Did Obama Avoid the Difficult Questions in Kenya?

Why you should care

Because the balance between civil rights and security is hard to strike. 

The author reports on economics, development, governance and innovation in Africa and the Caribbean.

On a sunny morning last spring, two Somali-born journalists and I were walking on a crowded sidewalk in Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Somali Muslim neighborhood. A white car pulled up alongside us, and three men came out of it. They identified themselves as police officers and demanded to see our IDs. Alleging (wrongly) that the refugee card of one of my companions was fake, the men ordered us into the back of the car and drove it to a quiet street. They ordered me out. Later my companions told me that the police had threatened to jail them, but offered an alternative: an immediate cash payment of 10,000 Kenyan shillings, about $110 at the time. The journalists were discharged when a friend of theirs arrived with a wad of cash.

Such episodes have become common in Kenya’s capital, home to many Somalis who have fled the havoc caused by the terrorist group al-Shabab. Now the group is threatening Kenya. To the Kenyan police, the residents of Eastleigh look much like the al-Shabab terrorists who two years ago led a rampage at the Westgate shopping mall, leaving 67 dead. Or the ones who killed 150 people this April at a university in Garissa, or 48 in Mpeketoni, or 28 on a bus in Mandera. To the police, the crackdown on Somali or Somali-looking people is fighting terrorism. Human rights groups have described it as “unleashing hell.” They have documented scores of arrests, as well as incidents of torture and rape, of Somali migrants by Kenyan authorities.

Human rights groups say the way Kenya is fighting terrorists will only cause instability and insecurity in the long run.

In an age of terrorism, many countries — the United States among them — face a difficult balance between security and civil rights. For Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the fight against al-Shabab is no less than “existential.” But human rights groups here say the way Kenya is fighting terrorists will only cause instability and insecurity in the long run. When Muslims see their peers extorted, or worse, by the police, the natural response is anger. A few may even be drawn into the arms of the terrorists, says Mgandi Kalinga, an investigator with local human rights group Haki Africa. A few is all it takes. And so, “the security situation in Kenya is compromised by the government itself,” Kalinga said.

More than any other U.S. president in history, Barack Obama has the chance to shape the course of Kenya’s fight against al-Shabab, not just because of his Kenyan ancestry, but because the United States has helped fund it and train those who are carrying it out. His visit to Kenya over the weekend offered an unprecedented opportunity to influence its parameters, but unfortunately, he tried to dodge the difficult questions. He praised the country “for hosting so many Somali refugees who are the victims of al-Shabab,” ignoring that just three months ago the government threatened to expel some 350,000 of them. Nor did he mention other, far more frequent victimizers of the refugees: Kenya’s police. Only in response to a journalist’s question did Obama concede that painting “any particular community with too broad a brush” can backfire, because it foments resentment and makes terrorist recruiters’ jobs easier.

Security analysts say Kenya’s leaders should heed the warnings of civil society groups like Haki Africa, and engage in intelligence-gathering and targeted counterterrorism operations rather than subjecting an entire population to “collective punishment.” Though Kenyatta said his administration had “undertaken fundamental reforms in our police services,” instructing police to do actual policing rather than spend their days extorting refugees doesn’t seem to have been among them. Indeed, Kenya’s government has labeled Haki Africa a “terrorist group” and struck it from the official list of registered Kenyan nonprofits.

Last April, the same month my companions were detained, police arrested hundreds of people from Eastleigh and locked them in a sports stadium for several days, in violation of Kenyan law. Some victims later claimed that they were denied food and water. Police forbade doctors, lawyers and journalists from entering. Even the United Nations was kept out. Eventually, police deported 359 people back to Somalia. The rest were eventually released, and the stadium emptied.

On Sunday, that stadium filled one again, this time for President Obama. He spoke about the importance of rooting out corruption and the danger of discriminating against people because of their ethnicity or religion. He did not mention that the very stadium where he spoke had one year earlier been a temporary prison — where hundreds were detained exactly because of their religion and ethnicity. The day before, he invoked cooperation: “Together, we are confronting insidious threats to Kenya’s prosperity,” Obama said. But for Kenya’s Somali refugees, that’s deeply concerning: It implies that the U.S. is more a sponsor of Kenya’s nefarious war on terror than a force attempting to reform it.

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