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GRIM CITY IN THE SUN: Nairobi’s uneasy peace

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GRIM CITY IN THE SUN: Nairobi’s uneasy peace
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We are at the Modern Coast bus station, waiting for the night bus that goes to Kisumu to pull up. I have decided that perhaps it is a good idea to go back home to decompress after the profound mess that was the election(s). I am standing at the counter, asking the chap in uniform when we should expect to board because it is already 8.50 pm and the bus that is supposed to leave at 9 pm is nowhere in sight. “Inakuja saa hii tu. Tulia tu kiasi.

After engaging in exchanges about the political climate on social media, I am drained. I do not wish to prod any further, so I make way for the man behind me. He had not booked the bus earlier, but luckily, there are a few slots remaining. Not many people have been travelling because there are all these forwards coming in on WhatsApp that the Nairobi-Eldoret highway is not particularly safe for us Westerners. He removes his wallet and as he passes a couple of reds to the attendant, he turns and asks me, out of nowhere, “Wewe ulilipa na nini, ndugu yangu?

From his thick accent, it is clear that he is a lunje. Lakini I do not understand what he is talking about. Not at first anyway. All I know is that I do not feel comfortable about strangers calling me brother because in the past couple of months, we have not been behaving like a family. Then I realise that he thinks that I have also just paid for my ride to Kisumu.

“No. Me I already booked kitambo. Nililipa na Mpesa.”

“Aaaah. Ni nyinyi ndio mnatuangusha bwana!” I know exactly what he is talking about, but I do not wish to continue this any further. “Nyinyi ndio mtafanya hii resistance ianguke.”

This is post-the second Maraga petition in which the bid to challenge the legitimacy of Uhuru’s re-election has been banned by the Supreme Court. NASA had, just before the October 26th repeat presidential election, launched a nationwide resistance movement that required every one of their supporters to boycott the repeat elections. In addition, they announced the establishment of a People’s Assembly, as well as a nationwide boycott of products from particular companies that, according to Raila Odinga’s wisdom, were complicit in the rigging in of President Uhuru Kenyatta. One of those companies is Safaricom, and because I am still using the company’s mobile money application MPesa, this man who I do not even know takes offence. From his tone I can sense a hurt from betrayal of a cause that he has not even checked whether I am a part of. Simply because I am travelling to Kisumu, it means that I am part of the “militias”.

I walk away from the counter without talking to this resistance enthusiast. I do not care what he thinks of me at the moment. The only thing I am concerned about is getting home. To finally breathe. To heal.

***

It has been about three months since President Kenyatta took the oath of office for the second time. Swearing the same pledge he swore in 2013 before man, God and country. However, in as much as we have a president whose position should be a symbol of national unity, it has become everything but. The country is still divided and there is nowhere else that this rift is felt more than in the capital Nairobi.

Just before and during the election period, Nairobi was the eye of the political storm. Due to the fact that it is a metropolis in which Kenyans of every shade, creed and tribe reside, it became the epicentre of violence the moment politics urged the monstrosity that rages inside mankind out.

It also does not help that Nairobi is the seat of political and economic power in Kenya (and I dare say East and Central Africa), thus the battle for its control was not going to be easy. Both Jubilee and NASA brought their big guns, sometimes literally. Every week, NASA went to the streets, and every week they lost people to both the police and this gang of deplorables that came to brand themselves as the “Nairobi Business Community”. It was rumoured that the Nairobi Business Community was the militia arm of the Jubilee government that was poured into the streets to protect the businesses of Nairobi people during the NASA riots (which, to be fair, were never exactly peaceful). But we all know what they stood for, or against.

The elections may be over now, but the stink that they left behind still lingers in Nairobi. The disdain for the current government (both national and county) keeps escalating. The first time it reared its head was on December 12th, on Jamhuri Day, a few weeks after the inauguration of Uhuru. Usually, this would be the day Kenyans flock to one of the national stadiums with their families and friends to marvel at the marching of the Kenya police and defence forces, to gape in amazement as fighter jets dancing in the skies, and then to brave long-winded speeches filled with promises of grandeur. But we did none of that this last time. Embarrassingly, the president was left with half an empty stadium, even after reports came around that the event was delayed so that people could make their way to the spacious bleachers.

This was not a function of the Raila-led National Resistance Movement (NRM). NRM claimed that if they were responsible for convincing Nairobians not to attend the Jamhuri Day celebrations, it would be like a cock taking credit for the dawn. This was lethargy. We were tired. After two bloody elections, two emotionally exhausting Supreme Court petitions and an inauguration in which the president-elect’s own supporters were attacked and brutalised by the police, very few Kenyans had the heart to even show up. We stayed behind in our houses and did what we Kenyans do on holidays; we drank and ate. And tweeted. Unlike the time we were motivated and turned up like bees to go cheer our countrymen during the IAAF junior championships at Kasarani.

