.

“We have to combat this monster now or suffer bitter consequences later,” he said.