Resentment against Kenyan Somalis fed by myths rising alarmingly fast

Tuesday January 24 2012



We will not admit it publicly. But this country is gripped by a new wave of resentment of the Kenyan Somali.

This is what I came to learn recently from responses to an article I did in these columns, in which I made the case for the appointment of an outsider to replace the outgoing Kenya Revenue Authority CEO, Mr Michael Waweru.

Apparently, many readers interpreted what I had said to mean support for the candidature of the chief executive of Barclays Bank, Mr Adan Mohammed, who is the most high-profile outsider to have applied for the job.

I was surprised at just how much even top people in government had resorted to repeating popular stereotypes against the whole community when it was clear that their real motive was to shift discussions away from dealing with the credentials and integrity of the candidates who had applied for the job.

They would exploit and ride on the popular myth that Kenyan Somalis were over-represented in high-profile public positions in the public sector.

I received numerous e-mail messages with remarks reflecting intolerance and containing racist connotations.

Kenyan Somalis are vilified for ‘‘taking over’’ Eastleigh and Nairobi’s South C estate and promoting trade in uncustomed goods imported through Eldoret Airport and sold in “Garissa Lodges” in major towns.

The bigotry was simply baffling. A senior KRA official intimated to me how an influential group of businessmen got so threatened by the prospect of a Kenyan Somali taking over the helm at KRA that they decided to launch a campaign  in the corridors of power to lobby against Mr Mohamed’s candidature.

Are Kenya Somalis over-represented in high-profile public positions? It is a myth walking on stilts. Granted, a handful of Kenyan Somalis have lately played visible roles in the constitutional process.

Three names immediately spring to mind. They are Mr Ahmednasir Abdullahi, Mr Abdikadir Mohamed, and Mr Isaak Hassan.

As a member of the Judicial Service Commission, lawyer Ahmednasir played a visible role in the interviewing and appointment of new judges.

But he does not owe that position to political patronage. The man sits in the JSC as an elected representative of the Law Society of Kenya.

The chairman of Parliament’s Oversight Committee on the Implementation of the Constitution, Mr Mohamed, has also been very visible in the last couple of years. He was elected by his peers.

The chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Mr Isaak Hassan, was appointed in a transparent process that included vetting by a committee of Parliament.

So, where is the evidence that Kenyan Somalis are grabbing high-profile jobs? It’s a blatant myth. The problem is that myths and stereotypes against minority communities tend to stick.

We will need massive education to change attitudes and mindsets from a world of kinship to a world of compatriots. Respecting differences and diversity is what the new Constitution is supposed to be all about.

When I look at the Kenyan Somali, I see many positive things. I have always wondered why they make such good traders and entrepreneurs. They are especially big in commodities – sugar, cement and petroleum.

The traders instinct is innate in the Somali gene. The people criticising the recent influx of Somali investors in Eastleigh and South C or the mushrooming of Garissa Lodges may want to visit the city of Minneapolis where the very same phenomenon is playing out.

Contrary to popular myths, the phenomenon we are seeing in Eastleigh is not just about money from piracy. Somalis have a superb entrepreneurial spirit honed over centuries.

If I got an opportunity to go back to university, I would enrol in the department of anthropology to study the relationship between ethnicity and specific businesses.

I’d like to know why from Migori at the Tanzania border to Malindi, the business of selling tyres is dominated by the Akamba.

Why is it that Luos perform well as carpenters, motor-vehicle mechanics and painters? Why are Kikuyus good traders? Why do Kalenjins dominate long races and Luhya and Luos football and Rugby?