Ali Mohammed says that once close friends regard him and his fellow ethnic Somalis in Kenya as “enemies of the state” since Islamist militants attacked a shopping mall in the capital, Nairobi.
“I’m living in a lot of fear,” Mohammed, who runs a trucking business, said in an interview in Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb, a bustling area of potholed roads, ramshackle shops and high-rise apartment buildings known as “Little Mogadishu” after Somalia’s capital. “I’m even discouraged from investing any further, because everyone asks where have you got this money from, yet I am running a profitable legal business.”
Ethnic Somalis in Nairobi say they’re facing rising hostility since the Sept. 21 attack on the Westgate Mall claimed by Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants that left 67 people dead in a four-day siege. Eastleigh residents cite examples of bus drivers refusing to allow passengers of Somali origin to board, verbal abuse and police patrols carrying out arbitrary detentions to extract bribes.
A largely Asian enclave until independence in 1963, Eastleigh is inhabited almost exclusively by ethnic Somalis who have migrated from northeastern Kenya or fled conflict in Somalia that has raged since former dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Of Kenya’s mainly Christian population of about 39 million, 4.3 million are Muslims, according to the 2009 census. About a million refugees from Somalia are now in the country, President Uhuru Kenyatta said in August.
“We’ve received tens of reports of discrimination against Somali refugees after the Westgate mall attack,” said Ferd Muyomba, an assistant program officer in Eastleigh for Kituo Cha Sheria, a legal aid group. “Some refugees have asked to be transfered from Nairobi to camps elsewhere because they know they’re not welcome here.”
Al-Shabaab said it attacked the mall in revenge for Kenya’s decision to deploy more than 4,000 troops in Somalia in 2011 after blaming the militants for a series of kidnappings and the murder of a British tourist in the country. The militant group denied the accusations. The assault last month was the deadliest in Kenya since al-Qaeda blew up the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, leaving more than 200 people dead.
The Westgate attack “reinforced” longstanding prejudices against Somalis and Muslims in Kenya, where they’re often stereotyped as Islamist extremists, Ndung’u Wainaina, executive director of Nairobi-based International Center for Policy and Conflict, said yesterday in a phone interview. “We’re now seeing more hard feelings on the question of refugees returning home.”
Eastleigh has been the scene of security crackdowns before. In November after a mini-bus explosion blamed on al-Shabaab killed 10 people, gangs of young people rioted, attacking residents of Somali origin and looted Somali-owned shops, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Kenyan police responded by beating, mistreating, and arbitrarily detaining at least 1,000 people, primarily Somali refugees,” it said in a statement.
In the past week, the police have stepped up patrols in Eastleigh starting at 6 p.m. as residents return home from work, according to Mohamed.
“The police randomly get you and ask you not even for any information, but for money,” he said. “If you refuse, they harass you and can even detain you at the cells for some hours.”
Police spokesman Zipporah Mboroki denied Eastleigh is being targeted.
“There has been no operation to crack down on any community. What is happening are usual patrols in Eastleigh that have always happened, like in any other place,” Mboroki said yesterday by phone from Nairobi.
Residents of Eastleigh were reluctant to answer a reporter’s questions about the atmosphere in the area since the attack. Some would speak only on the condition that their names weren’t used.
A Muslim woman who identified herself as Husna said she was walking on the street in downtown Nairobi last week wearing a full headscarf when a man shouted “al-Shabaab” at her.
“I came back home and cried,” she said. “It was so unfair to be called al-Shabaab.”
While a parliamentary security committee called for the closing of a United Nations-run camp that houses about half a million refugees from Somalia after the Westgate attack, the leader of Kenyatta’s ruling party in the legislature, Aden Duale, said the Dadaab facility near the border with Somalia wouldn’t be shut.
“The government will not pursue that course of closing camps because we can’t blame refugees for what happened at Westgate,” Duale said in an interview. Kenyatta has called for religious tolerance.
A heavy-handed response by security personnel and intimidation by the public may help al-Shabaab attract sympathizers, according to Emmanuel Kisiangani, a Nairobi-based researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
“It’s out of such conditions that al-Shabaab are able to recruit people,” he said Oct. 8 by phone. “They recruit people who are frustrated.”
Eastleigh is a center for recruitment and fundraising for al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea said in a July 2011 report. Al-Shabaab carried out coordinated bomb attacks in neighboring Uganda that killed 76 people watching the World Cup final at two venues in July 2010. The militia said it targeted Uganda because the country has troops serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia.
Nine days after the Westgate siege ended, Sheikh Ibrahim Amor, a Muslim preacher who was associated with a recruiter for al-Shabaab assassinated in August last year, was murdered along with three associates when gunmen sprayed their car with bullets near the port city of Mombasa. Four people died in riots that broke out after his killing.
“I fear for the future, because, now a sheikh in Mombasa was killed after Westgate, instead of being investigated for doing anything wrong,” Mohamed said. “But I am Kenyan and a businessman, and I can’t leave my home. So I will just keep living every day as it comes hoping things become good.”