Kenya: Xenophobia, Fear Follow Nairobi Blasts
Grenade attacks on a pub and a bus stop in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, which resulted in one death and several injuries, have left many living in fear, while Kenyan Somalis and Somali refugees say they feel they have become terror suspects by virtue of their ethnicity.
Another four people were killed on 27 October when a vehicle carrying Ministry of Education officials was attacked in the northeastern town of Mandera; government officials say they suspect Somali militia group Al-Shabab was behind the assault. Following the blasts on 24 October, one Kenyan suspect was arrested in Nairobi with a cache of weapons – including several hand grenades – and has admitted his involvement in the attack on the bus stop. Elgiva Bwire Oliacha, who also admitted to being a member of Al-Shabab, was jailed for life on 28 October.
The attacks come less than a fortnight after Kenya’s invasion of Somalia. Operation “Linda Nchi” – Kiswahili for “Protect the Nation” – is targeting Al-Shabab, which government officials say threatens the country’s heavily tourism-dependent economy and its national security.
With international media reporting that Al-Shabab leaders in Somalia are urging members in Kenya to abandon grenade attacks in favour of a “huge blast”, Kenyans have become more cautious; security has visibly increased at many of the capital’s malls, hotels and other public places.
Derrick Oduor says the attacks have forced him to dramatically adjust his lifestyle.
“If I could avoid coming to town I would, but I must come to work… I avoid going to the pub after work because these are the places terrorists are targeting now,” he told IRIN. “I even fear standing at the bus stop because I fear anything can happen where I am. This thing has made people just walk in fear all the time.”
Local businesses are losing money as a result of people avoiding public spaces; the Nairobi Central Business District Association estimates the city is losing close to US$1 million daily.
Joshua Mwangi runs a pub in downtown Nairobi, and says his business felt the impact almost immediately after the attacks. “Bars like this one of mine, which is situated in downtown, have started to lose business because people [are scared]. I think many people try to avoid as much as possible and would rather go home early,” he said.
Ethnic Somalis in the country say the attacks have left them open to suspicion and xenophobia.
“You know when you talk about Al-Shabab or even terror, the first suspect one thinks about is a Kenyan Somali or a Muslim. I personally feel afraid because when police say they are fighting terror in Kenya, it is the Kenyan Somalis that they come for first. I have friends who cannot even leave the house because they feel they will be arrested. Even ordinary people look at you suspiciously – it is very stigmatizing,” Mohamed Dirie, a Kenyan Somali living in Nairobi, told IRIN.
Dirie said particularly distasteful were comments by Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Internal Security Joshua Orwa Ojodeh following the start of Operation Linda Nchi regarding the presence of Al-Shabab in the Nairobi estate of Eastleigh, where many Somalis live.
“Al-Shabab is like a snake whose tail is in Somalia but the head is here in Nairobi in Eastleigh,” he told Parliament.
Miriam Yasin, 35, a Somali refugee living in Nairobi, says she has faced xenophobia from members of the public.
“One day I heard somebody tell the person standing next to me at a bus stop to be careful because I could blow any time; they might have been joking but I felt like a lesser human being,” she said. “It is very bad when people look at you like a walking bomb. I feel for those who die because of terrorist activities. I am a victim of war.”
The police say that while they have intensified security patrols and checks within the city, they have not singled out any single group.
“We don’t arrest somebody simply because they are Somalis or Muslims. But if the police stop somebody of Somali origin and they are adults but do not have any identification on them, we will definitely book you in for questioning because we can’t take chances,” said Antony Kibuchi, Nairobi Provincial Police Chief. “You have even seen non-Somalis admitting to being members of the Al-Shabab… For us, everybody can be a potential criminal.”
According to a July report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, non-Somali Kenyan nationals now constitute the largest and most organized non-Somali entity within Al-Shabab.