Somalia, Kenya: neighbors, enemy actors

By Jeff Mwaura

NAIROBI – At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport, an immigration officer shoves his hand into a Somali legislator’s chest, telling him to either pay bribes because he didn’t have a medical card or go home, notwithstanding his important title.

“I am a Somali MP, sir,” the Somali parliamentarian insists only to get a more harsh response “That’s none of my business – now that you are arguing, we have to send you to the jail.” The red-eyed strong officer tells him.

Confused and feeling helpless, the unidentified Somali lawmaker tries to make a phone call, possibly to reach out his country’s embassy to Kenya only to have his phone grabbed by the officer who ordered him to a nearby metal chair.

“You don’t have a permission to make any movement until you meet my demands.” The officer tells him.

As the argument ensued for minutes, the Somali legislator pulled out money from his pocket and he was released.

The case is one of few examples indicating how good and complicated the relations between the two neighboring countries that despite maintaining diplomatic relations yet continue to play dirty political games on the sly.

Kenyan immigration officials have routinely detained Somali officials, including Somali prime minister Omar Abdirashid at the airport before.

Despite the fact that the two countries had never gone into a direct war, yet the conflict between Somalia and Kenya continued throughout much of the 20th century.

The problem which ranged from petty skirmishes between Somali and Kenyan communities had exacerbated further to police harassment, extortion and massacres perpetrated against Somali Kenyan community who historically inhabited northeastern province of Kenya.

In response to harassments against its officials, Somali government had subsequently recalled its Ambassador to Kenya and his Deputy Consul in protest of the consular official’s detainment in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Somali national also continue to face nightmare at Kenyan airports, with Kenyan officials arrested many Somalis for an illegal entry or suspicions of terrorism involvement unlike its nationals working and live in Somalia who have long enjoyed visa-free travels and harassment-free life.

In a further challenge to the relations between the two countries, Somalia formally asked the International Court of Justice “to determine, on the basis of international law, the complete course of the single maritime boundary dividing all the maritime areas appertaining to Somalia and to Kenya in the Indian Ocean.

Kenyan government which insisted that the maritime areas in question were hers accused Somalia of being ‘ungrateful’ for its long hospitality to the refugees fleeing the country.
In response, Kenya had immediately moved to close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp which largely hosts Somali refugees and ordered them to return home.

Despite concerns by aid organizations and Somali government which asked Kenya not to close the camp, however, Kenya insisted that its decision would not be reversed.
Meanwhile, Kenya which sent troops to Somalia after spate of attacks by the Somalia-based al-Shabab group continues to face attacks by the group which carried out several deadly attacks in the East African country.

But Kenya’s military adventure cannot usefully be considered solely in terms of an external threat from Somalia. There is, as with all conflicts, no single reason why the country finds itself at war. A complex mix of local politics and economics is at play, as well the activities of al-Shabaab, writes Daniel Branch on the Open Democracy.

The opposition to Somali secession resulted in a low-intensity war in northeastern Kenya between 1963 and 1967. The official number of insurgents killed is 2,000, but it is likely that many more died during the war. Thousands more were forced from their homes during a campaign of compulsory resettlement. Once the war was over, promised development funds never materialised. Without any stabilising effect from Nairobi in the form of a legitimate state presence, northeastern Kenya remained prone to tremors emanating from across the border.

As Somalia spun into crisis in the 1980s, so cross-border incursions by armed gangs became more common. But efforts by the Kenyan government to restore a semblance of order made little effort to discriminate between those from Somalia itself and those from the local Somali population of the North Eastern Province. Restrictions were placed on movement on Kenyan-Somalis and the community was subject to numerous incidents of gross human-rights abuses. None was as significant nor remembered with as much bitterness by Kenyan-Somalis as the Wagalla massacre in February 1984 when at least 1,000 civilians were killed by the Kenyan security forces.

The continued failure of successive governments to extend the full benefits of citizenship to Kenya-Somalis has, unsurprisingly, meant that al-Shabaab has built up networks of support within Kenya itself (see the report of 18 July 2011). “We are not part of Somalia, and the Kenyan government treats us as second-class citizens”, mayor Mohammed Gabow from Garissa town told al-Jazeera in 2009. “It’s a dilemma”.

Such a sense of grievance has been reinforced on a regular basis. A security crackdown targeted at Somalis living inside the Kenyan border in October 2008, for instance, was described by Human Rights Watch as “a deliberate and brutal attack on the local civilian population”.

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