Kenya's Identity Crisis

Somali refugees in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya do not have rights. Identity politics has always played a role in Kenyan politics, but in recent years, with the rise of terrorism, Somali refugees have become a target of Kenyan nationalism. Unless government policy changes, whether it's forced repatriation or granting of citizenship rights, roughly 200,000 Somalis will remain in Dadaab.

Noorulain Khawaja
June 08, 2018

As a refugee born and raised in the world’s largest refugee camp, Brownkey Abdullahi only knows Dadaab. Her parents fled Somalia in 1991 during the civil war and escaped to northeastern Kenya. They ended up in Dadaab refugee camp, a complex of five camps constructed as a temporary facility, which currently hosts over 235,000 displaced people. The majority, around 200,000, are ethnic Somalis according to the latest numbers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Abdullahi, 25, calls Dadaab home and sees her identity as being closely aligned with her refugee status. She neither identifies as a Somali nor does she have rights as a Kenyan. “My nationality is refugee. I was born in the soil of Kenya, but I do not belong to Kenya. I can’t claim that I am Somali either. That's why I call myself 'Dadaabian,'” she told me.

President Uhuru Kenyatta signaled in 2016 that he intended to shut down Dadaab refugee camp, citing national security concerns. Kenya’s long-standing political opposition leader, Raila Odinga, doesn’t see the expulsion of Somali refugees as a solution. He favors integration and citizenship and has called on the government to issue identity cards to the refugees instead of repatriating them to Somalia. “When they say that it is not possible to issue IDs in the northeast [Dadaab] because it is a border region and they cannot differentiate between Kenyan Somalis and those from Somalia, how then do they deal with Maasai from Kenya and those from Tanzania?” Mr. Odinga asked at a rally. Kenyatta and Odinga represent two different visions of what it means to be Kenyan.

Abdullahi, the youngest of seven siblings, has never been to Somalia even though Dadaab is roughly 50 miles from the Somali border. How did all of these Somali refugees end up in Kenya’s arid northern region? In 1977, Somalia went to war with Ethiopia over the disputed Ogaden region in eastern Ethiopia, which is comprised mainly of ethnic Somalis. Somalia was hoping to fulfill a post-independence vision of unifying the Somali nation. However, the failure of the war fomented discontent with President Mohamed Siad Barre’s rule and left the Somali military weakened. In 1991, Barre’s government was overthrown, sparking a decades-long civil war, which forced many to flee to neighboring Kenya and gave rise to the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab.

While Somalia has stabilized since then and is now, according to the United Nations, a recovering fragile country, the Al-Shabaab threat remains. Terrorism, in recent years, has spilled over into Kenya. Political pressure has been mounting for years on the Kenyatta government to tackle Kenya’s terrorism problem, given deadly Al-Shabaab attacks including Westgate mall and Garissa University College. The terrorist attacks have made the refugee issue a hot political topic. The Kenyan Ministry of Interior said in a statement that the Dadaab refugee camp is a breeding ground for Al-Shabaab terrorists, and the need to close it has to do with the government’s “responsibility to protect citizens.” But, there is little evidence to support the claim that the people carrying out the attacks had ties to Dadaab.

Last February, Kenya’s High Court ruled that the government’s plan to close the camp was “unconstitutional” and that targeting Somali refugees was “illegal” and “an act of group persecution.” The government vowed to appeal, arguing that the security and drought situation in Somalia had improved and the refugees could return. Kenyan officials have threatened the closure of Dadaab in the past, as recently as 2015, only to backtrack due to international pressure from the United Nations and aid organizations. 

Since the camp’s 27-year existence, there are many people in the camp who have lived longer in Kenya than in Somalia. Moulid Hujale, born in Kismayo, a coastal city in southern Somalia, escaped the civil war and arrived in Dadaab when he was around 10. “What was a temporary shelter turned to be permanent, a place I was forced to call home,” Hujale told me. Like Abdullahi, he has struggled with his identity. “My identity was lost in between. Being in Dadaab with no freedom of movement made me feel like I was neither Somali nor Kenyan,” he told me. “In school I was taught the national anthem of Kenya, yet I was not allowed to be Kenyan to get full rights adding to the confusion of my identity crisis.” 

Despite being confined in a camp without citizenship rights, both Hujale and Abdullahi attended university in Nairobi. Hujale worked for international aid organizations before becoming a journalist focused on humanitarian issues. Abdullahi, a blogger and activist, writes her blog in English, a language she learned in refugee school. As official languages, Kiswahili and English are mandatory for all students in Kenya.