***

The earth completed its sojourn around the sun, and as it did, we changed the calendars on our walls with that same sense of expectation that people tend to have when entering a new year. Somehow the political climate seemed to have calmed down. The National Resistance Movement had quieted down. The boycott on certain products became less urgent by the day, and Raila Odinga kept on losing momentum by postponing his swearing in as “The People’s President”.

We’d gotten distracted by other “lesser’ troubles, like the national exam results, the Christmas holidays and rise of the death toll on our roads. It was a time of relative peace. That is how bad our politics are. They make you think that times when we have to worry about deteriorating education systems and consistent road carnage are peaceful times. Because then, we are not frothing at the mouth and holding each other by the throat. We enjoyed our moments in the sun. We had a short break of relative peace. But just like all good things, we know it will all go to shit.

The first thing that happened was our President Uhuru Kenyatta standing by himself while announcing cabinet positions. This was a far cry from what we had witnessed after he clinched the 2013 presidency. Back then, Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto had a flowery romance going on, what with the public display of affection, wearing matching shirts and ties and generally painting the town red. This time, there was no honeymoon. And the change of mood reverberated like an African mother’s slap in an empty room – the kind you don’t see coming but which leaves your head ringing. There was a rift, clearly, in the national party. But we could not tell for certain why. All we saw were MPs fighting one another as to whether Ruto would gain full Jubilee support in 2022.

But if there was one thing that reminded us of just how weak political marriages are, it was the one incident that hit Nairobi County. It is incredible how whatever goes on at the national level is repeated at the county level.

On January 9th, Polycarp Igathe, the then Deputy Governor of Nairobi, was on Twitter defending the use of the Sonko Rescue Team in cleaning up the city. It was a silly argument, really, whose basis had no grounding in either logic, law or faith.  He claimed that the use of the Sonko Rescue Team – an NGO founded by the Nairobi Governor, Mike Sonko – was legitimate because the Nairobi City Council workers were doing a terrible job at clearing waste. (Never mind that it was he and Sonko who were heading the Nairobi City Council itself.) The outrage of his boss using his NGO to do the work that their office is mandated (and financed by taxes) to do, was as lost to him as the possibility of Arsenal ever winning the UEFA Champions League.

Fast forward to three days later, January 12th, the very same Polycarp Igathe announces his resignation as Deputy Governor, stating that he has failed to earn the trust of his boss, Governor Mike Sonko.

It would have been funny if it was not so painful.

It would have been hilarious if it did not epitomise the kind of hopelessness that this city emboldens. I mean, ever since Mike Sonko took over from the deposed Evans Kidero, we have witnessed the drastic decline in the quality of Nairobi life. At first, we were treated to the flashy show of exuberance – constant tweets about how much revenue collection has skyrocketed under the new regime and endless posts of how the Sonko Rescue Team was cleaning up the streets.

Then the tweets stopped coming. We were told the county had no money. Then hawkers found themselves in the city and turned Nairobi into the shithole that we deserve to be called by President Donald Trump. Sonko had campaigned on a platform that he was an Okonknwo. A mtu wa watu. A man of the people, a common man. And the common wananchi worshipped him like a god until he became one.

The tumultuous month of January has now ended. On the national scene, whispers about the division between Number One and Number Two are getting so loud, they have become actual conversations. It also does not help that there has never been a Number Two in Kenyan history who has ever succeeded his boss and emerged as president through the ballot. We have never seen a president hand over power to his deputy. The reason is simple: political marriages in this country are never borne out of love or conviction. They are arranged. They are fixed for convenience. When the convenience disappears (and it does vanish rather quickly), so does the sham of a union it purported to hold.

The centre holding Nairobi together has already begun to waste away. We are being conned by Kenya Power and being made to pay exaggerated bills for electricity. The price of basic commodities like food is on the rise. An avocado that would go for 5 shillings just the other day is now being sold for as much as 80 shillings. Unga, our staple food, is slowly becoming an elitist commodity. While these have little to do with the city’s management, we Nairobians are among the first to feel the bite.

Every waking day we are confronted with videos and images of gangs terrorising city dwellers. They snatch wigs off the heads of women in matatus. They hold men by the throat, squeeze tight until they cannot remember the taste of air, then rummage through their victims’ pockets and bags and make away with whatever they can. They are drugging people and having their way with them. They are raping mothers fresh from childbirth in the halls of our national hospital.

To be fair, this vermin is not new to the city, but it has certainly become more confident under the leadership of Mike Sonko. These thugs do not care that there are people or cameras watching. Perhaps they are remnants of that godforsaken election period. What did we expect would happen to them? We empowered them when we needed them to brutalise people from a different political party just six months or so ago. Now that the beasts we created are hungry, we have become their meal. They will not stop and interview you, sijui ask for your ID, before they yank off that wig or earring or before they twist your neck and pour you out like a drink. They have come for us all.

