On April 1 six people died in Eastleigh, a majority-Somali neighborhood in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Two bombs detonated: one in a gas station and another at a local restaurant. Later in the month, on April 22, a car bomb exploded outside a police station in the area, killing four, including two police officers.
Incidents of this nature are common in Eastleigh. It is unclear who the perpetrators of these regular assaults are, or their motive. Despite the lack of clarity, the state’s response to each blast has been as consistent as the bombings themselves – arresting massive amounts of people. Ultimately over one thousand people were arrested after April 1’s attack. The hashtag #KasaraniConcentrationCamp gained traction on Twitter (referring to the neighborhood of a football stadium) after it was discovered that thousands more were being held in the stadium.
Besides these sweeping arrests, the police and army extort bribes, beat and rape with impunity. These egregious detentions and violent activities further isolates and angers the Somali community. This does nothing to improve Kenya’s security.
Kenya’s army and police say they conduct these massive “swoops” specifically targeting Eastleigh as a preventive measure. Their reasoning is that this may be a stronghold of the Somali militant group al-Shabbab, which carried out the Westgate mall attack and has pledged further retribution for Kenya’s military deployment in Somalia that helped oust al-Shabbab.
Hundreds of thousands of Somalis are currently in Kenya, having fled their war-torn home country. Over 343,000 alone live in one refugee camp in Kenya’s North Eastern Province. There are hundreds of thousands of more who have found their way to urban centers, specifically the Eastleigh neighborhood. By an large, they live in Kenya as illegal migrants. Those that have legal status are given special identity cards.
The confluence of the majority Somali neighborhood and an underpaid police force is a volatile mix. Police stop residents driving and walking on the street at will. Many will ignore identification cards and threaten arrest unless a bribe is paid. Others will take the card to “examine it” and then return, professing ignorance of the identification, and with this confiscation, arrest the person.
Kenya has adopted the attitude that there is a major, active al-Shabaab presence in Eastleigh that must be sought out and destroyed. But given the nature of the violence, it is highly doubtful al-Shabaab — which is known to be sophisticated in its operations and claims credit for attacks it carries out — is behind these assaults.
Because it’s difficult to make the argument with certainty that al Shabaab is behind these neighborhood attacks, the roundabout reasoning and intensive police response leads to a frustrated community that feels unfairly targeted. Indiscriminate arrests make the government look impulsive and reactive and are having the effect of alienating a large minority community.
The explosion that killed two police officers in late April happened next to Pangani station The station was earlier highlighted in a Human Rights Watch report as a location where officials were abusing prisoners. The organization found “hundreds of detainees packed into cells designed to accommodate 20 people. Detainees had no room to sit, and the cells were filthy with urine and excrement.” It also mentioned that detainees were being held in jail for up to eight days without a court date. This is significantly longer than Kenya’s 24-hour legal limit.
Arresting enormous amounts of people and extorting bribes is an unlikely harbinger against further attacks. Besides igniting fury, it will likely cause further inter-ethnic tension. With these huge police movements, Kenyans are likely to think that many Somalis present a threat, as opposed to a select few. For now, it appears that a vicious cycle of attacks followed sweeping arrests and targeted brutality will continue.