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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Somalis in Kenya

View Group Chronology

Kenya Facts
Area:    582,650 sq. km.
Capital:    Nairobi
Total Population:    28,333,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Somalis in Kenya have only one risk factor for rebellion: territorial concentration. Given low levels of group organization, it is unlikely that Somalis will engage in armed rebellion against the Kenyan state in the near future. The risks for protest are greater, but still relatively low. The Somalis have two of the factors that increase the chances of future protest: the new and partial nature of Kenyan democracy and significant political restrictions. Kenyan Somalis have had difficulties in recent years in obtaining identification papers and face discrimination when officials attempt to determine citizenship. While there has been little state repression targeted against group members in recent years, some Muslim leaders assert that their community has suffered from greater discrimination since the August 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, reportedly masterminded by Al-Qaeda.


Analytic Summary

More than 40 ethnic groups comprise Kenya's population. While no single group forms a majority, the largest are the Kikuyu (22 percent), Luhya (14 percent), Luo (13 percent), and the Kalenjin (12 percent). The Somalis, who primarily reside in the country's northeastern region, are one of Kenya's smaller groups, making up 1 percent of the population (GROUPCON = 3).

There are two groups of Somalis in Kenya: those who are nationals of the country and others who are refugees who fled the civil war that began in neighboring Somalia in the late 1980s. Most Kenyans are Christians (66 percent) or animist (26 percent), in contrast to the Somalis who make up half of the country's Muslim population and are of the Sunni sect (BELIEF = 3). Somalis primarily speak Somali dialects, but they also speak other languages in a more limited manner (LANG = 1). Along with following different social customs than the other groups, the Somalis are also racially distinguishable (CUSTOM = 1; RACE = 1).

Migrations of various peoples to the territory that became Kenya predate the colonization period. The 1884-85 Berlin Conference that carved up Africa among the European powers led a decade later to British rule over much of East Africa, including Kenya. The colonial settlers forcibly evicted the indigenous African pastoralists and peasantry from the territory's most fertile highlands region, the Rift Valley area, (they referred to it as the White Highlands), in order to produce export crops. The Kikuyu ended up on inferior land or had to join the urban labor market. Others including the Kisii, Luhya and Luo were brought to the Rift Valley as sources of cheap labor. The nomadic Somali, Maasai and Turkana not only faced discrimination from the British colonialists but also from successive post-independence governments.

The Somalis drew the attention of the government in the early 1960s when Somalia's leader Siad Barre began to actively promote the creation of a Greater Somalia that would include Somali-dominant areas of neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia and also Djibouti. The northeast was isolated even further in order to counter this threat (PROT60X = 3). In 1989, the Somalis were targeted by the Moi government which accused them of poaching in Kenya's national parks. This increase in tensions coincided with the flow of refugees into the country as they sought to escape Somalia's civil war. Kenya instituted a new policy to register all Somalis to check their citizenship. Kenyan Somalis are required to produce two identification cards to prove their citizenship and also face difficulties in obtaining their identification papers.

By early 1993, there were some 500,000, mostly Somali, but also Ethiopian, refugees in Kenya. Throughout the decade, both Somali refugees and Kenyan Somalis asserted that they were mistreated by the government and that they faced attacks by bandits, especially in the refugee camps. Many Somali and Ethiopian refugees had returned home by the late 1990s amid UNHCR concerns that Kenya would forcibly repatriate them. There were some 200,000 refugees, 80 percent of whom are Somalis, in UNHCR-supported camps at the end of 2001. The Kenyan government has temporarily closed its border with Somalia twice in recent years, reportedly to stem illegal weapons flows.

The Somalis face significant demographic stresses including declining public health conditions, and competition with other groups for the use of land. Group members are pastoralists who are significantly affected by drought conditions and in recent years hundreds of Somalis have died. They have frequently criticized the government for its limited and delayed responses to famines in the region. Environmental problems coupled with the government's limited economic development in the northeast have circumscribed the economic status of the Somalis; there are no formal policies that attempt to improve their position (ECDIS06 = 2).

Political restrictions against the group include limits on the freedom of expression, voting, recruitment to the police, military and civil service, and restrictions on movement. In addition, the Somalis are the country's only ethnic group that is required to produce two forms of identification to verify their citizenship (POLDIS06 = 4).

There do not appear to be any political organizations that specifically represent group interests. However, local and cultural organizations do exist (GOJPA04-06 = 1). While the Somalis are seeking more political participation at the central level along with a greater allocation of public funds, there has been minimal political activism in the past decade (PROT90-98X = 1; PROT99-00 = 0; PROT01-PROT03=0; PROT04 = 3; PROT05-06 = 0). There has been no rebellion against state authorities (REB01-06 = 0).

Relations between the Somalis and some of the country's ethnic groups have periodically erupted in violence. In 1999, there were clashes between the Somalis and the Oromos, who were either from Kenya or neighboring Ethiopia. Both groups are pastoralists who often cross state boundaries. In addition, during 1999 and 2000, disputes over land led to violence between the Somalis and the Boran in Central Kenya and also drew in the Meru community. More than 100 people were killed. Disagreements between Somali sub-clans also resulted in sporadic violence during the same time period. There was no intergroup conflict against other ethnic groups or intra-group conflicts within Somalis from 2001-2003. In 2005, 18 were killed in a clash between the Garre and Murule clans (INTRACON05 = 1). Also in 2005, a clash between ethnic Borana and members of the Somali Gabre clan resulted in about 70 deaths (INTERCON05 = 1).



Africa South of the Sahara. 1999. London: Europa Publications.

African Peer Review Mechanism. 5/2006. "Country Review Report of the Republic of Kenya.", accessed 5/5/2008.

Campbell, Elizabeth H. 2006. "Urban Refugees in Nairobi: Problems of Protection, Mechanisms of Survival, and Possibilities for Integration." Journal of Refugee Studies. 19:396-413

Castagno, Alphonse A. 1964. "The Somali-Kenyan Controversy: Implications for the Future." The Journal of Modern African Studies. 2:2. 165-188.

IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Network): United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Various reports. 1996-2006.

Kenya: A Country Study. 1984. Foreign Area Studies, American University. Washington, D.C.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Kenya. 2000-2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006