By Abdi Latif Dahir -Nairobi, KENYA — Nowadays, Omar al Hadidi sits in his barbershop here in Nairobi’s Eastleigh business district, wondering when the next customer will come. Since a security crackdown started in Eastleigh in early April, Omar says his business has been incurring losses for weeks on end.
“It is a desert out here,” al Hadidi says one rainy morning as he attended to a client. “Because of the insecurity in Eastleigh and the operation, our business is not doing very well.”
Al Hadidi, who also employs eight other people in the barbershop and recently opened a gym in the area, says the police crackdown has sabotaged both his profits and his employees’ earnings.
“On a day, I alone used to receive 20 customers,” he says. “Now they are down to a maximum of eight. When I am not earning, my employees are not earning too. This is a big problem.”
Dubbed “Operation Usalama Watch,” or “Operation Peace Watch,” the police operation in Nairobi has so far nabbed over 4,000 people, most of them Somali refugees or Kenyan citizens of Somali ethnicity. Kenya’s government has said that the operation is part of its efforts to remove terrorists from the country and to strengthen national security in the wake of devastating terrorists attacks, such as the attack on Westgate shopping mall in September 2013, where 67 people were killed.
But as the police rounded up residents, a state of isolation and restricted access has engulfed Eastleigh, with many people avoiding the area to buy goods or operate their businesses.
Since the early 1990’s, Eastleigh has stood as the commercial hub of Somali entrepreneurship in Kenya. The booming business district in the heart of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is known for its large shopping malls, restaurants and hotels, which cater to customers who come from as far as Ghana and Congo. Many local and international banks have also set come camp here over the years, with the area contributing 25 percent of tax revenue to the Nairobi City Council, according to one estimate.
Eastleigh is also a large residential area with over 260,000 people, majority of them Somalis. The area is also less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) away from the lush neighborhood of Gigiri, home to the United Nations and foreign embassies such as those of the United States and Canada.
However, the area has come into sharp focus over the last two years, as explosions, attributed to al-Shabaab, repeatedly rocked the neighborhood. Many of the attacks have targeted passengers riding on matatus, while some targeted key personalities such as Yusuf Hassan, the Kamukunji member of parliament, who was injured in December 2012 while addressing his constituents outside a mosque in Eastleigh. The escalation of these attacks led to youth in Nairobi repeatedly clashing with Somali youth in Eastleigh, with businesses closing down for days for fear of being looted.
It is against this background that many business people here are assessing the effects of the current security sweep that took place in Eastleigh in early April.
Muna Abdurrahman has been doing business in Eastleigh for close to a decade. She says the issue of security in Eastleigh has been a recurring factor that nobody is willing to deal with once and for all. “I cannot believe this is happening again. It is always about the security, and yet, in the process, our business are always destroyed,” she said.
Abdurrahman, who also lives in Eastleigh, said that the police searching through their businesses and homes without warrant was a shocker, and a presentiment of disaster that is yet to unfold in its ugliest form.
“You cannot come into my home in the middle of the night and accuse me of being a refugee, then you come into my business during the day and you want to see my ID again,” she says. “Are the police supposed to protect us or harass us?”
The leaders of the Eastleigh Business Association also echo Muna’s frustrations. The recent operation, they say, is a “targeted effort” to diminish their business acumen, which has made them turn Eastleigh into a regional commercial backbone.
The business community met President Uhuru Kenyatta on March 28, a few days before the crackdown started in Eastleigh. “In that meeting, the President requested that as the Somali and Muslim community living in Eastleigh, we form a task force that works with the government on matters security,” Abdullahi Mohamed Ali, a member of the association, told Sahan Journal. “We had a deal. He gave us a month to prepare this task force and report back information to his team.”
But the course of events was overturned when a man died after a bomb he was assembling went off in his house in the area. Two other explosions followed a day later, killing six people in Eastleigh neighborhood.
“Before we even got the chance to meet and give a decision back to the President, we had so many officers brought over the hood the next week who were not discriminating in their arrest – whether you have an ID or not, they arrest you. So it boiled down to collecting everybody they could,” Ali said.
This, he said, hurt the businesses so badly that they even planned to stage a protest against the police, which they backtracked on in the last minute.
Somali leaders in parliament and the senate also resounded this sentiment of sabotage, saying this was “an economic war” and not fight against terror. Over the last few years, Somalis in Kenya have dabbled in businesses as diverse as oil and car importations, transportation services and real estate development.
“If it is not, why is it [the operation] targeted against one particular community in one particular area that is largely known for its business success,” asked Billow Kerrow, a member of the senate from Mandera County.
Police also recently carried out sweeps in Somali-dominated neighborhoods in Nairobi’s South C area, and also across the coastal town of Mombasa.
But it is not only Somalis who are bearing the brunt of the police crackdown in Eastleigh.
Eastleigh is also home to a sizeable community of Ethiopians and other Kenyans who reside and undertake business in the area, besides others from across the East African region.
Misungwi Tadeusi, a Tanzanian businessman, has been working in Eastleigh for the last eight years. He deals in textiles, and his customers, he says, come from across the regions in Kenya, and also from Ghana and Malaysia. Though he says he believes the police inspection is good for the long run, he is afraid that the scale and intensity of the latest operation will do more harm than good for the business district.
“My business is not headed in the right direction,” Tadeusi says. “Customers are afraid to lose their investment. So they don’t want to come close to this area and do business. We can only hope all goes easy and well.”
For businesspeople like Muna, Omar and Musungwi, hope is the only salvation they wish would save their businesses. Even as the government led by the Ministry of Interior insists they are not discriminating against legal business owners and that they are out to weed out only terrorists and illegal immigrants, many here are anticipating a return to normalcy.
“Eastleigh is my garden where I sow and reap. When it is in a bad condition, like it is now, I don’t feel happy,” Omar said. Sahan jounal