Ethnic identity has been the fabric of Kenya’s society. Weeks before the annulled presidential election last August, President Kenyatta designated the Asian community as the 44th tribe, embracing them as part of the country’s “great family.” The Asian minority, made up of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, has a long history in Kenya, contributing to the nation’s early economic growth as traders and merchants. Somalis also contribute to the Kenyan economy. By legally recognizing Kenyans of Asian heritage as first-class citizens, should this idea of inclusivity and equality extend to ethnic Somali refugees? It goes beyond an inclusive understanding of citizenship.

“Tribes were invented by the Europeans,” Edmond Keller, a political science professor at U.C.L.A. and author of “Identity, Citizenship and Political Conflict in Africa,” told me. Keller cites the example of the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, to explain further. There are several different branches of Kikuyu and each had its own cultural identity, with a common language, Gikuyu, being the unifying factor. But the Europeans saw them as one identifiable group or tribe, a concept that exists in post-independent Kenya and all over Africa. “Traditionally, people identified with kinspeople based upon blood ties, but as independence approached, identity became significant in terms of trying to secure the political spoils at the national level,” Keller added. “It ended up creating this expanded view of ethnic identity which has been accepted by Africans with designation of tribe.” Because a lot of larger groups like the Kikuyu can be broken down into subgroups, the number of tribes in Kenya is unquantifiable. “The whole idea of there being a clear number is unhelpful,” Gabrielle Lynch, professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick who studies the impact of ethnic identities in Kenya, told me. “Ethnic groups is a much more contestable category.”

What makes up their common identity as Kenyan then?

Githua Josphat, a 29-year-old member of the Kikuyu tribe, thinks national identity is associated with language. “I think the one thing that unites us is language. You go to the coast, they are speaking Swahili. Our national anthem is in English and Swahili, but most people know the Swahili version,” Josphat told me.

Rasna Warah, a Kenyan writer of Indian descent, recognizes that Kiswahili and English are unifying languages, but she contends that Kenyan identity is a colonial construct. “Today being Kenyan is just an idea, an identity that one carries because it is important to obtain things like ID cards and passports but which does not mean much more beyond that.” When it comes to shifting identities, Warah told me “identity gains prominence depending on who is in power. In a country like Kenya where patronage networks bring greater access to job and business opportunities—and offer protection from a hostile state—identities shift for opportunistic reasons.”

The playing field is not so level. Even if an ethnic Somali holds a Kenyan passport, integrating into society might still be challenging. According to Lynch, anti-Somali sentiment is longstanding in Kenya, made worse by the recent security concerns related to terrorism. “There is a lot of racism within the country about ethnic Somalis and stereotypes about that community as problematic, as pro-violent, even before problems with Al-Shabaab and terrorism.”

Anti-Somali sentiment dates back to the Shifta War in the early post-colonial period when ethnic Somalis in northern Kenya, or then commonly called Northern Frontier District, fought to join Somalia. The secessionist movement failed and a newly independent Kenya run by bellicose elites used the conflict to reinforce colonial boundaries arbitrarily drawn by the British. Human rights abuses and killings by Kenyan security forces left at least 2,000 dead in the north, according to a report by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. 

This dispute on identity is not just in Kenya. It is currently being debated in the U.S. and the U.K. with the recent rise of right-wing nationalism in both countries. “For some people there’s more ethno-nationalist exclusive understanding of what it means to be a Kenyan where some groups are either not really Kenyan or are regarded as less Kenyan than others,” Lynch told me. Identity politics, specifically based on ethnic lines, is a part of contemporary Kenya, with politicians building alliances among their own communities in the hopes of garnering votes. However, this strong ethnic dimension impedes the creation of national identity, and the most vulnerable in the community like Somali refugees inevitably suffer the consequences. Because politicians polarize politics in terms of identity to steer away from class politics, Somalis are an easy target to demonize. 

Unless government policy changes, whether it be forced repatriation back to an unknown land or granting of citizenship rights, refugees like Abdullahi will remain in Dadaab. The political elites in Nairobi will decide their fate. “We can’t have access to the world. We don’t have any other hope for the future. We will stay and wonder what is going to happen, how is government going to be with us,” Abdullahi told me. “We keep dreaming that one day things will be O.K.”

Noorulain Khawaja was a journalist with Al Jazeera English News Channel for seven years. She worked on stories involving U.S. politics and also covered the United Nations General Assembly. After Al Jazeera, Noorulain moved to Nairobi, Kenya to pursue an independent route as a reporter for aKoma Media, a digital storytelling platform focused on Africa. She has a Master of Arts in Politics and Global Affairs from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.