Desecuritizing Kenya: The Case of Operation Uslama Watch in Eastleigh

Garissa Market in Eastleigh, Kenya/Dan Kori
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Securitization theory has recently been thrown in the limelight with the publication of a controversial academic article, which argues that it is Eurocentric and racist. This controversial theory was created in the late 1990s by Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde to understand the process by which a security threat is discursively constructed and framed as posing an existential threat to society that must be dealt with urgently.

A key claim of this theory is that constructing a security threat in this way legitimates certain kinds of actions – such as investing greater state resources in the form of a “militarised” response.

Another criticism of what has come to be known as the Copenhagen School is that it is too focused on how successful attempts at securitisation are brought about or how threats are constructed. As a result, it devotes very little space to explaining how desecuritisation can be achieved or how threats can be deconstructed – even though it is depicted as a more desirable outcome.

My new article on desecuritization in Kenya, “Building a culture of resistance: securitising and de-securitising Eastleigh during the Kenyan government’s Operation Usalama Watch”, demonstrates the value of researching how those impacted by securitization can fight back.

More specifically, it documents a case in which a security issue is returned to the arena of conventional and deliberative political debate and thus is no longer treated within the realm of emergency politics. That case is Operation Usalama Watch, which was framed by the Kenyan government as a counter-terrorism operation carried out in April 2014 in Eastleigh, a predominately Kenyan-Somali neighbourhood of Nairobi.

Operation Usalama Watch

During Operation Usalama Watch, security officials put Eastleigh on lockdown, setting up checkpoints on all the major roads leading into the neighbourhood. According to the Minister of Interior, over 4000 people were arrested, many of whom were taken to Kasarani Stadium where they were supposedly screened and some deported to Somalia. Numerous allegations of human rights abuses emerged during and after the operation (see here, here and here).

In response, several forms of youth-led resistance and defiance emerged on social media to tackle long-established misconceptions about Eastleigh as a terrorist safe haven and challenge the widespread perception that Kenyan Somalis are second-class citizens.

Tumblr and Twitter

Perhaps the most visible was a Tumblr campaign that was shared a lot on Twitter that used the hashtag #KenyaIAmNotATerrorist, in which residents of Eastleigh took photos holding messages as a form of protest again the operation. The messages spoke back to both the government, but also to wider Kenyan society and dismantled the misconceptions they held about Kenyan Somalis.

One image from the campaign stated that ‘Eastleigh isn’t a refugee camp nor a terrorist haven, it’s an area resided by peace-loving and hardworking people’. Other messages went further and challenged the stereotypical description of Kenyan Somalis and highlighted the diversity of what constitutes Kenyan identity by asking ‘does my hair texture make me a terrorist?’ or stating that ‘not speaking Swahili does not make me any less Kenyan!’.

Another contributor suggested that the operation was counter-productive writing, ‘if you want to fight terrorism, stop radicalising the youth through discrimination’. In speaking with Muna Abdi, one of the youth activists behind the #KenyaImNotATerrorist campaign who works as a social worker in Eastleigh, she argued that, ‘the media coverage was biased and all of it was on the same side. They weren’t showing our side…No one does the PR for Eastleigh’. Using the hashtag #KasaraniConcentrationCamp pictures were also shared on Twitter of the inhumane and unconstitutional conditions that residents of Eastleigh faced inside Kasarani stadium.


Shortly after the operation, a song was uploaded to YouTube entitled nduli or ‘terrorist’ that criticised the government and security apparatus for the operation. Ina Cawsgurow, a Kenyan Somali poet and playwright from Eastleigh who wrote the lyrics for the song, said he resorted to composing it because:

Social media gave us the platform to vent and say this is not right. You are not helping the country and if anything you are helping the terrorists in spreading the anger among the people.

The lyrics castigate Kenyan society for staying quiet during the operation and accuse it of ignorance concerning the map of Kenya. These lyrics can also be read as a reaffirmation of belonging and a means through which to stake a claim to citizenship. Such acts of self-affirmation challenge the attitude that Kenyan Somalis ‘are more subject than citizens’, as Ina Cawsgurow put it Kenyan Somalis are seen as ‘not yet Kenyan’.

Acts of defiance

Forms of protest and contestation were, however, not only limited to online spaces. An interviewee shared how one man had grown so tired of repeatedly being asked to produce his ID during Operation Usalama Watch that he ended up making a necklace out of it and wearing it constantly. The gesture was also a tongue-in-cheek way of defying an established protocol and usurping the convention of being asked to produce an ID by an authority figure.

Jokes were also told about the operation. For instance, residents came to jokingly refer to Operation Usalama Watch as ‘Operation Osama Watch’ after Osama Bin Laden, ridiculing the perception that Eastleigh was a terrorist safe haven. Muna Abdi also explained how two of her friends were regularly taken to Pangani Police Station because they did not have proper documents. However, during Operation Usalama Watch they were taken to Kasarani Stadium instead, where conditions were so much worse that they joked ‘Pangani is like 5-star hotel compared to [Kasarani]’.

In the long run, debates online can have offline consequences and in this sense, the informal spaces outside of conventional politics need to be taken seriously and studied as sites for political action. To dismiss Eastleigh as a marginal space and Kenyan Somalis youths as excluded, silenced and helpless victims or even as villains, fails to capture the nature of politics from below and to appreciate the complex, informal platforms of resistance used during and after the operation.

Whether it be “hashtivism” on Twitter and Tumblr, protest songs on YouTube or every-day jokes told on the streets of Eastleigh, all these sites of contestation display the agency and creativity of young residents of Eastleigh at a time when their freedoms were severely limited or ‘agency in tight corners’ to borrow Lonsdale’s evocative phrase. Indeed they have altered the power dynamics and the conventions that shape the regularities of who speaks and when. As such, there is a need to incorporate alternative forms of expression into securitisation theory and move beyond the Copenhagen School’s narrow reliance on the notion of the speech act.

Tomáš Žák is a Consultant in the Independent Development Evaluation (IDEV) Department at the African Development Bank (AfDB). Views and opinions expressed in this blog do not reflect those of his employer.

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