And the sad thing about it all is that the Kenya Police simply does not give a fuck. Instead of dealing with the issue head on, the Nairobi Police Boss Japhet Koome is advising Nairobians to walk in groups, especially in the evening, and avoid looking “enticing” to criminal gangs by not carrying laptops, phones, expensive jewelry. And we must at all cost avoid using MPesa and ATMs in the central business district. Seriously?

The fact that the police can concentrate on teaching us how not to get attacked instead of handling the attackers indicates just how we live in a beautiful city in which ugly souls are allowed to push the buttons.

***

On 30 January, the National Resistance Movement “swore in” Raila Odinga as The People’s President. If the Jubilee government’s past reactions are anything to go by, then the worst is yet to hit Nairobi. When two egotistical parties decide to clash again, where do you think the most blood will be spilled?

I have had the privilege of walking around this continent and beyond. Yet every time I travel, I tend to miss Nairobi. I can never be away from her for too long without feeling like I am cheating. And I know I am not the only one. I know how we Nairobians love this place almost to a fault. We would do whatever we can to save her from falling into the precipice. God knows we have.

But now we are sailing in unchartered waters. We do not have the benefit of precedence. We have a one-handed, clueless clown at the helm of the county, a stubborn national government, and an even more unrelenting resistance movement. We do not know how to handle this because we have never been here before. We cannot tell whether these are teething problems of a new administration or red flags of high incompetence. We cannot tell whether the pains tearing through Nairobi’s bosom are a signal of impending birth or symptoms of death.

If we are not careful, the most dynamic city in East and Central Africa – once known as “Green City in the Sun” – will soon become history.

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Magunga Williams is a blogger and writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Reflections

Your Country Needs You! An Art Review of the Literal Security Theatre Show on Nairobi’s Streets

I have been thinking about the old man who spoke to me on my way to work. Why me? Why did he follow and ‘perform’ for me? Who asked him to? For what purpose? When I told my friend about it, he didn’t hesitate: “That’s a spy. That’s his job. He was paid a hundred or two hundred shillings to follow you to your destination.”

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Your Country Needs You! An Art Review of the Literal Security Theatre Show on Nairobi’s Streets
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It is said that knowledge is a curse, but my knowledge of the dramatic arts was the last thing I ever expected to manifest this truth, out of all my skills. For those of us Kenyans who know how to read the mise-en-scene that is downtown Nairobi, the last few weeks preceding and during French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit have been interesting to say the least. But as a film director and scriptwriter, and I am sad to say I have witnessed a lot of terrible acting – a true mutilation of the theatrical arts upon the streets of the city. Still, I am not sure the practitioners of this travesty were aware of the fact that they were, to the trained eye, in terrible need of dramatic correction. The theatre show they produced was untitled, but I want to call it ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ and it has been showing on the street, right beside you, if you had the eyes to see.

Let me explain, but let’s make it interesting; What do the following three Kenyans have in common? A tall ‘msee wa kupima weight’ sitting silently and openly in the daytime along the Kenyatta Avenue pavement, his head lowered, all his attention on his phone as people pass him by. A sensibly dressed woman sitting on a tree stump on a Saturday, around lunch hour, chewing through a large roasted maize cob slowly and making no attempt to seek the shade of a nearby tree with a bench underneath. A sweet vendor out late, about eight thirty in the night, leaning silently against a lamppost where the shade hides the upper part of his body and only the sweets in the small bucket hang between his legs in the light. Well, can you guess?

For one, they are all doing things counter-intuitive to the nature of the jobs they are supposed to be doing. The msee wa kupima weight is not calling out to customers or nervously looking out for city council. Why? The woman on the tree stump is pouring sweat, and wiping it with a handkerchief, but not moving into the shade? Not even taking off her backpack? Why? And the sweet vendor, what’s up with that? That’s downright suspicious. At that time no one buys sweets from bus windows. At that time, even if a sweet vendor was leaning there, his little bucket would not be arranged for daytime. If I was directing that scene in a film and I saw that extra, I would yell ‘Cut!’ and send him back to the costume department for a makeover.

I’ll tell you what else they all have in common; they are all plainclothes police. The city has been on mini-lockdown these last few weeks. The oblivious and the privileged have probably not even noticed. But every young man from Eastlands, every street urchin, every hawker, every tout and bodaboda rider, every sex worker will tell you it has been perilous. It has been necessary to be able to read the stranger on the street and decide on the quality of their acting. If you failed to see all the bad acting happening around you, you might have found yourself in some terrible trouble. Ask the two matatu touts I saw at OTC, handcuffed by a plainclothes police officer who was dressed like an underground rapper, bling and torn jeans and all. At what point did they realize that he was not a rapper? When it was too late, evidently. Ask the young man I saw on Wednesday morning sitting near the Tom Mboya statue in downtown Nairobi, two bad actors standing over him, glowering down at his face as one searched his pockets. As I was walking away, I think I heard a slap. At what point, as they walked towards him, did he realise they were not going to a nearby office but that their office was the street, and he was their unfortunate business?

