One would be forgiven for thinking the Kenyan government has something against sheltering the poor. The last two weeks have displayed some reflexive, ill-advised and even callous decision making that has left hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens facing the prospect of enduring nights out in the cold and refugees being pressed back into the arms of the very oppressors they had fled from in the first place.
Last week, I noted that on his visit to the site of the collapsed building in Huruma where at least 50 people died, President Uhuru Kenyatta did not appear overly concerned about the fate of the many who would be rendered homeless by his order that all Nairobi residents living in unsafe buildings be evicted. By his administration’s own count, more than half of the city’s buildings were unsafe, the vast majority in poor areas.
Then came another decision seemingly out of the blue. The Dadaab refugee camp in the remote northern part of the country has been ordered to empty by November, the hundreds of thousands of refugees living there to be forcibly repatriated, most to still warring Somalia. This not only violates Kenya’s obligations under international law, but also rubbishes an arrangement with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees for voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees. But more than that, like with the poor in Nairobi, government’s treatment of refugees exposes a callous disregard for their humanity and welfare.
It has long been clear that the poor in Kenya have been considered to be little more than sources for elite plunder, foot soldiers for elite battles and excuses for elite failures. The foreign poor have been especially badly treated by the state - relegated to the margins of society; confined in remote camps; robbed and raped by both state officials and bandits (who are many times one and the same); and then scapegoated for the government’s own security failures.
In an article published in the UK explaining the decision to close the camps, Interior Secretary Joseph Ole Nkaisserry says it was prompted by national security concerns, and especially the threat posed by Al Shabaab terrorists whom, the government claims, used the camps to plan and execute attacks like the September 2013 Westgate Mall atrocity. Of course, the Secretary was not concerned with inconveniences like facts and history.
Perhaps there is a good reason why the piece was published abroad. Many back home will remember that the though the government never provided any tangible evidence linking Dadaab to Westgate, this did not stop it demonizing refugees as security threats. Further, many will recall Operation Usalama Watch in April 2014 which was little more than officially sanctioned pillage of the sort residents in the North East are unfortunately familiar, cloaked in the language of counter-terrorism.
Even more importantly, many will remember the government’s shambolic response to Westgate and other subsequent attacks, the many failures to act on intelligence to stop the attacks and the failure to institute promised public inquiries into them. Many will remember that it was easier to blame the refugees rather than look at the real causes and failures leading to the atrocities.
Of course this did not stop Gen Nkaissery doubling down on his accusations. In an address to the local press a few days later, he accused the refugees of everything from gun running to wildlife poaching. Again, little evidence was offered for the claims. It was another blatant attempt to blame the refugees for the government’s own shortcomings. For example, despite the photogenic bonfires with which it likes to declare its commitment to wildlife conservation, the government’s actual record in this area is far from inspiring.
This same dynamic is present in the response to Huruma and in the implication that poor families move into decrepit buildings out of choice. The idea of evictions, and now of giving those displaced by the collapse tiny amounts to help them move on, implies there is somewhere for them to go. Yet as Kwame Owino of the Institute for Economic Affairs noted in November 2014, what is commonly seen as a housing problem is actually an income and employment problem. He says that in a country in which poverty is pervasive, “a cheap house will necessarily be a bad house.”
Of course the reasons for poor incomes and high land and construction costs are to be found squarely within the policies pursued by the government as well as the interests it has prioritized. But, as with refugees, it is easier to blame the poor.