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“Ambiguous citizens”: Kenyan Somalis and the question of belonging

Since Kenya’s independence in 1963, the question of how to incorporate the heterogeneous parts of its society has been a vital issue. The vision of a unified Kenya gained importance after the violence that followed the elections of 2007. These clashes revived the discussion over what it means to be Kenyan, yet who is imagined as belonging to the nation, and to what degree, remains a situational matter. In the case of Kenyan Somalis the notion of “belonging” has been put into question time and again, not only due to the post-independence secession movement in the mainly Somali areas in the northeast, but also because of the perception of Somalis as pastoralists or immigrants. This paper deals with the way the “politics of belonging” have been enacted in Kenya in the last decade and what this has meant for Kenyan Somalis. While they have been treated as “ambiguous citizens” since independence, many think of themselves as Kenyans and at least in the last decade, Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland have not been central points of reference for many. The question for Kenyan Somalis is not, therefore, if they belong to Kenya, but how.

The heterogeneous Somali population in Kenya can roughly be categorized into four groups. The first and biggest are the inhabitants of the northeastern region of Kenya, bordering Somalia and Ethiopia. Secondly, there are urbanized Somalis whose ancestors settled in the colonial towns. Thirdly, there are Somalian refugees (officially, they numbered about 285,000 people in December 2017).The last, and smallest, group are the relatively affluent Somalian “returnees”, who migrated from Somalia to Europe or North America in the 1990s and later “returned” to East African urban areas. There are (limited) interlink ages between these groups, and there are many who do not fit into these artificially drawn categories. This paper deals with the first two categories, Kenyan Somalis who have a well-founded claim to Kenyan citizenship.

Ceuppens and Geschiere argue that, in many African countries, ideas of national citizenship have been pushed aside by notions of “autochthony” with their implicit exclusion of strangers (“allochthons”) since the early 1990s. In Kenya, autochthony discourses play indeed a role regarding questions of “who can vote where”, but not concerning the overall notion of citizenship. Nobody questions the connection of Kenyan Somalis to the “soil” of the northeastern region, where most of them live: what is disputed is the question of whether or not this makes them Kenyan.

Lochery discusses citizenship as being “graduated”. Using the example of the screening exercise of 1989, when all Kenyan Somalis had to get registered, she demonstrates how institutions negotiate and produce citizenship, resulting in graduated access to rights and protection. Citizenship does, however, not only mean a formal affiliation to the state. People can be constructed as “others” and as not belonging “to the nation-state’s community, even if formally they are entitled to.” Following Yuval-Davis, citizenship in this text is situated “in the wider context of contemporary politics of belonging which encompass citizenship, identities and the emotions attached to them.” These diverging daily experiences of citizenship were especially debated in literature on immigration, but this discussion can also be applied to the context of Kenya.

“Ambiguous citizenship”, as a concept, not only hints at the changing politics of the Kenyan state concerning its Somali citizens and the manifold ways in which Kenyan Somalis react to it, but it also takes into consideration the various roles Kenyan Somalis play in society. In this paper, I show that the position of Somalis as “ambiguous citizens” is not new, but goes back at least to the independence era, if not earlier.

In the multi-ethnic state of Kenya, many are subjected to this “ambiguous” citizenship: Asians, white Kenyans, “Nubians”, or Arabs. Kenya’s Somalis, however, occupy the most ambiguous situation of all. Their positioning in a “gray space” within Kenyan society, leaves them “neither integrated nor eliminated, forming pseudo-permanent margins.” What impact the new urgency to form a more united Kenyan nation, following the post-election violence in 2007–2008, has on its Somali population is discussed below.

This paper is based on research into the interlinkages of different groups of ethnic Somalis in Kenyan urban centres, using the example of Nakuru, the fourth biggest city of Kenya (and to some extent Nairobi and Mombasa). The main part of the data, consisting of open and structured interviews (such as social network interviews) as well as participant observation, was collected in several periods of extended field research since 2010 mainly in urban Somali neighbourhoods, Somali shopping centres, and Islamic institutions. In addition, archival sources about the history of urban Somali presence were gathered.KE-SOM

The first part of the paper gives a short historical overview of the socio-political position of the Somali population of Kenya, while the second part deals with three of the state’s citizen-making instruments crucial over the last decade: the census of 2009, the elections of 2013, and the move towards securitization since 2013, following terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil. Although some of these instruments potentially open new spaces for the socio-political involvement of the Somali inhabitants of Kenya, those spaces are constricted by securitization discourse’s persistent othering of Kenya’s Somali communities. In the third part of the paper, I discuss how the two dimensions important for the notion of Kenyanness – race and cultural citizenship – play out for the Somali citizens of the state.

