Eastleigh Crackdown Offers Major Opportunity for Bribe-Taking and Harassment by Police
On the first weekend of April 2014, an army of 6,100 Kenyan police officers and soldiers — a larger force than the 4,000 Kenyan soldiers fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia — descended on Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, and arrested about 3,000 ethnic Somalis. Those arrested, including some pregnant women and children, were taken to Kasarani Stadium on the outskirts of Nairobi where they were interrogated and screened.
A few weeks before the Eastleigh raid, the government had, for the second time, ordered all urban refugees to go back to designated refugee camps, even though a High Court ruling had determined the year before that the order was unconstitutional. Dubbed “Operation Usalama Watch,” the raid, according to security officials, was targeted at smoking out undocumented refugees and terror suspects, including al-Shabaab, who they claimed had set up base in this Somali-dominated neighbourhood.
For those who were arrested and detained, it appeared that the raid was aimed not so much at smoking out terrorists and refugees, but an opportunity to make quick, easy money. Of the more than 3,000 suspects arrested, 82 were deported to Mogadishu. Apparently, a mentally ill Kenyan, who happens to be an ethnic Somali, was among the deportees. A family member alleged that he was from Wajir in Kenya and had probably lost his Kenyan identity card.
The following week about 400 people remained in police custody, which meant that about 2,500 suspects had been interrogated and released. This reflected either the extraordinarily efficient interrogation skills of the police, or rapid release facilitated by money transfer.
Eye-witness accounts of the security sweep in Eastleigh indicated that they were following the pattern of previous such operations in that they had become major opportunities for bribe-taking and harassment by police. One ethnic Somali claimed that he was asked for a bribe of 10,000 Kenyan shillings, or $115, by a police officer to secure his release. Those who could not afford to pay the bribe were detained. As the press was not allowed to enter the sports stadium, reports about their detention were only available through government officials, anecdotal evidence or posts on social media. In an article summarising social media reactions to the security crackdown, Somalia Newsroom wrote: “In one shockingly tweeted photo, a group was shown en masse in a cage, prompting a commentator to ask: “Gorme xoloo noqoney? (When did we become livestock?)”
— ✌ استر (@Istareeey) April 6, 2014
“The current Kenyan imaginary, hard driven by the media, is that Eastleigh is just another country at our doorstep, the barbarian at the gate,” wrote the New York-based Somali novelist Abdi Latif Ega, who happened to be in Nairobi during the Eastleigh raid, and had been shocked by the support the operation elicited among Kenyans, including newspaper editors.
Ethnic Somalis living in Eastleigh often refer to themselves as “human ATM machines.” Police patrolling the area are known to extract bribes from Somalis living in Eastleigh, whether they are refugees or Kenyan citizens. bribe-taking and harassment accelerates whenever there is a government directive to raid areas deemed to harbour terrorists. Not only are refugees targeted but Kenyans of Somali ethnicity, many of whom have thriving businesses in the area, are under constant threat of being harassed by the authorities.
A Somali businessman told me that he believed that the constant raids on Eastleigh were intended to drive out Somali businessmen from the area so that their businesses could be grabbed by Kenyans. This view seemed to be gaining ground among the Somali business community. At a press conference in Nairobi’s Jamia Mosque, leaders from the Somali community, led by Mandera Senator Billow Kerrow, stated that the Eastleigh operation was intended to disenfranchise the Somali community, whose “entrepreneurial acumen is known worldwide.” Kerrow added, “This is an economic war and not a fight against terror.”
Since at least the 1990s, ethnic Somalis have dominated commerce in Eastleight and turned it into a vibrant, neighbourhood with shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, forex bureaus and a whole range of goods and services. It is estimated that shopping malls in Eastleigh alone make about $7 million a year, or more than half a billion Kenyan shillings. Despite being an economic success story, residents complain that the area suffers from government neglect. On my last visit there, I did not see a single road that did not have potholes and which was not in an advanced stage of disrepair. Garbage lay around in heaps, and there was little street lighting.
The April security crackdown in Eastleigh appeared to be indiscriminate; as long as you looked like a Somali, you were a target. Among those netted was Tana River Senator Abdi Bule, who said he was driving to Eastleigh with his children and a bodyguard when he was stopped by police. When he produced his Kenyan identification and a card showing that he was a senator, the police told him they were both fake. He was then detained for more than 30 minutes.
Interestingly, there was only a muted response from the Somali government to what was clearly a violation of Somali citizens’ rights. The Somali government declared its support for the ongoing security crackdown, but called for “humane treatment” of those arrested. Somalia’s Ambassador to Kenya, Mohamed Ali Nur, said that his country supported the deportation of illegal immigrants, but opposed any attempts to treat all Somalis as terror suspects.
According to one Somali lawmaker, the Somali government was in an awkward position because “it should have been seen as encouraging the refugees to come back home, not be seen as allowing them to stay and continue being mistreated in another country.”
The lawmaker said that the Somali government needed to take ultimate responsibility for the half a million Somalis who live in precarious and dangerous environments in Kenyan refugee camps and neighbourhoods such as Eastleigh, and that it could not sit back and watch its citizens suffer in foreign countries. He noted that, “The Somali government cannot convincingly argue for the humane treatment of Somali refugees and detainees abroad while failing to create a conducive environment for their return to Somalia.”
The above article is an excerpt of a chapter in a forthcoming book on Somalia that Rasna Warah is currently working on. Rasna is a contributor to Sahan Journal. Follow her on Twitter@RasnaWarah or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org