Now Obama’s coming to town, can we talk about fighting terror without ethnic profiling?
July 18, 2015
With Nairobi preparing to welcome US President Barack Obama and Westgate Mall about to reopen after the deadly 2013 terror attack, it would be a timely moment to hear about efforts to repair trust in Kenya’s security forces and to ensure that they do not unfairly target minorities and foreigners.
This silence is particularly deafening in the face of US President Barack Obama’s commitment in 2014 to provide $65 million to improve the governance of security forces in six African countries, including Kenya.
Any efforts to beef up the security in Nairobi’s malls and the country at large are going to be shaky at best unless Kenya’s leaders and police come to grips with the country’s new multicultural reality.
Those who are “not Kenyan enough” are treated with suspicion and this often translates into harassment by police and security services who do not realise that countering crime and protecting human rights, particularly those of minorities, are actually mutually reinforcing goals.
There was a heated national conversation about this in April this year when Islamist militants attacked a college in Garissa, a Kenyan town bordering Somalia, killing almost 150 people.
The attack, along with others blamed on the Al Shabaab militant group from neighbouring Somalia, has turned a spotlight on the Kenyan Somali community, which has long battled suspicion and ostracism in a country that often sees it as “not Kenyan enough.”
I know what it’s like to be labelled “not Kenyan enough.” My Ugandan parents, escaping from the dictatorship of Idi Amin, sought refuge in Kenya and that was where my brothers and I were born.
I had always felt Kenyan, but that began to change in the early 1990s when Kenya’s then-president Daniel arap Moi made the Ugandan immigrant population one of the scapegoats for his economic and political troubles.
In 1991 the Special Branch stormed our home in Nairobi, claiming we were part of a covert operation “hell-bent on causing mayhem” amidst the clamour to end Kenya’s one-party rule. To avoid further questioning in a prison cell, my father had to bribe them with his month’s salary. After the raid, my parents grew deeply paranoid and suspicious of our neighbours and security agencies.
Few Kenyan Somalis are affiliated with Al Shabaab, but all are treated with suspicion. This is counterproductive. A 2014 study found that when asked the single most important factor that drove Kenyan respondents to join Shabaab, 65 per cent specifically referred to the Kenyan government’s counterterrorism strategy.
Of course, Kenya is not alone in targeting minorities and foreigners. Racial profiling and heavy-handed police tactics against minorities in the United States have been in the headlines with Ferguson and the cases of Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott and others.
London’s Metropolitan Police continues to battle charges first levelled 20 years ago that it is institutionally racist. The UNHCR and Amnesty International have reported incidents of inadequate police responses to the latest outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa.
Police and security forces play an important role in many countries. They keep us safe and work under challenging conditions, sometimes for low pay. In many African countries, often their salaries are paid late.
Nonetheless, there can be no excuse for systematic violence and the victimisation of immigrants and ethnic minorities. It is a scourge that damages our societies and puts us all in danger. We must stop this at all costs.
In Kenya, and across Africa, public conversations about policing methods and security need to start. First of all, it is imperative that police training includes more effective lessons on how to appreciate diversity and develop tolerance for difference.
This has been done successfully in the Netherlands in helping combat ethnic profiling by the police and we can learn from that example and others. Kenya spends almost 10 per cent of its national budget on national security matters. Part of this should be ring-fenced for diversity and equality training.
Following the attack at the college in Garissa, police rounded up residents of a predominantly ethnic Somali area in Nairobi, demanding they “produce Al Shaabab dissidents.” In the process, not only were the rights of many ethnic Somalis violated, but foreigners from Somalia, Uganda and South Sudan were also victimised.
Kenyan leaders are not speaking up enough against this. It is high time they worked to appoint a Diversity and Equality Ombudsman to not only promote national dialogue on how to engage with minorities and foreigners but also help in strengthening the community relations departments within the security forces.
That would not necessarily have stopped the attacks at Westgate and Garissa, which were the work of small groups of committed terrorists with political goals. But it could be an important first step toward a broader dialogue about Kenya’s path forward.
These incidents show that African leaders need to lead our countries as they are — modern, multicultural melting pots — rather than the fairly homogenous and linear entities they used to be. This reshaping of the political narrative is essential to the Africa Rising project.
The Swahili proverb kupendana si kufanana rohoni sums this up aptly. We are all different as Africans, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love and accommodate each other.
Serufusa Sekidde is a China-trained Ugandan doctor. He has worked as a medical doctor in hospitals in Uganda and South Sudan and is currently a consultant with Oxford Policy Management in the UK and a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.
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Originally published in The East African