A short history of ambiguity

Kenyan Somalis at times naively buy into this national delusion until they are violently awakened to the reality by events like the current exercise [operation usalama watch], and then put in their rightful place. Fifty years of abuse and neglect is too long to endure. But it is not that Kenyan Somalis don’t want to be part of Kenya. It is Kenya that does not want Somalis in Kenya.

Colonialism and independence

Even in colonial times, the Somali population of British East Africa was treated differently from other inhabitants. The majority of ethnic Somalis lived in the eastern half of the Northern Frontier District (NFD), a semi-arid region governed as a “closed district” by the British, keeping its mainly pastoral inhabitants away from the southern part of the colony. Outside of the Northern Frontier District ethnic Somalis, mainly from British Somaliland, were living in the newly developed towns. They were employed as government clerks and soldiers in the King’s African Rifles, or they were involved in trading activities. The British labelled Somalis coming from British Somaliland and Aden the “Alien Somali”, a term later frequently used to describe all urbanized Somalis, excluding them “from the general definition of ‘native’”. This categorization as “non-native” not only resulted from their intermediary status in the socio-economic hierarchy due to their service to the colonial state, but also from their own attempts to be treated as “Asians”, set apart from the “African” population.

Map of Northern Frontier Districts

After independence, the Kenyan state continued to treat Somalis as not quite belonging to the state. This was mainly the result of the “shifta” conflict of 1963 to 1967, in which inhabitants of the Northern Frontier District attempted to secede from Kenya. As a result, this area remained separated from the rest of Kenya and was ruled under emergency regulations. All Somalis were required to register and to prove their belonging, consolidating their position as “ambiguous citizens”. The various counterinsurgency measures taken by the Kenyan state had severe economic impacts and to this day, the northeastern region remains one of the least developed, producing a “dual exclusion of both the region and its people”, with the regular internal checkpoint in Garissa still resembling a border station to Kenya for many Somalis.

Outside of the northeastern region, urbanized Kenyan Somalis also felt marginalized: they were not only held responsible for the secessionist movement, but also lost the socio-economic status they had occupied in pre-independence society. Mzee Jamal, an old Somali man in Nakuru, told me: “They had no place for Somalis in Kenya. In the North Eastern Province, they had at least what is theirs. But the Somali dwellers outside North Eastern Province were those who really suffered.”

Although the emergency regulations persisted until the early 1990s, the northeastern region and its inhabitants became gradually more included into the Kenyan state. After a foiled coup in 1982, President Moi incorporated Somali elites into his apparatus to secure his power base, enabling some of them to make a career in the state administration. Collective punishment, however, persisted in the North Eastern Province. During the Wagalla massacre in 1984, for instance, between 1,000 and 5,000 Somalis were killed by security personnel, demonstrating a continuity of “military and state policy towards the north”. Yet despite the violence of the Kenyan state in the northeastern region, Lewis could write in the late 1980s “The large Somali community in Northern Kenya … tends to … be quite firmly integrated into Kenya”.

Meanwhile, the situation in neighbouring Somalia worsened, starting with the Ogaden war (1977–1978). The movement of people from Somalia to Kenya intensified at the end of the 1980s, resulting in new efforts to distinguish citizens from non-citizens. During the “screening” of Kenyans of Somali descent in 1989, those considered as belonging to an “indigenous” lineage were issued pink screening cards. All others were “effectively declared non-citizens”, losing everything linked to Kenyan citizenship status (such as property). Kenyan Somalis were, as during the Wagalla massacre, on both sides of this event – in both cases a small Somali political elite used the events to weaken their economic and political rivals. Even though not all Kenyan Somalis were registered, the pink screening card would be a requirement for obtaining an ID years later.

Somali migration to and within Kenya since the beginning of the 1990s

The ambiguousness of citizenship for Kenyan Somalis was complicated further in the 1990s, with the increasing number of Somalian refugees in Kenya. While this number officially includes only those registered as refugees, many more Somalians live outside the camps in the northeastern region as well as in Kenyan urban centres. From the early 1990s onwards, anti-refugee sentiments were aimed at Somalians. They were not only associated with insecurity and later terrorism, but also to perceptions that refugees were a burden who took away commercial opportunities from Kenyans. There were also widespread accusations that they acquired Kenyan passports illegally.

While the government aimed at confining Somalian refugees to camps far away from central Kenya, it lifted the emergency regulations governing the North Eastern Province in 1991. This move, which allowed more Kenyan Somalis to take part in the country’s socio-political structures, was not only inspired by constitutional reforms in the 1990s and the introduction of multi-party politics, but probably also out of fear that the conflict in Somalia could spill over into Kenya.

