Xenophobia and ethno-nationalism: Not-so-strange bedfellows

From: Berhane Habtemariam <>
Date: Thu, 23 Apr 2015 19:11:38 +0200

Xenophobia and ethno-nationalism: Not-so-strange bedfellows

Awino Oketch

2015-04-23, Issue 723

While plenty of anger has been targeted at South Africa, in Kenya the Uhuru Kenyatta administration’s reactions to Al Shabaab attacks have resulted in deepening anti-Somali and anti-Islam sentiments, thereby weakening the nation’s ability to build a united and effective response to the terror group.
When the 2008 attacks on African immigrants in South Africa occurred, I had just moved back to Kenya after four years of living in Cape Town. I was sitting in Nairobi anxious for non-South African friends, yet at the same time caught in the midst of our post election violence that quickly mutated into ethnic violence. None of these countries seemed like the most suitable place to be, but I was certain that being part of national conversations in Kenya was essential and confronting death at home was more palatable.

As xenophobic attacks resurge in South Africa in 2015, Kenya is in the midst of a response to Al Shabaab, an extremist insurgent group which mutated out of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia in 2007. The analysis that would clarify why Kenya is a greater target for Al Shabaab, when it has been a military actor in Somalia alongside Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi, is yet to emerge. It may be concluded that this has in part to do with the nature of the state and different regimes. Nonetheless, existing studies on Kenya allude to a range of connected issues. These include: colonial and post-colonial dispossession of citizens, and the marginalisation of Northern Kenya and the Coast, which also happen to be key geographical entry points for extremist insurgents; the proximity of both these regions of Kenya to Somalia, and the latter’s long-standing civil war that has created lawlessness and accompanying subaltern economies; and finally, the weaknesses of the Kenyan state brought about by decades of political decay, that have engendered political patronage and corruption across key government agencies - not least the entire security sector.

It is difficult to target anger at South Africa without casting an eye on Kenya. Indeed, the current Kenyan administration’s response to some of the major Al Shabaab attacks such as Westgate in 2013, Mpeketoni in 2014 and Garissa University College in 2015, resulted in anti-Somali and anti-Islamic sentiment rather than coalescing national energies on Kenya’s capabilities to respond effectively to Al Shabaab as a security and stability threat. The implementation of Usalama Watch in 2014, which was intended as a community-based security programme to unveil Al Shabaab sleeper cells country wide, ended up being an Eastleigh based operation, thus criminalizing Somalis, who are the main inhabitants of this suburb. It must be noted that the Somalis are not foreign nationals in Kenya, but one of the forty plus nations co-existing in Kenya. The regime’s proclamations immediately after the Mpeketoni attack in Lamu absolved Al Shabaab of responsibility, and instead pointed to the Mombasa Republican Council, a group which has articulated historical state-led land dispossession of indigenous communities, through calls for secession.

Underpinning the xenophobic violence in South Africa and counter-terrorism responses in Kenya are three patterns. The first is state collusion in the facilitation of violence, which can be enacted by citizens against “foreigners” or enacted by “foreigners” against citizens. This collusion is driven by the elite’s interest in maintaining channels for the acquisition of state resources. Herein lie corrupt and corruptible state officials that deliberately weaken systems on the one hand and frustrate citizens on the other hand, who are then forced into a social contract with a regime - through elections - that is not legitimate.

The second pattern is the rise of conservative nationalisms as a result of the perception of threat. In South Africa, the state’s failure to provide an inclusive and enabling economic and political programme, by sustaining elite largesse on the state, is re-cast as an immigration problem. State officials through silence or affirmation, tacitly support community discourses that focus on the presence of “foreigners” thriving in the face of citizen hunger. In Kenya, the inability of the regime to put its house in order through extensive security reform alongside efforts to redress historical dispossession at the hands of political elite, is instead re-articulated as “foreigners” finding support amongst “us”. The “us” in this instance is constructed as the majority – Christian and “indigenous”, which is non-Somali and non-Islamic. Even if this is not the intention of the policy statements, public discourse and resultant responses such as identifying Al Shabaab sympathisers in Somali occupied zones affirms it. This is despite the existence of non-Somali, non-Northern Kenyan Al Shabaab sympathisers.

The resurgence of ethno-nationalism of this nature is always accompanied by increased surveillance of women's bodies and agency in response to the "them" versus "us" narrative. After the 2013 general elections in Kenya, there were public political calls on the “correct” marital partnerships and the need for women to have more children to ensure numbers to win elections. In South Africa, the violence targeted at African immigrants is not only justified through the prism of jobs that are being taken away but also "our women". There is therefore the imagined need to protect, re-claim and defend South African women who are falling prey to “foreigners”. Women have no agency in these cases.

The third pattern is the closure of space through immigration policies. There is a palpable tension between realising a borderless Africa dream that enables the free movement of people and goods, while at the same time resolving the nationalist energies that emerge from "foreign invasion”. The African National Congress’s Peace and Stability policy focuses on Home Affairs, which is about the management of immigration and national identity. This forms the centrepiece of its approach to territorial integrity and internal security, and has opened the floodgates for immigration harassment despite the fact that the same document recognises "internationalism" as central to South Africa's approach to Africa and the world. In Kenya, immigration laws have recently changed to prioritise job creation for citizens, a perimeter fence is being constructed along the Somali border, and there are numerous stories of people acquiring different names because of the additional vetting accompanying the acquisition of identity cards for citizens in Northern Kenya.

This closure of space has long-term implications. For South Africa, a significant percentage of those who face immigration harassment comprise a skilled labour force from Africa, teaching in institutions of higher learning and working with pan African organizations and corporate entities. Africa’s second largest economy relies on African human and financial resources to sustain that position. Short sighted and hostile immigration policies not only fuel self-induced economic sabotage, which has the net effect of warranting retaliatory policies on South African interests in Africa, but also belie a longstanding pan-African stance. For Kenya, the mutation of Al Shabaab and global patterns of extremist insurgencies show that the challenge is borderless. The work of resolving extremist insurgencies requires a combination of short, medium and long-term strategies. To win the hearts and minds of citizens in order to build consensus on a national security strategy, these strategies in turn must combine: an extensive security reform that addresses capabilities and efficiency demands; a commitment to rooting out corruption and political patronage; effective management of the political devolution process; and a fair dose of regime humility. to win the hearts and minds of citizens in order to build consensus on a national security strategy.

Between counter terrorism approaches and resolving the failures of capitalism, state sanctioned violence and securitised governance is becoming the norm. This trend, it must be noted, is not unique to Africa. Herein lies the question of leadership and citizen agency. Kenyan leadership oscillates between being forced to listen to citizens with agency, and decision making shaped by the need to “act tough”. South African political leadership has resorted to invoking Mandela’s legacy to pacify South Africans and other Africans. We must recognize that the challenges we face today have to be resolved by leadership that is attentive and responsive to the challenges of our time. Such leadership cannot be driven by the pursuit of self-preservation, but by the recognition of leaders’ missions to realize a more equal society and selflessly commit to it.

* Dr Awino Okech is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Politics and International Relations
Received on Thu Apr 23 2015 - 13:11:38 EDT

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