By Mugambi Kiai
Lawyer Mohamed Ibrahim said he felt "like a third rate citizen" following the announcement and implementation in November 1989 of an obviously illegal nationwide operation by the Kenyan government to screen the Somali community.
This characterisation is apt: this week has been witness to unbridled attacks against the Somali Community sparked by two reprehensible events.
In one instance, a clear terrorist attack on a matatu in Eastleigh, Nairobi led to reprisal attacks against the sizeable Somali community resident there.
Despite the reality that most of those recently reported to have executed terrorist attacks in the country are not Somali, the fact that the prime suspects in this case were Somalis inflamed the situation to near-total social conflagration.
In the second instance, a surprise gun attack in Garissa on members of the Kenya Defence Force by suspected terrorists led to a viciously brutal response by their colleagues who essentially shut down Garissa and violated local residents with wanton and ruthless abandon. Again, the target community was primarily Somali.
As one analyst wondered aloud, would this have been the response of KDF personnel had these events occurred in say, Nyeri, the President's home town?
The argument being advanced here is simple: the Kenyan state has been nakedly hostile to the Somali community. This predates independence: the British colonial administration kept the Northern Frontier District which is now North Eastern Province (it was redrawn as North Eastern Province in 1963 and became almost exclusively Somali) "a closed district: As such the NFD was isolated administratively - no person could enter the area without a special license. Development has remained virtually frozen since its days of colonial isolation."
At independence, the overwhelming majority of the Somali wished to secede because of their cultural, political and economic attachment to Somalia but the new Kenyan government would have none of it: The newly independent Kenyan government justified its claims in the face of strong opposition by promising full integration of the territory into the new nation.
This promise of integration, however, has not been achieved; it has barely been attempted. The area has remained isolated and underdeveloped, and ethnic Somalis are treated as an alien community in their own country.
The independent Kenyan government instead used extraordinary powers to contain the secessionists and subdue what was perceived as a hostile and essentially proscribed community.
The government's response to the demands of the secessionists was a special regime of emergency powers introduced in the new constitution applicable only in Kenya's newly-named North Eastern Province.
And so have continued pernicious practices against members of the Somali community. Even the nomenclature commonly associated with the Somali community "shifta" is not only derogatory of them but also a dehumanizing socio-cultural stereotype that rationalizes the diverse violations constantly visited on them. For shifta actually means bandit. To advance this denuded argument: what is wrong in using strong-arm tactics against a community that "naturally" engages in banditry?
Because of this attitude, it is then possible for the vast majority of Kenyans to feel no iota of outrage when the KDF can, in retaliation of what was clearly an unacceptable attack against their own, reportedly close down Garissa, shoot, rape and maim residents and also burn and destroy property worth millions of shillings.
Deputy Speaker Farah Maalim and several other legislators lamented: "The women have been raped, schoolchildren shot and even Duale (Dujis MP Adan Duale) was held hostage in the town...Right now the entire Garissa is in tatters, millions have been lost after the military officers went burning businesses in the town."
Questions arise over the (dis)proportionate response by state officers. Moreover, another set of questions arise regarding the respect of the rule of law and protection of human rights which dictate that all are to be deemed and treated as innocent until proved guilty, that individuals can only be sanctioned by the state after the due process of the law has been sedulously followed, and that individuals are protected from communal punishment because responsibility is individual rather than communal.
Clearly, all these principles and values - explicitly spelt out and enshrined in the 2010 Constitution - are considered by state officials (and even Kenyan citizens going by the events in Eastleigh) as merely "pious platitudes"; especially with regard to the Somali community.
Tragically, the clear lack of movement with regard to the protection of the human rights of the Somali community is underlined and amplified by the fact that the atrocities perpetrated in Garissa this week echo another incident in this town's history. This is the massacre of Bulla Karatasi. Here is one description of this saddening episode:
In November 1980, security forces burned down Bulla Karatasi, an entire village in...Garissa, after six government officials had been killed. Security forces swept through the village in arbitrary and gruesome retaliation.
Hundreds of people died and many were wounded as they tried to flee. Bodies of those killed in what the government called "a necessary security measure" were buried early in the morning in a mass grave; other bodies were said to have been thrown in the river.
The massacre reportedly began following revenge killings by a local Kenyan-Somali nicknamed "Madhobe."
He killed six government officials before being arrested and was then castrated by members of the Anti-Poaching Unit...After the massacre, the local population was rounded up and interrogated.
Thousands of Kenyan-Somalis were beaten by the security forces and accused...of harbouring anti-government elements...They were deprived of food, water and sleep for thirty-two hours. Provincial Commissioner Benson Kaaria said "a thousand Somalis will die" for every government official killed, and threatened to "eliminate" all Somali-speaking Kenyans. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was announced."
Clearly, not much has changed from those dark days. This was a time when former Minister of Internal Security, GG Kariuki was reported in the daily press saying "the only good Somali is a dead one." What a pity that Kenya has not at all progressed from the bondage of such a biliously hateful mind set!
Mugambi Kiai is the Kenya Programme Manager at the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA). The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and do not reflect the views of OSIEA.