The crisis in Somalia and the changes in the Kenyan political framework (in combination with a drought) resulted in a transformation of the economic and political structures in the northeastern territories. A shrinking presence of the state and the proliferation of small arms destabilized the region. Political competition linked to the re-introduction of multi-party politics as well as “tensions between local communities and refugees over environmental degradation, jobs, and access to services” led to several violent conflicts. At the same time, new trade routes emerged between Kenya and Somalia. In the last decade, the government has slowly become more attentive to this region, for instance by the establishment of a Ministry of Northern Kenya and other Arid Areas in 2008. In addition, in 2009, the LAPSSET (Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport) project was announced, aiming at the creation of a infrastructure network linking the northern regions to central Kenya and therefore ideally becoming “a means through which northerners could be drawn into the ‘nation proper’.”

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The immigration of Somalian refugees enabled more contacts between Kenyan Somalis and Somalians, yet it also led Kenyan Somalis to realign questions of Kenyanness and belonging. For Somalians, Kenyan Somalis are “Somali sijui”, Somali who do not know (neither Somali language nor culture), brothers and sisters, but not “real” Somalis. At the same time Kenyan Somalis complained about being “overrun by the Rer [reer, Somali for clan or group] Somalia”.

In the cities outside of the northeastern region, the situation for the Somali population likewise changed from the 1990s onwards. In Nakuru, for instance, there were only about 500 Somalis in 1995, mostly members of long-urbanized families. In 2010, the number of Somalis had risen to about 10,000, among them approximately 2,000 refugees. The biggest group of Somalis moving to the cities were therefore not refugees, but Kenyan Somalis whose migration resulted partly from the changing structures in the northeastern region. Kenyan Somalis played an increasing (yet still small) role in political administration, as they were seen as “neutral”, as not connected to one of the influential ethnic groups. Their presence also transformed the urban retail sector, which changed in the 1990s due to Somali traders and the establishment of “Somali” shopping centres. With this visible presence of Somalis in the economic and political sphere, anti-Somali sentiments have grown stronger, culminating in fears that Somalis “are taking over Kenya” and that “Kenya is colonized by refugees”. These fears are not only strong among the Christian population, but also among Muslims, whose communities experienced changed power relations due to the immigration of Somalis to the cities. Some perceive Somalis as doing better than other Muslims in Kenya, economically and politically.

Making citizens in Kenya after the post-election violence of 2007–2008

Kenya as a nation of diversity

The post-election violence of 2007–2008, during which more than 1,000 Kenyans died and more than 300,000 were displaced, resulted in heightened perceptions to rebuild the country as a nation of diversity. One main step in this process was drafting a new constitution. The idea of Kenya as a nation of diversity was, however, not only a political project, but also fostered in popular culture – in music (eg. the song “Narudi nyumbani”/“coming home” by Nameless, written in 2010 as a tribute to Kenyan sportspeople who “represent (their) nation”), advertisements (such as “Niko na Safaricom”/“I have Safaricom”, a mobile network operator in Kenya) and TV shows. Furthermore, the idea was at the core of civil society initiatives. During the 2011 drought in the northern regions of the country, for instance, there was a wave of solidarity with people donating to campaigns such as “Kenyans for Kenya”. These discourses about “Kenyanness” carry a notion of citizenship in a broader sense. It is not only a matter of nationality, but also of belonging to, and participating in, society.

Possession of Kenyan identity documents is, however, a necessity for participation in the legal aspects of citizenship. All Kenyan citizens aged 18 are legally obliged to register with the National Registration Bureau in order to obtain an identity card. The effects of non-possession of ID vary, but it is generally needed for voting, education, travel, official employment, business and even emergency aid. Without a valid ID, the only routes into social participation are the acquisition of forged papers, or the usage of middlemen. Both solutions are characterized by instability and insecurity. Many Kenyan Somalis are tired of these improvised solutions and want to be treated as any other Kenyan. Furthermore, as the ID is associated with citizenship, lack of ID means that, in the eyes of the majority, “those without do not belong.”

While the issuance of identity papers is the state’s main instrument for making citizens, that state has further tools for placing people inside or outside the category of citizens. The constitution of 2010 not only stressed the idea of political inclusion of all citizens and groups, but also resulted, for instance, in a new Citizenship and Integration Act (2011), which provided among others for dual citizenship. The practices around the issuance of identity papers, the discrimination through vetting processes, as well as the forgery of papers, led to hopes that the introduction of biometric databases could make the registration and recognition process more transparent. In the following, I will discuss three further citizen-making instruments, which have particularly influenced the position of Kenyan Somalis since the post-election violence of 2007/8: the census of 2009, the elections of 2013, and the securitization of politics since 2013.

Census 2009: being “Kenyan” versus the recognition of ethnic minority groups

“Ethnicity” is a highly relevant category for political discussions and practices in Kenya, not only during elections, but also, for example, for the allocation of positions in the public sector. This relevance is reflected in arguments about the census, taken every 10 years. The 2009 census was accompanied by plans for the devolution of power and resources, strengthening the importance of the local.

