For the relatively well to do and internationally mobile Somalis, a flight out of Mogadishu is a welcome reprieve looked forward to with much anticipation. I, being one of those, was eagerly looking forward to a week in Nairobi after a few months of holding my breath in Mogadishu. In a jovial mood, on the airplane I decided to enlighten myself. I happened to have a copy with me of this article: “From Terrorists to Revolutionaries: the Emergence of ‘Youth’ in the Arab World and the Discourse of Globalization,” so I started reading it. Flights from Mogadishu bound for Nairobi must stop over at Wajer, so things can be thoroughly searched, demonstrating Kenya’s lack of trust in the authorities at Mogadishu International Airport.
I still had the article in my hand in the queue for visa application at Wajer. I placed the article next to me as I filled out the visa application. A plain clothed gentleman who happened to walk by noticed my article, picked it up, carefully scrutinized the title, and asked if it was mine. Yes, I responded. Without telling me who he was he asked me to follow him. Not sure what this was about, I did as I was told. We stood at a corner, he re-read the title of the article, and asked “what is this?” “This is an academic article I was reading on the plane,” I said, assuming he was spooked by the words, “terrorism” “radicalization” “revolution” “youth.” “Why?” he asked. “Why what?” I enquired. “Why are you reading this?” “I am a researcher,” said I. “Who are you?” I asked. “I am Kenyan security,” he confidently asserted. He called a colleague and they talked briefly, in Kiswahili, which I don’t understand. Asking me to wait, they then went into one of the booths. As I waited, I wondered if reading this article could possibly get me into trouble. I thought to myself: even so, surely this can be straightened out in a few minutes. After about ten minutes I was asked to follow them into a room. In the room, similar questions were asked and similar answers given. When I enquired, what was the problem? I was told, because I was reading “a pamphlet on radicalization.” Hoping to clarify their misreading, I explained “This isn’t a pamphlet and it’s not about radicalization. It’s an academic article about the politicization of the category of ‘youth’ and you would understand that if you read the first few lines.” That explanation didn’t register with the security agents.
They confiscated my passport, all of my ID’s, and the article. I was told I would be allowed to board the flight to Nairobi but my confiscated materials would be handed to the flight attendant who will transfer the documents and me to security agents in Nairobi. Once in Nairobi I was handed over to security agents who took me to the immigration office. From there I was moved into another room and asked to wait. After waiting for close to an hour and half, a couple of agents came. They silently starred me down for a few minutes and then began to question me and for 2 hours they asked me questions about my entire life, some of them quite outlandish and having nothing to do with intelligence gathering. At last, at about 6 pm, I was told, to my relief, I was cleared and I could go. They brought me back to the immigration office and rather than release me, they said “sorry the boss is gone for the night and only he can OK your release, so you are going to have to spend the night here, and when he comes in the morning he will sign your release.” I protested but to no avail. I was placed in a cell at the airport filled with common criminals and stinking of urine. I sat guarding my belongings throughout the night. At around 9 am the next morning I was removed from the cell and taken back to the immigration office. The officers there weren’t the same I dealt with yesterday. After standing a few minutes in the office, a pot-bellied fat man, the boss, asked me “why are you here?” Upset at the negligence and lack of professionalism implicit in the question, I roared “I am here because I was kept here all of last night because you weren’t here to sign my release.” He looked up at me and incredibly inquired “why were you kept?” I pointed to my article and my other documents which lay on the table next to him and explained the situation. He smiled and said I was free to go and get my visa. Now every trip I take to Kenya raises a red flag.
That is the security state for you, which appears to be in the business of creating the very terrorists it claims to want to eradicate. But, when security becomes an industry there is need for terrorists to sell this commodity. The much maligned post-colonial African state seems to have found a new lease on life.
Dispatches is a regular series of posts from Collective members traveling or living in East Africa.