If the last few weeks have taught me anything, it is that everyone needs some knowledge of acting. At least, everyone needs to be able to differentiate the good from the bad. You see, even the real wajango –the ones who grab you and press a pistol in your back demanding your money and phone– even they usually need to ‘act’ a little in order to get close enough before they show their true colours. I have a feeling that that slight bit of theatre education might not only make us safer on our streets, but also that it will change the entertainment industry for the better. I don’t even blame the poor security officers, most of them must have been trying out theatrical roles for the first time ever. However, I request the government to invest a little more in the theatrical arts, if just because it seems to be such a critical skill for national security. God forbid those who want to harm Kenyans learn good acting first, right?

Now as a professional, and in general, I don’t trust bad acting. Even a good friend will sometimes fail the good acting test and often you discover that they were trying to lie or withhold some information in these cases, such as why they need to borrow money. But now comes the twist in the tale… I was careful all through the week to keep a safe distance from any of the bad actors, and lord have mercy, they poured the whole force into this theatre production without auditioning them. There were some terrible examples indeed. I saw a sweet vendor even ignore a mother and child. Sweet vendors love selling to children. I think the biggest factor of the bad acting that stood out was the simple ignorance of the real life of the character whose costume they had chosen to wear.

I didn’t think it through very well though. I should have remembered the other constant I have observed in most bad actors I have directed – they are often unaware that their acting is bad and are utterly convinced that they are the next Lupita. I should have seen it from their point of view. They must have sat and wondered, but how does he not fall for our marvellous acting? So instead of avoiding suspicion, I think I must have aroused it instead. But thankfully, they finally found a decent actor to send my way. On Tuesday morning, as I walked up the hill up State House Road to go to Pawa254, a short bespectacled old man, bald with white hair, was walking slowly up ahead. As I came up the road, he watched me wipe the sweat off my face and smoothly took the opportunity to start a conversation.

Kuna joto leo, eh? Kwanza kama uko na njaa ndio unaisikia vizuri.” (It’s hot today, eh? Especially if you are hungry, that’s when you really feel the heat).

I liked how smooth his improvised entry was and I am not a bad actor myself, so I smiled and decided to walk with him and chat a little about life.

Nikifika ninapoenda kwanza nitakunywa maji baridi ndio nitafute kachai,” I replied. (When I get to where I’m going, I’ll have to take some cold water and then look for tea).

Eh, yaani siku hizi kuna njaa. Ukiona jua imewaka hivi, jua kuna njaa.’ (Eh, these days there’s hunger. When you see the sun blazing like this, there’s hunger).

Kweli mzee, watu wamesota sana. Sasa mimi naingia hivi.’ (That’s true, old man. Now, I’m going to turn here).

At this point I was about to turn right into State House Crescent and he was still walking ahead of me. He made his first mistake then, he walked on as if he was still going up State House Road before turning again to follow me. I looked in his face and saw him take the mistake with the grace of a seasoned performer… I smiled. How did the police find such a great actor? I could use such talent for my next film. But now I was curious.

Kumbe ulikuwa unakuja huku kama mimi?’ (Oh, so you were coming to this place, like me?)

Eeeh, ninataka kununua sigara kwa hiyo duka ya mluhya.’ (Eeeh, I want to buy a cigarette at this kiosk run by the Luhya guy).

Again he was impressive, he had done some homework and knew that there is a small tuck shop by the gate of Pawa254 run by a relaxed old man called Stevo. I smiled. He didn’t seem rehearsed at all – a natural actor, but not on your screen. We walked together, discussing the economy, and the heat. When we got to the gate, I bought him a chapati at the kibanda opposite the shop. I told him I was now going to work and wished him well. And I walked away wondering if I had been going about the situation completely the wrong way. It seems, the better plan is to pretend you can’t see bad acting. Perhaps I simply should not be thinking like a scriptwriter or film director when I am on the street. Perhaps it is I who should be perfecting my acting on the street, playing the complicated role of ‘man-who-does-not-see-bad-acting’ as I walk among the throng. So for the last few days as Macron’s visit has wound up, I have attempted to relax a little more around the bad acting all around town. I must admit though, it has not been easy.

Truthfully, sometimes they did not bother to act at all. Some days – specifically from Thursday through to Saturday – it was like a badly directed dystopian horror film. I guess they were worried that there might be some trouble before and during the busiest dates of the UNEA summit. It was well into the very dystopian territory of ‘physical-presence-as-threat’ and violence hung heavy above every street like rain clouds, waiting for an excuse to pour down. I remember walking up Wabera Street from Mama Ngina Street and a burly gentleman following behind me for a few minutes, his nose barely inches from the back of my neck. Then he suddenly sped on, perhaps to follow other prey. As he passed me, I remember noticing a small can clutched tightly in his hand, his finger on the top part of it. My guess, it was a can of mace. And going by the expression on the man’s face, (alikuwa amebonda like he had safari ants in his underwear) I sense he was disappointed that I hadn’t given him any excuse to use it.