Counting “ethnic affiliation” was seen by some commentators49 as reintroducing ethnicity into politics when unity should be paramount. But counting “ethnic affiliation” also created opportunities for the negotiation of belonging to Kenya. For the first time it was possible to be counted as “Kenyan”, and about 600,000 people did so. In one letter to the Daily Nation, the author described himself as belonging to a group of “urban detribalized” or “de-ethnicised” Kenyans, growing up in neighbourhoods that are characterized by diversity and “jamaa wa mtaa” (“family of the street”): “We may be a minority, but we represent the future”. Furthermore, smaller “ethnic groups” tried to gain recognition by the state, which in the case of Nubians, for example, meant being finally accepted as Kenyans.

The census count of Somali inhabitants of Kenya was also controversial. When the results were published in September 2010, Kenyan Somalis were, as in 1999, the strongest growing group. Numbering 2.4 million, they were now the sixth biggest ethnic group. The figures concerning the North Eastern Province, where most Kenyan Somalis lived, were later nullified, following claims that they were not reliable. The adjusted numbers published later are still considered dubious by many. Weitzberg has shown how problematic census results were already in colonial times. For nomadic populations, underreporting was observed frequently, as the census logic is linked to a sedentary lifestyle. Concerning Kenyan Somalis there are a number of additional issues at stake: high levels of non-compliance were reported during earlier censuses; the classification of who is recorded as “Somali” has changed over the time, making results difficult to compare; and finally, growing sedentarization poses further questions of comparability. At the same time, research shows how important the census is for the “politics of recognition”.

Elections 2013: the heightened importance of Somalis in Kenyan politics

Elections are another crucial moment for the “politics of belonging” in Kenya. In 2013, presidential elections coincided with the new county-level elections, intensifying this feature of Kenya politics. The establishment of counties, provided for in the new Constitution as an outcome of the post-electoral violence of 2007–2008, aimed at decentralizing power. Thereby the right of communities to manage their own affairs and to further their development was recognized. Minorities cautiously welcomed devolution, hoping for more control. Yet devolution also led to new power struggles. Candidates aimed at maximizing the numbers of their own group, either by registering “their” voters in their area, or by driving others out. Even though the “territorialization of ethnicity” already started in colonial times, it was strengthened with re-introducing the multi-party system in 1992, and further intensified with devolution. The 47 county governments furthermore control about 30% of national revenue, divided between them in part according to population size, deepening discussions about the census figures of 2009.

The changed mode of the presidential election also introduced new competitive elements. The successful candidate must secure 25% of votes in more than half of the counties, turning northeastern counties into “swing” regions. Therefore, the 2013 election campaigns brought a “considerable electoral focus … to the north.” The prospect of economic development arising from Kenya’s Vision 2030, with its special dedication to the north, increased the relevance of the elections further.

There is a kind of national excitement coming with the elections – they can be regarded as a “national ritual in which the residents of Kenya fully participate.” This is also the case for the northeastern region, despite the low voter registration in these counties, standing at 32.25% in Wajir, Mandera and Garissa, compared to 66% for overall Kenyan. Although Carrier and Kochore do not explain this low registration, it appears to result from a mixture of factors, from the complicated registration processes in remote areas, difficulties in acquiring identification documents for Kenyan Somalis to flawed population estimations.

Those elected in 2013 included a considerable number of Kenyan Somalis, some assuming important positions in parliament and government. Examples are Aden Duale, who became the Majority Leader of the National Assembly, Amina Mohammed Jibril, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and Adan Mohammed, Cabinet Secretary for Industrialization. Both the increased visibility of Somali politicians in Kenya, even in areas with a non-Somali majority population, and the growth of the Kenyan Somali population, according to the 2009 census, have intensified anxieties about Somalis “taking over” Kenya.

Terrorism and securitization – al-Shabaab on Kenyan soil

After a series of attacks on Kenyan soil carried out by the militant Somalian movement al-Shabaab, its Kenyan affiliate al-Hijra or actors claiming proximity to these groups, the Kenyan security apparatus reacted with heavy-handed measures, especially targeting ethnic Somalis living in Kenya. Kenya’s “Operation Linda Nchi” (“Protect the country”) in October 2011, intended to push back al-Shabaab fighters from southern Somalia, was followed by a series of retaliatory attacks by al-Shabaab, often carried out in areas inhabited by ethnic Somalis. Targets included police structures, nightclubs and bars, churches, but also buses and bus stations. Together, these attacks claimed over 400 lives. The attackers persistently targeted non-Muslims, and claimed that they were reacting to non-Muslim occupation of Muslim territory.

