Once hailed as a ”City in the Sun”, the Kenyan capital is increasingly depicted as reeling under violent crime where crooks with weapons — some only toys but frighteningly realistic — roam with impunity.
Police statements in early February that at least 50 civilians and security officials were killed in the space of a month sent Nairobi residents into a fit of panic — but also put security forces under new scrutiny.
What started decades ago as a trickle of low-level crime such as pick-pocketing has swelled into what some now call a tidal wave of violent robberies, burglary, rape of minors and carjackings — though Kenyan police have not actually released any official figures.
And the trouble has cut across social classes in this cosmopolitan hub of more than 2,5-million residents.
A joke making the rounds says Nairobi should be rebaptised ”Nairobbery” — a disturbing tag for a city that hosts the headquarters of two United Nations agencies and regularly welcomes celebrities, royalty and the Kenyan elite.
The Standard, a mass-circulation daily that has chronicled the crime scene, went one step further in a screamer headline saying this East African country might just as well be called ”Gangland
Not all agree. Crime is not new, though ”the brutality [of the gangsters] is new”, conceded national police spokesperson Gideon Kibunjah. But ”we are increasing patrols and surveillance of notorious spots. It is not as alarming as people say,” he said.
Police were quick to tout a huge security operation this week that caught and killed one of the country’s most wanted gangsters, Simon Matheri Ikere (30). ”This is the greatest day in the police force,” said Nairobi police Commander Njue Njagi.
Ikere was blamed for a series of murders including two United States citizens killed in a carjacking in the capital’s outskirts in the past month — a period that also saw a senior aid worker gunned down in similar circumstances and several local residents slain.
And the elite are not immune. One of Kenya’s most renowned scientists and leading HIV researcher, Professor Job Bwayo, was killed in a car-jacking on February 4. Russian, Danish and US diplomats and a Kenyan minister have also fallen victim to carjackings, though survived.
Bank heists, meanwhile, have been carried out in broad daylight, claiming the lives of police officers and bank workers.
In 2005, US government analysts identified Nairobi as the ”hub” of a worrisome new trend toward violent carjackings across Africa. This month, both the US and the United Nations, citing crime, issued warnings against travelling to Kenya, notably its capital — a move that infuriated Nairobi whose economy relies on tourism revenue.
”Issuing travel advisories over a few acts of thuggery in our country is totally unfair,” said government spokesperson Alfred Mutua, retorting that crime was also rampant in New York and Los Angeles.
The disgruntled blame security forces, saying they are often despised and feared for alleged brutality, corruption and complicity with criminals.
They also blast the judicial system, which was shaken in 2003 over alleged graft among judges, saying it lacks resources and remains ineffective.
”Police are number one in terms of corruption,” fumed Maina Kiai, the vocal head of the state-run Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
”Extortion is common, but they get away with it because of the issue of [lack of] accountability,” he said. ”Because the police are so corrupt, the criminals are bribing [them] in the same way as someone caught by the police for a traffic [offence].”
In a 2005 survey, global graft watchdog Transparency International found that nearly half of all Kenyans’ transactions with Kenyan public and private officials in 2005 involved a bribe, up sharply from the previous year.
Police spokesperson Kibunjah suggested the trouble was fed by arms spilling in from Kenya’s lawless northwestern neighbour Somalia, torn apart by fighting and without an effective central government since a 1991 coup.
”There are a number of incidents of violent crimes by gangsters using firearms from Somalia,” he said.
Others, such as criminal lawyer Evans Monari, decried what they called a lack of coordination between police and the judiciary.
”Police and justice are not helping each other to fight crime. There is a lack of skilled manpower within the police and lack of transparent investigations,” he said. ”Too many criminals are being let free because of technical errors.”
With the country gearing up for general elections next December, the opposition has turned security into a hot campaign topic.
The president, meanwhile, ordered a crackdown on illegal weapons this month, alarmed that insecurity will scare off foreign investment in this country of 33,6-million where 60% survive with less than $1 a day.
Police have offered rewards of up to 150 000 shillings ($2 140) for information on wanted criminals.
But not all residents want to help a force they feel is shady and trigger-happy itself. ”They are paid to do their job; if they need my help, the government should pay for it,” protested Martin Mwangi, a college graduate. — Sapa-AFP