Twin spikes in terror and crime hit Nairobi

Kenya's reputation as stable and economically promising is under stress as the US, UK, and France issue travel warnings and locals worry about the resurfacing of an old moniker, 'Nairobbery.'

British tourists queue with their luggage to leave by charter flight from the international airport in Mombasa, Kenya, Friday, May 16, 2014. Concerns about increasingly regular terror attacks, coupled with a surge in crime, Britain's government warned its citizens to avoid parts of Kenya.

Concerns about increasingly regular terror attacks, coupled with a surge in crime here, have prompted stern alerts from the American and British embassies warning their citizens to avoid parts of Kenya.

The US mission even suggested last weekend that a drawdown in the number of Americans working at the embassy, or their dependents, was in the offing. 

The advisories – which also came from France and Australia – throw into stark relief the changing view of Kenya, which until recently was seen as the most stable and economically enticing nation in the region.

Now, the East African hub appears beset with many small-scale terror attacks, one recent large one, and a wave of daily crime that, taken together, pose serious threats to its reputation and its ability to arrest a further slide into insecurity. Anecdotally, fears are rising of a return to the bad old days when the capital earned the nickname “Nairobbery.” 

British newspaper headlines, following news that London warned about visiting the main coastal city Mombasa, screamed loudly: “Hundreds of tourists flee Kenya”, shouted one last week. “Chaos as [Britain] makes Kenya a no-go area,” claimed another, incorrectly.

The US State Department, meanwhile, singled out some low-income neighborhoods of Nairobi and parts of the coast.

Britons make up Kenya's largest tourist population, with 174,000 visitors in 2010, the last year for which the tourism ministry has figures. The US comes second, with 107,000 Americans visiting that year.

A least 11 significant strikes have followed the Nairobi Westgate shopping mall attack last September, when 67 people were killed by gunmen sent by Somalia’s Al Qaeda offshoot, Al Shabab.

Most of the recent attacks have followed the pattern of a grenade or an improvised bomb detonated on public transport, in a bar or a church, or near police stations or roadblocks. At least 38 people have died.

But the daily grind of less spectacular crime is what bothers most Kenyans more.

Headlines in 10 of the first 14 news pages of Tuesday's The Star, a national newspaper, included the words “murder,” “kidnap,” “kill,” “bodies,” “theft,” “arrest,” or “court." None of the stories featured foreigners.

Indeed, most victims of the rising number of armed robberies committed with knives, imitation weapons, or homemade guns are Kenyans, says Rocky Hitchcock, senior consultant at KK Security, the country’s largest private security firm. “Attacks against expatriates tend to be inside jobs,” he says.

What is driving the current crime spike, he suggests, is economic inequality and especially unemployment among an ever-growing cohort of young people with few job prospects.

Key to Kenya’s law and order problem – for which both terror attacks and home invasions alike are symptoms, analysts say – is the corruption that pervades its entire internal security system.

The administration of former President Mwai Kibaki put out bids for various contracts to modernize the entire internal security apparatus, including systems for forge-proof passports and a police forensics lab. While firms won bids, nothing was ever delivered as the contracts fell prey to corruption.

Instead of Kenya being well-prepared to guard against terrorism and crime thanks to new departments and equipment, therefore, it is “behind the curve in a big way,” says investment analyst Aly Khan Satchu.

“Most people’s warning radars are blinking amber now,” he says. “The government’s complete dysfunction in engaging with the problem really is sending the worst signals.

“It doesn’t take a lot for investors’ confidence to take a knock, and for them to turn defensive," he says. "Already we’re seeing that in tourism, but there are plenty of other areas which will see an impact.”

Zipporah Mboroki, spokeswoman for the Kenya Police Service, argues the nature of threats to law and order has changed in the country.

“There was no terrorism before, there was none of these grenade strikes,” she says. “The crime wave is different, some crimes are going up, yes, but many are going down.” She could not give up-to-date statistics, however.

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