The government was unable to respond adequately to the attacks. There had been warnings that were not taken seriously concerning the attacks on the Westgate Mall (2013), the coastal town Mpeketoni close to Lamu (2014), as well as on the Garissa University College (2015). Moreover, when the Kenyan security apparatus reacted, it did so in an incoherent and chaotic way. Instead of improving coordination between the multiple security agencies, political actors responded in the same manner as before ‒ by blaming terrorism on Somali refugees in particular and the Somali inhabitants of Kenya in general, externalizing insecurity by utilizing the image of Somalis as “ambiguous citizens”, ignoring that many of the attackers were neither Kenyan Somalis nor Somali nationals.

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This strategy of stigmatization informed the security measures taken. Firstly, politicians demanded the closure of the refugee camps near the Somali border. Developments indicate that, this time, the Kenyan government seriously intends to shut down the refugee camp complex of Dadaab, despite a High Court ruling denouncing the planned closure as unconstitutional. Secondly, there were crackdowns on Somalian refugees living outside the camps. One of the biggest took place in April 2014 as usalama watch (“security watch”), when police went to urban neighbourhoods where ethnic Somalis live to arrest foreign nationals and terrorism suspects. The government also used extra-judicial killings and disappearances mainly in the northeastern region, returning to strategies employed under emergency regulations. Thirdly, the border to Somalia was temporarily closed and in 2015 Kenya started to build a wall along it. Despite the project developing very slowly and the envisioned wall having mutated into a fence,76 this structure could have effects on the living conditions for Kenyan Somalis inhabiting the northeastern region, many of whom still earn their living through pastoralism.

In addition, the Security Laws (Amendment) Act was passed in 2014. Even though the High Court nullified parts of the bill, especially those concerned with the freedom of press and a clause limiting the number of refugees in the country to 150,000, most of its sections remain in place. This last step taken by the government indicates that security measures targeting Kenyan Somalis are part of a wider political landscape, encompassing not only the “global” war on terror, but also changing political structures within Kenya. Starting with the elections in 2013 there has been a roll-back of reforms adopted after the post-election violence of 2007–2008, often under the rubric of “securitization”.

Race and cultural citizenship as two dimensions of Kenyanness

Kenyan Somalis are drawn back and forth between an emphasis on their ethnic Somaliness and their belonging to Kenya as citizens – they share their socialization with other fellow Kenyans, but are treated as if not quite belonging to Kenya. The term “ambiguous citizens” seems to capture this situation better than the often-used expression “second class citizens”, as it carries the notion of uncertainty and the undetermined, as well as the emotional side of citizenship, going beyond a purely legal definition. It also evokes the oscillating political treatment of Kenyan Somalis by the state, and the manifold ways in which Kenyan Somalis react to it. The term furthermore encompasses the diverse roles in which Kenyan Somalis can find themselves: as marginalized citizens in the northeastern region, as high-ranking politicians, as businesspeople in the metropolis and as urbanized (lower) middle class Kenyans. Last but not least the term “ambiguous citizenship” encapsulates different dimensions of citizenship – while people can be treated as “belonging” in some of them, they are not necessarily categorized as citizens in others. Kenyan Somalis have become a stronger part of the Kenyan political sphere, as well as of the Kenyan economy, yet they are still marginalized in terms of legal recognition of their citizenship.

Kenyan Somalis are not the only “ambiguous citizens” of Kenya. When looking at those other groups – Asians, Whites, Nubians or Arabs – two main dimensions along which Kenyanness is constructed come into focus: a racial dimension and a cultural dimension. Kenyan Somalis seem to be ambiguous in both of them. In contrast to the above-mentioned groups, however, their “ambiguousness” has a more severe impact. On the one hand Kenyan Somalis are in a particularly vulnerable position as they are under threat of arrest and deportation, on the other hand they are perceived as “overwhelming in numbers” and as more “dangerous” to the status quo due to their greater visibility in the economic and political sphere.

Race and “biological nationalism”

Janet McIntosh argues in her article about white citizens of Kenya, who, similar to Kenyan Somalis, have a “conspicuous minority status”, that even though the Kenyan government stated that “all Kenyans are indigenous”, this phrase implicitly only refers to Kenyans of African descent, linking national belonging to race. In the case of Kenyan Somalis, this notion is further complicated. In the colonial classification, urbanized “alien” Somalis neither counted as “European”, nor as truly “Asian” or as clearly “African”, but as something in between, not fitting the categories. This notion laid the basis for rendering all Kenyan Somalis as “non-native” Africans after independence. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Somali Members of Parliament spoke about a policy of “apartheid” and of “biological nationalism”. The only other group having such an “in-between” status are “Nubians”, who have to go through a similar vetting process when applying for national identification documents, which includes not only the presentation of numerous documents (such as parents’ birth certificates), but also the recognition by a chief to indeed belong to the local community.