There is a shop window at Kipande house facing the street at which we sometimes stop to dance as we come from Pawa254. Yes we do; what can I say, we are after all artists – and art is a way of life, not a nine-to-five occupation. I was walking ahead of everyone else as we came up to it that evening and then I saw them — a large group of bad actors standing around the spot, at least twelve, pretending to be regular people heading home. Except, they were all drifting too close to your side, bumping you on the shoulder, or in some cases, turning right round to walk by your side and listen to your conversation. It was not a time to be oblivious. I know bad acting, but I also know when people are not acting anymore. There was no more pretence of theatre. We hurried on, past the dancing spot, and on our way. We didn’t dance that day.

We got to our different bus stages without incident, but not before one tall gentleman had suddenly turned to block my friend’s path and take a deep long sniff of his face right in the middle of Moi Avenue, trying to smell him for traces of ganja. Now surely, that is well within the realm of sexual harassment. If I were directing that film, I would have fired that actor immediately for breach of contract. That was not bad acting anymore, just very bad behaviour. It should not be condoned, in any sort of theatre produced for public consumption.

I have been thinking about the whole exercise in a new light, wondering if all over the city, young people like me were also feeling the overbearing weight of the security performance. Feeling restricted to just given spaces, unwelcome in some. Feeling as though they were not really the audience of it, because why would the cast of a play meant for me seem so unfriendly to me? As if I was not the intended audience of the show, but some charlatan roaming about their stage. I thought this was my city too. You can see why I gave their theatre production the title that I did. I have been wondering if better acting on their part would have made a difference to how their show made me feel. It is a long shot, but I have decided to volunteer some free theatrical advice.

To all you first time actors and actresses who debuted in the country’s biggest theatre production this year, congratulations and kudos. Welcome to the entertainment industry and good luck. I have two quick pieces of advice for you after the show. Your performances were affected by two major first-time actor mistakes. The first and most common mistake many of you made was being over-serious. There is no reason why a sweet vendor I have never met would be glaring at me angrily instead of trying to sell me sweets. Some of you, especially the men, already have faces that are ‘angry by default’. For such people, deliberately trying to look serious moves your performance quickly from the genre of drama to the genre of horror. Watch out for that next time.

The next and most common mistake you made, though I am much more lenient about this one, was a very common acting mistake – unintended smiling. I mostly observed this among the actresses – why, there was one who smiled right at me even as she attempted to steal a photo of my face on her phone, perhaps amused by her own undercover actions. Good acting needs one to not let their emotions give them away. I am glad though, I much preferred the smiling ladies to the wasee-wa-kubonda. Which young man doesn’t like a pretty actress giving them some attention? Your next production is bound to be much better if you remember these two tips.

I have also been thinking about the old man who spoke to me on my way to work. Why me? Why did he follow and ‘perform’ for me? Who asked him to? For what purpose? I wonder if he does it for a living, this subtle and not-much-known form of theatre acting. When I told my friend Dulizmo about it, he didn’t hesitate;

‘Huyo ni mbleina. Hiyo ndiyo wera yake. Huyo alijengwa ng’at ama rwabe akutrace mpaka penye unaingia.’ (That’s a spy. That’s his job. He was paid a hundred or two hundred shillings to follow you to your destination.)

I am not surprised to hear that opinion of the old man but I am much more interested in the nature of his work. If he does it regularly, then he is a professional actor operating in the theatre of real life. Old man, if they show you this article, come and look for me at the place you followed me to. We didn’t get the chance to talk about your acting career and I really think your best days are not yet behind you. You have what it takes to be a great film or theatre actor. And you owe me a chapatti.

I reiterate; I don’t blame the huge cast of ‘These Are Not Your Streets – Part1’ entirely for their bad acting. Again, experience with Kenyan TV and theatrical productions has taught me that many times, the reason the acting is bad is because someone tampered with the production and/or rehearsal budget. You can’t blame an actor for something like bad costuming, or an inappropriate prop. Someone with a good eye for theatre is supposed to help them with such things. Perhaps I have discovered a unique opportunity for actors and theatre practitioners like myself. It seems that the security profession is in need of good theatre production skills much more than they might admit. And lord knows, paying work for artists can be hard to come by. I am glad to see that they put up such a concerted effort to perform their show and some of them, such as the mzee who spoke to me, certainly deserve at least a Kalasha award.

And to all other young film and theatre actors all over the country; it turns out, your country needs you!

