Emotions are running high in Kenya after a policeman published photos of a group of men humiliating Somali migrants right under the nose of security forces. Our Observer says they shed light on the treatment meted out to millions of Kenyans of Somali descent living in the country, especially since Kenya became the target of Al-Shabaab militants.
On May 31, a policeman from the northeastern border state of Garissa uploaded photos to Facebook showing a group of men hitting and flogging Somali migrants lying face-down on the ground. Commenting on the photos, Michael Orita wrote: "These Somali young men came to Garissa for a purpose but little did they know we r smarter than them.” The photos quickly sparked outrage on social media networks. A few hours after uploading them, Orita removed the pictures from his account. But by then they had already been copied and are still circulating online.
Screen grab of Michael Orita's Facebook profile before he deleted the photos.
Although an investigation has been opened, it isn’t yet known whether the men armed with batons and whips – but dressed as civilians – are indeed policemen. In the background, though, men wearing military uniforms and a Kenyan police vehicle can be seen. Taken alongside Orita's commentary, these details could indicate that officers bore witness to – or even took part in – violent acts carried out against the migrants. Meanwhile, Garissa County Police Chief Shadarack Maithiay condemned these actions, saying they "go against the ethnics and code of conduct of any security force ."
Photos originally uploaded to Michael Orita's Facebook account and later reposted on the page Garissa Voice of Free.
In the same commentary that accompanied the photos, Orita also evoked a so-called ‘scheme’ that he says the migrants were cooking up. But Kenyan authorities have not said anything about whether these migrants posed any kind of threat. Even so, the officer's original post still earned sympathetic comments from Kenyans applauding and celebrating the migrants' arrest. According to our Observer, that's not surprising.
"Anyone who passes for a Somali has is now seen as a potential member of Al-Shabaab"
Arbitrary arrests and gratuitous violence against Kenyans originally from Somalia has become common in Kenya, particularly since Al-Shabaab starting making bloody incursions into the country. Anyone who passes for a Somali is now seen as a potential member of Al-Shabaab...People from Somalia are recognizable because they have clearer skin, thinner hair and different nose shapes.
Just two weeks ago, I was walking in the streets of Nairobi when two policemen stopped me. Without introducing themselves, they asked for my identity papers. I asked them why they were stopping me in particular and they replied that it was a security check. I ended up pulling out my Kenyan ID card. Like 2.5 million other Kenyans, I'm of Somali descent but I have Kenyan nationality. I was born here and my family has lived here for a century. After looking at my card, the police let me go. This kind of security check, based on physical appearance, happens every day to lots of people with Somali origins. Some are even forced to pay bribes in order to avoid being arbitrarily arrested.
On top of police abuse, Kenyans of Somali descent and Somali migrants are often singled out by the population. Each time, they're called - at best - 'waariaya', a pejorative term used to describe Somalis, or they’re called Al-Shabaab terrorists. But that's completely unfounded: Al-Shabaab actually counts many Kenyans among its ranks. For example, out of the four assailants who attacked Garissa's university in April, the only one whose identity is known was Kenyan – and not of Somali descent! Very few Somalis or Kenyans of Somali descent have been behind attacks carried out since Kenya’s independence.
Within the Kenyan population there's also an underlying feeling of jealousy towards Kenyans of Somali descent. Many own businesses and are fairly well-off. They're criticised for supposedly only thinking of themselves, for not doing work that benefits the community as a whole. Obviously, this kind of sentiment has only worsened since Al-Shabaab began attacking Kenya.
The Kenyan army has been fighting Al-Shabaab militants across the border in Somalia since 2011. The terrorist group, which is suspected of having links to Al-Qaeda, grew out of the radical branch of the Islamic Courts Union that ruled Somalia’s capital Mogadishu from 2006 to 2008. Al-Shabaab militants have retaliated against Nairobi by multiplying the number of terrorist attacks carried out against targets in Kenya. They claimed responsibility for the assault in September 2013 on a Nairobi shopping mall that left 68 people dead. Al-Shabaab also says it was behind the bloody attack against Garissa's university on April 7 in which 148 people were killed.
Kenya and Somalia have a long shared history. According to the latest figures, roughly 2.9 million people of Somali descent are living in Kenya. In addition, more than 450,000 Somalis live in the country as refugees.