The racial component also plays out in the daily life of Kenyan Somalis. Not only are they singled out by the police because of their physical appearance, but when walking along the street people whisper terms like “warya”, strengthening feelings of not-quite belonging. Kenyan Somalis, however, likewise reinforce notions of being different when calling their neighbours “Africans”. This can be read as a colonial legacy, the struggle of urbanized Somalis to be treated like “Asians”, but it can also be interpreted as a racial marker.

Cultural citizenship

Lonsdale noted that the slogan for national unity under Kibaki, “Kenya: A Working Nation”, also divided the population: “Since some work is thought to be morally superior to others some Kenyans are more Kenyan than others.” According to him the definition of Kenyanness is linked to idioms of connection to land evolving from the long-standing competition between farming and herding, between “working” and “controling” the land. The latter is often connected to a nomadic lifestyle, which tends to ignore national borders, adding to the perception of “disloyality” to the soil. Even though other communities, such as Maasai, Kalenjin, or Luo likewise spread over national borders, Kenyan Somali Members of Parliament lamented repeatedly that Kenya treats its Somali citizens differently than those other groups. The notion of pastoralism can, however, also serve as a binding element, as the elections 2013 showed. One of the candidates, William Ruto, “ … campaigned as a fellow pastoralist, suggesting that he and the northern voters should “bring their herds together” in the quest for northern development.”

McIntosh stated that “whites in Kenya do not fit the stereotype of the wenyeji, a Kiswahili term invoking “local inhabitants” who … can take for granted cultural citizenship in the nation as a whole.” She shows several strategies used by white Kenyans to underline their belonging to Kenya – one of them consists of stressing their “cultural citizenship”, for instance by having attended Kenyan schools.

In a similar vein, Somalis emphasize their cultural belonging to Kenya when presenting themselves as citizens. This is especially pronounced in the case of urbanized Somalis living outside the northeastern region. Talking from the current perspective an old man in Nakuru spoke about the early 1960s: “In July [1960] Somalia was declared independent, in October I went there. It was terrible, I became crazy. Because I realized this land was different from the land we were born in.” Even though he often spoke about the marginalization of urbanized Kenyan Somalis, he emphasized attending public celebrations of Kenyan national holidays, such as the Madaraka day (in commemoration of Kenya’s internal self-rule in 1963). And when he talked about marginalization, Kenya was the point of reference, not Somalia.

Kenyan Somalis from the northeastern region also explained their “Kenyanness” with “cultural” differences to Somalians. Hassan, a successful business man in his late 40s, who was born in the North Eastern Province, but has lived in Nakuru for almost 20 years, told me:

All are Kenyans and the culture is closer. Our background is more or less the same. The system we have gone through, the schooling, brings people closer together, the way we understand things. If you are coming from a very different background, it’s difficult to match the same level. The only thing that is bringing us [ethnic Somalis from Kenya and Somalia] together is the religion, and slightly the language, and the colour. Otherwise the background can have a very big impact on somebody’s life.

Concerning the shared background of education there is a marked difference between Kenyan Somalis from urbanized families and those who grew up in a pastoral setting in the northeastern region, as primary and secondary school enrolment rates in the northeastern counties are among the lowest in Kenya.

Similar living experiences can also result from internal migration, often for educational reasons or because of work. One Imam in Nakuru, for instance, who was born nearby Garissa, went to a local state primary school and then to different Islamic educational institutes on the coast, in Garissa and in Nairobi. Not only the Kenyan secular system is therefore creating bonds, but also religious education taking place within the country. Similar narratives of internal migration feature in many of the interviews. I met only a few Kenyan Somalis who had family networks spanning across the border to Somalia or who had moved for work reasons to Somalia.

Hassan mentioned Islam as the main element linking ethnic Somalis from Kenya and Somalia. Islam is also one of the elements dividing Kenyan Somalis from the Christian majority. They share this cleavage with other Kenyan Muslims, especially coastal Arabs and Swahili. Their perception of religious, economic and political marginalization partly derives from the feeling of lost power, which emerged with colonialism and intensified after independence. Simultaneously, Islam can serve as a means for claiming entitlement for higher positions in Kenyan society, a significant argument in consideration of actors with an overtly Christian commitment standing at the core of Kenyan politics.

Cultural citizenship is also asserted by an “investment in building Kenya’s future”, another way of “working the soil”. The involvement of Kenyan Somalis in the secession movement of the 1960s, and, today, in terrorist attacks, works in the opposite direction. This makes it more difficult for the vast majority of Somalis not involved in these movements to claim their Kenyanness. Even the existence of Somali “heroes”, as seen in the Westgate Mall Attack or initiatives against that image (#KenyaI’mNotATerrorist) do not seem to change this picture.