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Reflections

One Nation Under Watch, But We Are Not Any Safer

There has arisen a new security architecture mostly in the city that commodifies our fears, and develops surveillance products to monetise it. They promote an ever-expanding range of options for intrusive security measures pegged on lucrative public tenders. But it isn’t built to guarantee our safety. It preys on scared city folks who are not its clientele, partners, allies, or staff.

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One Nation Under Watch, But We Are Not Any Safer
Photo: Rishabh Varshney on Unsplash
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A few weeks ago I went out of town on a weekend road trip with some friends that we’ve done for years, to shoot the breeze, unpack, and just shake off the drudgery of the city.

This last trip took us to a resort in the Rift Valley, and after breakfast, a last-minute swimming plan meant that we had to leave a few cars with low ground clearance behind, seeing as we were heading out into the rugged road terrain of the wilderness.

A few of the folks I was travelling with are licensed arms holders with their cars fitted with arm compartments. We drove the cars into a particular shopping complex en route to the swimming area. Not only did the guards not bother to search the cars, we ended up leaving behind the cars at the mall parking for the better part of the day and came to fetch them later in the evening.

This, just three weeks after the Dusit attacks, speaks into the precariousness of a country faced with an existential security crisis whose scope and problems are hard to understand, thanks to our security apparatus’s fuzzy competency, poor security infrastructure, corruption, and age-old negligence.

I raised the issue of the lapse in security with a security official who happened to be part of the weekend trip and he wasn’t amused. He complained that a particular security brief I had shared with the group was ill-advised and that wasn’t meant for public consumption. According to him, it had been shared with a foreign diplomat who had in their own manoeuvring decided to release it to parties who aren’t certified consumers of the brief, who in turn released it to the public sphere.

This official had most likely taken a leaf from police spokesman Charles Owino who, when interviewed by TV host Jeff Koinange about our security situation, Owino realistically admitted that our level of preparedness stood at 7 out of 10. Owino emphatically sympathized with the Kenyan situation going as far as admitting that they (the police) foil many attacks that Kenyans never even get to hear about.

During the interview, Owino was empathic that Kenyans have to give up a bit of their comforts if that would guarantee their security, a realism that would have been good were it not susceptible to exploitation by surveillance capitalism. That’s the challenge of the current security theatre; that the security apparatus has to be right 100% of the time while terrorists need to be right only once.

Since 2011, Kenya has faced 321 terror attacks; the equivalent of a new attack every 9 days, a fact that is linked to our military incursion into Somalia. In turn, this has been a period that has also seen walls go up, razors crown perimeter fences, and concrete barriers mounted on roads that were once free-flowing.

We almost take it for granted that our data is collected at all major gates and building entrances, and those who look Cushitic randomly stopped and frisked especially in Nairobi streets.

Kenyans of means have responded in kind, given that in recent years gun ownership among wealthy, mostly urban private citizens has climbed to an estimated 7,000. In addition, more than 700,000 guns are in the hands of private citizens in the isolated north-eastern corridor. I wish I’d say that all these adjustments have made it safer for us but I have a sneaky feeling that much as we’ve evolved in our response to terror we still remain quite exposed.

Recently while having coffee at Java Ridgeways, the gentleman seated next to me seemed to try a little too hard to hide the bulge on the right side of his belt; a bulge that I doubt the guards had noticed. Honestly, it’s hard to estimate how much of the bulging waists, barbed wires, ‘data books’ at entrances to buildings, sniffer dogs and concrete barriers have enhanced our safety.

No one has bothered to assure us of data safety, and the problem is there to show. For example, when I visited Narok last year — a place I’d never been to before and never since — a few days later started receiving promotional text messages from a local Narok supermarket I’d never heard of. We leave our private details everywhere around this city on a daily basis; a meaningless exercise that is supposed to, at least in theory, guarantee our safety.

This though doesn’t always mean an easy pass. Depending on context, class, gender, age, and race, bodies are policed differently, such as once when I happened to pass next to where a former president was seated. His security frisked me, padding up and down and trying to keep the menacing ordeal as long as possible. Meanwhile, a lady carrying a large handbag strolled past us walking barely 10 feet away from the then president. She might as well have been carrying an entire armoury, but young, male and black is a catch-all for potential threats, so my mere presence was deemed a greater potential security threat than hers.

One thing is increasingly obvious though. There has arisen a new security architecture mostly in the city that commodifies our fears, and develops surveillance products to monetise it. They promote an ever-expanding range of options for intrusive security measures pegged on lucrative public tenders.

The mixture of surveillance capitalism mixed with the reality of violent extremism has spelt a boon for shadowy securo-preneurs, and official corruption at security agencies. But there is no measurable change as to how my safety is improved every time I leave my house.

After the deadly January attacks at the Dusit Complex, I figured I might as well do a bit of reading on the terror group, with Haroun Marouf’s book Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally making for a primer on the topic. However, with a price tag of KSh 3,000, that’s way pricier than what most Kenyans can splurge on a single book. Available literature on the terror group Al Shabaab, is still sketchy and disjointed, and for the most part, my reading is skewed towards tracts, news sites, Wikipedia and whatever else I can get at a lower cost.

