Thursday, August 05, 2010


.................on the much-touted Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC).

At the level of personalities, it will be a report card on the chair of the IIEC, Mr Ahmed Isaack Hassan. However, Mr Hassan’s stewardship of the IIEC is part of a bigger narrative about something else – the place of Kenyan Somalis in the larger Kenyan story. Every so often, there is some grumbling about Somalis in Kenya – that they are flooding the country as refugees; that they are terrorists. It is also said that they are muscling everyone else out of the real estate business with money from piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

In the heat of the debate over the kadhi courts provisions in the draft constitution, there were accusations of a “Muslim conspiracy to take over Kenya”. “Proof” of this conspiracy was that the key political institutions were “under Muslim control”.

Mr Hassan at IIEC was named, as was Mr Abdikadir Mohammed, chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee that oversaw the draft constitution in its journey through the House,  Mr Yusuf Haji, minister of Defence, Ms Amina Mohammed, Permanent Secretary in the Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs ministry and Deputy National Assembly Speaker, Hon. Farah Maalim to name a few.

The striking thing about Kenya, relative to other East African countries, is not how many Muslims are in key government positions, but that most of them are Somali.  A colleague explained that “Kenya is very conflicted about both its Somali citizens, and the Somalis who come over as refugees or residents”. He added: ‘‘We are both very suspicious, but also accommodating. Kenya is possibly the only country in Africa where Somalis are safest.” If Kenya has a “Somali problem”, then it also enjoys a “Somali dividend”. In the post-Kanu Kenya of the last seven years, no ethnic group has been able to dominate power to the exclusion of others. No party has had the national clout that Kanu once had. And the big national groups – the Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luhya, Luo, Kamba – have largely fought themselves to a draw.

In this situation, the Kenyan Somalis have been the “consensus” tribe. So the big nationalities fought after the 2007 elections and cannot agree on who should head the IIEC without drawing too much suspicion? Give it to Hassan, a Somali. You are afraid that some old vested and tribal interests will hijack the constitution in Parliament? Give it to Abdikadir, a Somali.

To use some Mazruispeak, the very “otherness” of Somalis that leads to hostility from other Kenyans, is also the source of the “oneness” that makes them safe insiders. Now Somalis face a common problem with many marginalised communities and groups, like women for example. To get ahead in a world dominated by other nationalities, you really have to be very good. The Somalis, both in Kenya, and now globally, have developed a very competent core of bureaucrats. And, whatever shortcomings they might have, Hassan and Abdikadir have helped bring a fresh air of competence and professionalism to the business of constitution-making and elections.

In Somalia, there is no group that plays the safe holding position that Somalis play in Kenya. So they fight themselves to the death and trash their country. In fact a lot of the brutality and madness in Africa is partly down to this lack of an “outsider” tribe, which is also a minority. In Rwanda, in many ways, there was the same lack of a harmless ethnic group that would be entrusted to take temporary custody of state business as the tempers cool off among the big boys. The attraction of groups like Somalis (like the mixed race populations in West Africa) is that deep down, there is a misguided but comforting feeling among the big communities that if push comes to shove, they can always be chased away and sent “back where they came from”.

In Africa, therefore, the country that does not have a local version of Kenyan Somalis should be very afraid.