Kenyan Somalis as “ambiguous citizens”


Differences in the way Kenyan Somalis respond to the alternating incorporation into and alienation from society can be found within the very same family. Abdullahi, who is in his mid-40s, sees himself first and foremost as Kenyan. Both of his parents come from families urbanized during colonial times. His grandfather served as Sergeant in the colonial-era Kenya Police. Before moving to Nakuru as a teenager, he lived in a small town at the coast. Abdullahi’s parents and siblings identify as Muslim and as Somali – in contrast to him. When I met him in Nakuru, he lived with his two brothers. Both of them, as “good Muslims”, did not go out to bars, but instead played video games in the evening and enjoyed Somali music. His family did not know that Abdullahi lived a very different life, going to clubs and only very rarely to the mosque. Unlike Abdullahi, who always insisted on remaining in Kenya, both of his brothers now live in Europe. Many urbanized Somalis did not see their future in Kenya and moved to Europe in the 1990s and 2000s. They did so out of feelings of alienation, but also due to the perception that they were losing out to Kenyan Somalis from the northeastern region, who at this time acquired higher positions in the Kenyan administration. Furthermore, the economic situation of Kenya deteriorated in the 1990s and many families feared to lose their (lower) middle class status which they had preserved after independence. Renewed interest in moving away resulted from the securitized policy of the Kenyan state since 2013. To go to Europe, the two brothers had to become more “Somali” by learning the language properly.

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As in many of the long-term urbanized Kenyan Somali families, Somali was not spoken frequently at home. In such families, members can often understand Somali, but do not speak it properly. Meeting Kenyan Somalis from the northeastern part of the country, where Somali is spoken more frequently, can lead to a feeling of double exclusion: to be neither accepted as “Somali” nor to be able to claim belonging to any other Kenyan ethnic group. Fellow Kenyan Somalis label them “siju(i)”, in the same way as Somalians categorize all Kenyan Somalis as neither knowing Somali language nor culture. This inability to speak Somali was true even though Abdullahi’s brothers mainly lived within Somali circles: their closest contacts were members of the extended kin network and of their own clan and the flat in which Abdullahi was living was situated in a “Somali” middle class neighbourhood. In Nakuru, Somalis have their own mosque, which is not part of the local Muslim Association, and also their business activities mainly take place within Somali networks. This prevalence of extended kin-networks and of living in co-ethnic neighbourhoods is, however, not only true for Kenyan Somalis, but widespread in Kenya (and beyond).

Abdhullahi, in contrast, mostly stayed away from other Somalis, with the exception of business endeavours. However, fellow Kenyans at times treat him essentially as (ethnic) Somali. In the violence following the elections 2007, he was almost killed in a targeted attack, which he blamed on economic competition based on ethnic categorization. While this could be interpreted as just another example of the ethnicized Kenyan public, for Kenyan Somalis incidents such as this accentuate their feeling of not belonging to the society. Abdullahi left Nakuru immediately after recovering and started a new life in Nairobi. He now lives there with a Kikuyu woman and their young daughter. He is working as a project manager in an IT company, even though had never gone to university due to financial reasons. With his brothers, he plans to start an agricultural business.


Differences in the identification process can also occur over time. Amina, a young woman in her early 20s, was born in Nakuru. Her mother grew up in Garissa in northeastern Kenya. Amina’s father came from Baidoa, Somalia, and married her mother in Mombasa in 1990. Since her parents separated, there has been almost no contact between the father and his four daughters. Amina’s mother tries to support the family by running a textile shop in one of the “Somali” shopping centres, but money is always scarce. Amina dresses like any other urban (Muslim) girl in Kenya, she typically wears Somali attire (often hiding her Arsenal shirt underneath) and a Kenyan bracelet. In high school she played soccer, and she likes walking around in town, even though people recurrently whisper “walaal” in her direction. For some time, she had a Nubian boyfriend nobody knew about.

While she had never before mentioned Somalia, one day she told me that a friend of the family was stopping by more frequently in the last time and it seemed he just wanted to see her. She was curious about him and argued that the good thing about him was that he came from the country of her father: “from home”, from Somalia. This was the time when economic and political developments in Somalia had begun to look more promising than before. Just a short while before she had told me that there were three groups of Somalis in Nakuru: those from Somalia, those from Kenya, and “returnees”. While she described the first and the third group as being “closed”, she depicted Kenyan Somalis as “open”. This perception was not only linked to a feeling of “cultural” proximity, but also to personal contacts which are often clan-centred. These social networks, therefore, not only separate Kenyan Somalis from fellow Kenyans, but also from Somalians. The only exception from this pattern in Nakuru was a Muslim youth group in which Amina was participating: its all-Somali members, who had met in school, came from Somalia as well as from Kenya (and here from the urban areas as well as from the northeastern part of the country). Amina’s story makes visible the relevance of family ties linking Somalia and Kenya. In these cases, however, the main difference is also created by the context of socialization.