The thing is, very few of us Kenyans know anything about the terror group beside it being a network mostly domiciled in Somalia and whose tentacles now stretch as far as Kakamega and Kampala. But perhaps to our satisfaction with simplistic answers and relatively frequent interaction with low-grade terrors of our own making ranging from rampant joblessness, vigilante justice, and broken down judicial system, we don’t encounter as much shock at the ugliness of the heightened terror attacks. We forget so quickly. Despite rising walls, regular frisking at gates, and incessant demands for our data at rickety security desks, we haven’t truly had a national moment to process what terror has come to mean to us individually and collectively.

The security theatre as currently structured isn’t built to guarantee our safety. It preys on scared city folks who are not its clientele, its partners, allies, or staff. Just like most other public procedures, it’s driven by securo-crats who prey on a public that’s largely ignorant or helpless towards its mechanisms and excesses.

Curiously as I drive through the city streets on any given day it’s clear to me that the securitisation of the city is more of a response to threats of local burglary, social menace and absence of proper police systems than it is about terrorism. Let’s face it, I have higher chances of getting mugged than being blown up, a fact that I’m well aware may spell out differently for people who look Cushitic or adjacent.

The local jobless rates, messy politics, poverty and mediocrity together have done more to aid the securitisation of this city, than the penetration of terror networks into small towns and the rise of local terror networks with links to Al Shabaab across the border.

The space I exist in right now means that once I step out of my house I’ve to contend with the notions and responses to terror as conceived by many agencies, including schools, clubs, gated estates, hospitals, supermarkets, malls, and even fellow private citizens.

Each of these entities is forced to institute measures subject to their culpability and capacity, effectively changing the nature of our city, its norms, our movement and sense of belonging. By the current trends, we might just end up like London where your average citizen is captured by at least 30 cameras on any given day, in a city where there exists one surveillance system for every 11 people.

The famous social critic Naomi Klein’s bestseller The Shock Doctrine documents the rise of disaster capitalism that allows for devious regimes and well-connected non-state actors to use the aftermath of tragedy such as the Dusit Complex attack to push forward with unpopular policies. In Kenya’s security theatre, disaster capitalism through the shocks of terrorism, and bloody images splattered on front-pages incessantly lays groundwork for surveillance capitalism under the guise of enhancing our security; in the end, we’ve become one nation under watch.

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Reflections

Campus or Fortress? How Terrorism-inspired Security Checks Killed Public Discourse at Universities

After the Garissa massacre, universities became like military installations. Private security firms were deployed to man the gates and the buildings within universities. Non-students must produce national IDs and explain what they are going to do at the university.

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Campus or Fortress? How Terrorism-inspired Security Checks Killed Public Discourse at Universities
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A few years ago, I was in a matatu along Riverside Drive trying to get to town, but the evening traffic was unrelenting. I decided to get off the matatu and walk through the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus, thinking that this might be a quicker way of making it to town in time for my evening beer.

At the gate, the security guard asked for my ID, which I promptly produced.

“A student ID, I meant,” he told me impatiently.

“I’m a former student, student leader no less. I just want to walk through to avoid this traffic,” I told him politely.

“It is past 5 p.m. Non-students are not allowed in the university compound.”

It was final. Unbelievable that a year earlier, anyone would walk through any public university without security guards demanding their ID and wanting to know which part of the university they were going to. I humbly boarded another matatu with a bad FM radio station on and endured the traffic.

Garissa massacre: The watershed moment

Sometime in 2012, when random terror attacks became the norm, buildings in the central business district, government facilities, shopping malls and other places likely to be targeted by Al Shabaab installed walk-through metal detectors. Those that could not afford the expensive apparatus bought cheap metal detectors and hired young men and women to man their buildings. Nobody knows how the detectors are supposed to stop marauding, gun-wielding murderers. (Having witnessed the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and the Dusit attack in 2019, we now know that they cannot stop terrorists.)

Around that time, there were messages that used to circulate on social media allegedly from Al Shabaab, outlining their targets, predictably the United Nations complex, government buildings, embassies of Western nations, shopping malls favoured by expatriates and the University of Nairobi.

Given the frequency of the attacks and their randomness, even the tough-headed University of Nairobi students grudgingly accepted the intrusive searches in the spirit of forestalling terror attacks. And any students who felt violated by the limitation of their liberties, the Garissa university attacks removed any doubt about the invulnerability of universities.

At dawn on Thursday, April 2, 2015, gunmen descended on Garissa University College and killed 148 students and injured another 79. It was the second deadliest terror attack since the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi that killed more than 200 people. The attack sent chills down our spines for its severity and cruelty.

