Kenyans must not lose sight of the security challenges they continue to face since the state launched Operation Linda Nchi1Kiswahili for “Protect the Nation.” See http://www.irinnews.org/report/94018/kenya-somalia-a-risky-intervention. to ensure the country’s safety by stabilizing neighboring Somalia. Clearly, the security situation has worsened, even as the government has introduced new measures—such as Operation Usalama2Kiswahili for “Security.” See http://www.irinnews.org/report/99927/ethnic-somalis-under-pressure-in-kenyan-capital. Watch—in the hope of addressing insecurity. Increased terrorism in the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa, and repeated wholesale grenade attacks carried out on churches, villages, malls, and matatus,3Public minibuses in Nairobi. See http://www.bbc.com/news/business-24426676. coupled with the unresolved killings of Christian and Muslim clerics, are worrying trends that need to be discussed.
Long-term security should, however, be a “discursive project”—that is, the product of a reasoned discussion in which multiple competing views about the security of the nation are considered, and only the views that serve the common good of all Kenyans are included as guiding philosophies. This is not a time for empty rhetoric, as witnessed in the mainstream media, where the government points fingers at the opposition and does nothing to improve the security situation. Instead, the government must work with the opposition, as well as civil society, youth, women, the business community, and all other ordinary Kenyans to confront the dramatic rise of terrorism in the country.
Terrorism is a constructed ideology. For it to be defeated in Kenya and elsewhere, we need to construct a counter-ideology through an equally discursive process. Recent excellent examples of “discursive projects” include slogans such as “We Are One,” coined immediately after the Westgate Mall terror attack as a security threat response mechanism in solidarity with the affected Kenyans to help them cope with the aftershocks of the event. Yet creating an effective counter-ideology, like the “We Are One” campaign, requires a reconstruction of identity and an answer to the question, Who is really a Kenyan, and who is not?
There is abundant evidence of people easily buying their way into Kenyan citizenship. As a result, Kenya has become a safe haven for foreigners to enter the country with illegal intentions, including human traffickers who use Kenya as a transit zone into Asia, Europe, North America, and South Africa; drug and arms dealers; pirates; and terrorists. There is, therefore, little wonder as to why some of the Westgate terror suspects were identified as “Kenyan citizens.” This also helps to explain the government’s recent introduction of the controversial Operation Usalama Watch in order to flush out illegal immigrants and criminals, which has been publicly criticized for further alienating Somalis from Kenyan society.
Despite the recent experience of self-confessed terrorists, such as Nairobi grenade attacker Elgiva Bwire (alias Mohamed Saif), who are not of Somali descent, many Kenyans tend to conflate terrorism with both Islam and Somali immigration. To many, Somali immigrants—who are predominantly found in Kakuma, Dadaab, Eastleigh, Kakuma, Nairobi, and some parts of Mombasa—are interchangeable with terrorists.
Unfortunately, these convoluted perceptions about the faces of terror have disregarded the presence of those Somalis, born and raised in Kenya, who know nothing even about Kismayu or Mogadishu and who, though most likely are Muslim, have themselves been victims of terror. Such skewed attitudes thus raise the question, How and in what ways have Kenyan public discourse and the media constructed Somali identity in Kenya?
One possible answer is through mediation—or, rather, through the role the media plays in shaping public opinion and addressing issues of identity politics in Kenya. Another way that Somali identity has been constructed is through political and religious intolerance propagated by increasing pressures and exerted by a clash of ideologies. The obvious example of this clash is how religion in Kenya is veiled by rhetoric anchored in ideas of democracy and capitalism in the context of political-Islamism. Proponents of democracy are convinced that humans can fully realize their potential through liberty, arguing that freedom encourages competition, innovation, and sociopolitical and economic advancement. Although this view has been taken by others with a pinch of salt, many countries have assented to democracy and the “free market” as the best systems of societal organization. Kenya is just one example of an African country that has experimented with democracy. Though it has a history of controversial elections, the country is seemingly on the verge of realizing a true democratic dispensation through its new constitution.
Yet the central problem of today’s global interaction is the tension between cultural blending and differentiation, with the former often turning into an argument either about “Americanization” or “commoditization.” Among countries desiring to Westernize, some—especially those driven by Islamic ideologies—have opted to modernize in their own ways. Kenya’s foreign policy has been, and still is, traditionally Western, despite an apparent shift to the East. This means the challenges that confront Kenya are similar to those usually faced by Western countries, like France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, in terms of the global political economy and the issue of increasing security threats.
These threats may have been worsened by the influx of undocumented Somali immigrants, often seen as troublemakers, flooding into the biggest economy in the region. For this reason, the émigrés have been alienated and segregated in refugee camps, and others have found a home in suburbs such as Eastleigh. In Kenya, the Somali “alien” lacks identity and recognition and renders him or her vulnerable to recruitment by terror groups such as Al-Shabaab. The time is therefore nigh to reconstruct the identity of Somalis living in Kenya. Kenyans must remove the negative representation of Somalis in the media and other forums and unmask the true Somali cultural tradition and religion, in order to create a better understanding of Somali-Muslim society in Kenya.
To help with this, the local mainstream media can provide the much-needed space or public sphere that is required to reconstruct identities by including new voices—including those of Somalis—in counterterrorism debates, which can lead to changes in attitudes regarding peace and security in Kenya and the Horn of Africa. At the moment, the media has tended to misrepresent the Somali population by successfully branding them with a tag that reads “terrorism,” when in reality Somalis should be included in this discursive project with the rest of Kenyan citizens.
The security challenges also demand that both the Kenyan government and citizens work together to address the grave terrorist threat posed by Al-Shabaab. As citizens, we should expect the state—still new in counterterror politics—to protect us, while simultaneously playing our own part through initiatives such as Nyumba Kumi,4Nyumba Kumi refers to the community policing initiative, spearheaded by the Kenyan government, to enhance security and awareness in Kenya’s villages and to strengthen community-police partnerships. See http://www.capitalfm.co.ke/news/2013/10/kaguthi-to-spearhead-nyumba-kumi-initiative/. and others. Every Kenyan must take insecurity as a personal burden and work to facilitate the sharing of terror-related information with security agents.
- 1Kiswahili for “Protect the Nation.” See http://www.irinnews.org/report/94018/kenya-somalia-a-risky-intervention.
- 2Kiswahili for “Security.” See http://www.irinnews.org/report/99927/ethnic-somalis-under-pressure-in-kenyan-capital.
- 3Public minibuses in Nairobi. See http://www.bbc.com/news/business-24426676.
- 4Nyumba Kumi refers to the community policing initiative, spearheaded by the Kenyan government, to enhance security and awareness in Kenya’s villages and to strengthen community-police partnerships. See http://www.capitalfm.co.ke/news/2013/10/kaguthi-to-spearhead-nyumba-kumi-initiative/.