Changing identification

Changes in identification over time are also indicated by the Afrobarometer data concerning ethnic versus national identification. When asked how they would identify when having to choose between the two, Kenyan Somalis were not only among those groups with the highest rates of choosing a national (Kenyan) over an ethnic identity, this trend deepened between the years 2005–2006 (about one-third of the Somali respondents) and 2016–2018 (about two-thirds of the respondents). In the same period, their feeling of being (often or always) treated unfairly by the government because of their ethnicity declined in the opposite direction (from about 70% to about 40%). Even though these statistics do not allow conclusions to be drawn about identification processes in daily life, they hint at the desire by Kenyan Somalis to be accepted as ordinary citizens of the state.

What can be seen from the material presented in this article is that citizenship for Kenyan Somalis is “ambiguous” in multiple ways: they are treated as not “fitting” racially and culturally (which is partly due to their own separation), they are seen as not really wanting to belong (on the grounds of the shifta war and terrorism), as being an economic and political threat, and as not bound enough to Kenya due to their cross-border ties.

Conclusion: Kenyan Somalis and the question of belonging

Already the debate around the census results showed that even if there is a move towards unity in diversity in Kenya, Kenyan Somalis still have to struggle to be part of this idea. The possibilities the new Constitution concedes are slowly finding their ways into laws and thereafter into practice. These developments, however, are overshadowed by the securitization discourse in the Kenyan public sphere.

Although some Kenyan Somalis are part of the socio-economic and political elite of Kenya, they remain trapped in the position of “ambiguous citizens”, not part of the nation, but also not outside it. The term “Somali” is used as an umbrella term, applied to a very heterogeneous population. Who this term refers to, and if it means “insider” or “outsider”, depends on the circumstances. The diverse images of Somalis in Kenya, resulting from different historical trajectories, are aggregated in a meta-image of the “ambiguous citizen”. From Kenyan Somalis urbanized during the colonial time, this meta-image derives the legal notion of “alienness”, and from the Somalis of the northeastern region the tropes of “violent opposition to the state” and of “cultural difference”. Furthermore, some elements of this meta-image are linked to Somalian refugees – the “increase in numbers” as well as the idea of “economic strength”, the latter concerning a small, but visible, minority.

Sometimes the status of “insider” is almost impossible to reach. In 1993, a Somali parliamentarian narrated a justification he was given by the Principal Immigration officer after Somalis were barred from entering the passport-issuing office: “A Somali, whether from Somalia or from Kenya, is a Somali because mtoto wa nyoka ni nyoka [The child of a snake is a snake].” These processes of inclusion and exclusion can take place almost simultaneously. In 2013, the elections fostered a co-optation of the Kenyan Somali population; at the same time, they were the focus of a securitization discourse, which in turn resulted in another alienation of the Somali population of Kenya.

The position of Kenyan Somalis is, to speak in Yiftachel terms, situated in “gray spaces”, between the “whiteness” of legality or approval, and the “blackness” of eviction or destruction. These “gray spaces” develop through the interaction of different actors, many of them non-Somali Kenyan politicians, but as well Somali elites, who use their position to shake off competitors.

Typically, the concrete emergence of “stubborn” informalities is “handled” […] by a range of delegitimizing and criminalizing discourses. […] This […] move tends to preserve gray spaces, activities and populations in “permanent temporariness” – concurrently tolerated and condemned, perpetually waiting “to be corrected”.

In colonial times, “authorities in Kenya appear to have ruled their ‘alien’ Somali subjects … by keeping their status undefined, ambiguous, and contestable”. In historic continuity the “other” has stayed the same. What has changed is the rhetoric of “othering”: from shifta and bandits, to poachers, refugees, then pirates and now al-Shabaab. What has also stayed the same are the political strategies used by the Kenyan state: screening and registration, checkpoints and repeated raids in the urban areas.

This may appear to be a gloomy conclusion, but there are some developments that might render the picture in brighter light. McIntosh argues that one way for white Kenyans to claim Kenyanness is to appeal to a “cosmopolitan ideal, a civic nationalism, in which all groups invested in the nation are equally welcome.” As it was shown, the citizen-making instruments of the state in the last decade ‒ discussed with taking the example of the census and the elections ‒ reflect in content and usage the imagination of Kenya as a nation of diversity. I argue that many Kenyan Somalis are ready to take this possibility up, if they have the chance to do so.


Precursors of this paper were presented at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies in December 2013 and the Somali Studies Conference in Helsinki in 2015. My thanks go to James Carrier, David O’Kane, John Eidson and Keren Weitzberg for their fruitful comments and to Fatma A. Hassan for her help during fieldwork in Kenya.

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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