Why Kenya’s Ban on Somali Remittance Agencies is Not About Al-Shabab

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Islam teaches to give, even when you don’t have. The act of remittance, sending money back home to one’s country becomes a way that many Somalis in the diaspora fulfil this duty. Remittance is the reminder that keeps one grounded living in a capitalist society with all the trappings of privilege. Remittance for the diaspora, links generational ties across borders and allows Somalis in the diaspora to come to terms with belonging to home they may never know.

But this piece isn’t about the Somali diaspora, or the millions utilising the remittance system in Somalia, but rather recent political action that discredited, separated and silenced the attempt at economic empowerment between a marginalized and fragmented group.

In April, the Kenyan government cracked down on Somali MTOs by revoking licenses that allowed money transfer agencies to send remittance money to Somalia due to suspicions that the money was funding the Al-Shabab terrorist group. The move was motivated by the tragic attack by Al-Shabab militants on Garrissa University in the North Eastern Province that claimed the lives 147 students in April of this year.

The government has come under fire for cutting the flow of remittance funds to Somalia that amounts to 1.6 billion dollars a year- constituting approximately 25-40 percent of Somalia’s GDP. Families in Somalia heavily rely on the funds sent from relatives and friends to meet their basic needs, such as food, clothing and school fees.

In fact, in 2012 248 million dollars from the US government in humanitarian aid was just over the staggering 214 million dollars that Somalia receives annually from the Somali-American Diaspora. The closure of money transfer agencies has left NGOs with some concerns, as they also use the MTOs to complete humanitarian tasks. The ban has still not been lifted.

It seems as if the ban ultimately reflects a failure to acknowledge underlying ethnic relations and tensions that have long been disregarded by the government. The ban not only becomes a form of scapegoating that targets a large group that identify as Somali-Kenyans, but also systemically restructures relations that causes a detrimental disconnect between marginalised Somali-Kenyans and Somalis in Somalia.

Although Somalis in Kenya have made incredible feats in entrepreneurship and economic empowerment evident in ethnic neighbourhoods such as Eastleigh known as “Little Mogadishu” which is serves as the hub of clothing and cultural bazaars, they still strongly identify with Somalis in Somalia.

As the government fails to realise the ties that bind both groups together, government responses indirectly legitimise and validate who’s lives are prioritised between both groups. The ban acts as a double whammy- it strips Somalis of the right to openly identify with their culture and homeland and also is a blow to the economic empowerment that connects both groups.

Implemented on a culture of fear, the ban implies that all Somalis are “terrorism sympathizers” which in turn feeds on the Western-centric, Islamophobic notion since the emergence of Al-Shabab. In addition the ban amplifies the importance of identity, citizenship and nationalism connected to land and the privilege of inhabitance after displacement.

Despite geographical boundaries, Somali-Kenyans that have lived in Kenya are carved into the group of the “other”- presenting a looming choice between belonging to a non-native land and practicing a culture.

Remittance involves several stakeholders: Somalis, the diaspora and even humanitarian agencies. If only the Kenyan government is willing to unpack the deeply rooted historical marginalisation of Somali-Kenyans and scrutinise and accept the violent actions of the police that target Somali neighbourhoods, they would realise that Somali victimisation is a way that Kenyan nationalism continues to be strained and complex.

Despite historical displacement and marginalisation, remittance has been a reminder to Somalis in Kenya to rekindle the pieces of their identity and show self-reliance through scattered solidarity.

There’s no doubt that Kenya faces security threats from Al-Shabab militants. This is evident as ties between Kenyans and Somalis reached a tipping point after the widely broadcasted Westgate Mall siege that killed 64 people in September 2013.

Since then, micro attacks committed by Al-Shabab have taken place in ethnic neighbourhoods including the killing of bus passengers in the Mandera District in November 2014, a bus bombing that killed three individuals and injured several. The reoccurring theme in these attacks is religion, as Muslim lives are spared whilst over the lives of Christians.

It seems as if the combination of security, displacement and marginalisation makes religion a tool in fighting a war that keeps the government acting on misplaced political strategies. The ban of remittance remains can be considered a product of this aimless war, but ironically is being labeled as the very force that funds the war.

It’s becoming increasingly easy to fall into the rhetoric of terrorism as it makes headlines each day and reminds us all of the desolate state of governments that have been dismantled by militant control. In the same way, it’s easy to accept the rhetoric of “failed states” such as the notion often linked with Somalia, that projects the one sided narrative of the plight of individuals that are constantly dependent on humanitarian aid from the Western world.

Remittance is a system that has worked along the boundaries of these perceptions. Remittance is a system that the world’s capitalists don’t want to see- the distribution of wealth that comes from self-reliance after marginalisation. It presents the opportunity of self-reliance that counters the notion of a Somalia that needs to be “saved” because that very notion has been realised by Somalis who indeed are trying to save themselves.

Whether economically or culturally, the ability of marginalised groups to uplift each other should never be politicised.

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