By Jeremy Lind
Kenyans go to the polls for national elections on Monday March 4th for the first time since a conflagration of violence swept the country following disputed election results in 2008. An estimated 1,300 lives were lost in the violence, which nearly escalated into civil war before an African Union mediation led by Kofi Annan intervened. The capital, Nairobi, was a flashpoint, with 124 fatalities. Officially, over 72,000 were displaced in Nairobi’s informal settlements, not counting the much larger number of displaced who sought refuge in friendly neighbourhoods in other parts of the city or left the city for their rural homes.[i]
Much of the violence was concentrated in the city’s densely populated informal settlements, where an estimated half of its 3-4 million residents live on approximately 1% of the city’s total land area. The violence that rocked Nairobi in 2008 unmasked deeply entrenched inequalities and policing failures. Criminal violence and protection provided through hybrid criminal organisations have become a way of life in the city’s poor neighbourhoods. Vigilante groups mushroomed from the late 1990s in response to worsening security in poor neighbourhoods and ineffectual, corrupt or altogether absent policing of these areas. Some groups were first instigated by community elders in search of safer streets but quickly morphed into more complex outfits that extracted protection money from small-business owners and slum dwellers.[ii] Urban vigilantism has on many occasions spilled into open conflict on Nairobi’s streets. One of the country’s more feared (and outlawed) organisations – the Mungiki – violently challenged gangs that controlled lucrative matatu routes (privately owned public service vehicles). They justified their attacks as necessary means to secure lower commuter fares and ending bribery by the Transport Licensing Board and police officers.
As early as 2002, after appalling acts of violence in Nairobi’s Kariobangi North Estate resulted in 20 deaths in one night, Professor David Anderson warned that there was a danger of vigilante groups becoming political instruments for hire by those with the money to pay. Sure enough, during the 2008 violence, Human Rights Watch reported that the city’s largest slums – Mathare and Kibera – were carved into enclaves where vigilante groups associated with different ethnic groups patrolled ‘their’ areas, demanding to see identity cards, carrying out evictions and attacking the homes and retail premises of members of opposing ethnic groups.[iii] So in demand were these groups by wealthy politicians and businesspeople, and so woeful was protection provided by the state’s security forces, that young men in some neighbourhoods allegedly organised into groups they called ‘Mungiki’ and offered their services, even though they had no formal association with the Mungiki organisation.
Tensions have mounted in the build up to Monday’s elections, with violence flaring in many peripheral areas of the country as well as in the coastal city of Mombasa. The stakes are especially high because Kenyans will be selecting officials for a raft of new offices established under constitutional reforms passed since the last election, including county-level political administrative units, each with their own governor who will command significant resources under the new devolved system of government. Many fear the spectre of all-powerful governors, usurping devolved resources for personal enrichment and to reward their supporters.
So far, Nairobi has been spared the worst of pre-election violence but is likely to be the focus of any post-election tensions. Any violence that does ignite is most likely to be focussed in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. Problems of violence in these areas enmesh with wider problems of vulnerability resulting from the failure of the state to provide for basic needs in health, education and social care, as well as a lack of work and training opportunities for its young people. The provision of public goods and services and strengthening of access to economic opportunities for an expanding youth population are vital elements of a wider-ranging strategy to address violence and strengthen security for the urban poor in Nairobi.
In practice, there have been efforts such as the Safer Nairobi Initiative, which was endorsed by the Nairobi City Council, that aspire to a more coordinated effort to improve urban security by involving agencies and departments with mandates to deliver public services and create work opportunities. While these have had mixed outcomes, the spirit of such efforts to develop a joined-up approach is essential to improve security for the urban poor. Separately, some public utility companies have sought to improve regulation of services that often come under the control of predatory gangs and cartels in poor neighbourhoods. In Kibera, the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Services Company has sought to better regulate water vending, which has been controlled by gangs in certain areas. Neighbourhood-level efforts to improve the slum environment have also had positive impacts. One of these, Getto Green, works in Huruma, sections of which were leveled by arson attacks during the 2008 violence. Led by a young man who was previously involved in criminal activity, Getto Green’s initiatives include clearing public dumpsites and starting micro-enterprises for youth such as car-washes. The group’s chair explained, “If you are economically stable, your community will be stable. Having money prevents us from needing to steal or from being manipulated by politicians.”
Reducing everyday violence in Nairobi’s poor areas and the likelihood of election-related violence requires expanding access to good and reliable public services as well as providing more opportunities for young people. Community-level efforts by groups such as Getto Green provide concrete examples of what can be achieved but these often go unnoticed. While attention will be fixed on Kenya’s political struggles at the national level in Monday’s elections, ways out of violence are increasingly being found by the urban poor themselves. After any post-election dust has settled, Kenya’s new political and governance structures will be tested quickly to see whether they too can respond to the needs of the poor.
[i] Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (2008): ‘On the Brink of Precipice. A Human Rights Account of Kenya's Post- 2007 Election Violence.’ Nairobi.
[ii] David Anderson (2002): ‘Vigilantes, Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Kenya.’ African Affairs ,101: 531-555.
[iii] Human Rights Watch (2008): ‘Ballots to Bullets. Organized Political Violence and Kenya's Crisis of Governance.’