After the Garissa massacre, universities became like military installations. Private security firm were deployed to man the gates and the buildings within universities. At the universities’ main gates, security guards began searching cars and frisking students. Non-students must produce national IDs and explain what they are going to do at the university. They don’t necessary keep these details, so you can cook up any excuse if you have ulterior motives. But the presence of the guards has definitely limited the foot traffic of the general public at universities.

Buildings that host the most important people within the university are now fortified, and senior university officials have security details that rival those of the President. I recently saw the Vice Chancellor of a top local university walking around the university. He had more than five bodyguards. The building where his office is located has no-nonsense security guards who ensure that they have taken your every detail before giving you the wrong directions to the office you need to go to. The apparatus and the many security guards who replicate their roles can give one a false sense of security.

In a way, the many security guards have made university less fun. Just a decade ago, when I was a student, the university was a free place for both students and the general public. If tired in town, you could walk to the university and rest on the seats or any of beautiful manicured lawns.

At the hostels, those from less fortunate backgrounds would host their relatives in their tiny rooms as they worked or went to college somewhere in Nairobi. Public universities had a comradely camaraderie regardless of the students’ backgrounds; there was an egalitarianism, a sense of belonging. Public universities had a tinge of elitism, but they were equally accessible to the sons and daughters of peasants and of wealthy folk.

Also, the university was a place of ideas. Several public forums used to be held at universities. Thinkers, writers, foreign dignitaries, and local celebrities came and freely interacted with us. There was no payment or the signing of some Google-doc for you to attend an event.

I remember a time when the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kweyi Armah visited the University of Nairobi in the mid-2000s. Barack Obama also came to the university when he was a Senator for Illinois. So did Hillary Clinton when she was US Secretary of State. Joe Biden visited when he was the Vice President of the United States. I remember when Chimamanda Adichie was brought by Kwani? in its hey days in 2008, when her magnum opus, Half of a Yellow Sun, had just been re-published by Kwani? Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo also delivered public lectures at the university. These forums and the resultant public discourses made the university experience all the more exciting.

I remember a time when there were no restrictions to anyone who wanted to attend. But in the last few years, there have been fewer notable public forums at the university. There have hardly been any new or controversial ideas on language, literature, politics, economics or philosophy that have been debated here in recent times. Universities have not provided an environment where we can contextualise what is going on in the country, the continent and the world.

There is no shortage of thinkers, philosophers and scholars whose works students should be exposed to, from Mahmood Mamdani to Achille Mbembe, Wandia Njoya, Stella Nyanzi, Kwame Antony Appiah, Evan Mwangi, Sylvia Tamale and Mshai Mwangola, among others. But you are more likely to encounter their minds in a civil society setting or other forums than at a university. Ironically, private universities that were citadels of the bourgeoisie have fared better in hosting these thinkers, who sometimes can be a thorn in the flesh of the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.

Symbols of segregation

Security guards act as physical gatekeepers of free intercourse of ideas that should take place in universities. Security guards are a symbol of segregation. There is a reason a public university is protected and a public market like Muthurwa is not. And the nature of security searches is so subjective. There are places you can go in if you are driving a big car or wearing a suit. A young man with dreadlocks will have a lot of difficulties going into the same place.

Al Shabaab, like their counterparts Boko Haram, have contempt for Western education, which is why they target educational institutions. However, when these terror attacks began, universities had become commercial enterprises. Since university education became commercialised through self-sponsored programmes, universities began swimming in billions. It was, therefore, in their interest to ensure that Al Shabaab did not disrupt the business side of things. Remember, most self-sponsored students come from middle class or wealthy families. Hence their lives matter more. A visit to the hostels where regular students stay can reveal the amount of neglect and class divide in our institutions of higher learning. The influx of self-sponsored students meant that the already limited resources in universities were stretched beyond the limit.

Politics and corruption also had an impact on public forums that took place at universities. It is hard to host an anti-corruption activist with progressive ideas at a university that is embroiled in mega corruption scandals. It makes the management very uncomfortable. Since the time of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, opposition politicians and human rights activists have always been uninvited to universities, as university managements have tended to align themselves with the government. It is not uncommon to see a university Vice Chancellor groveling with a team of tribal leaders at State House. Their presumed intellectual autonomy is at the mercy of the powers that be. Funding can be cut because of any perceived misdeed. This is not fiction; most universities have had their budgets cut because of some misunderstanding with the Ministry of Education. You can’t blame the management at times, since self-preservation is natural. Why host a talk on human rights of young men succumbing daily to extrajudicial killings and risk budget cuts when you can award a political bigwig with a dubious honorary degree to attract funding?

The upshot of this unwillingness on the part of universities to open their spaces for public discourses is that civil society organisations and the embassies of leading Western powers have taken over this role. The Goethe Institute, the Alliance Française and the British Council are doing what universities should be doing. This is not a bad thing in itself, as we need as many of these public forums as possible. However, with universities rarely hosting notable public events – save for entrepreneur forums where phony businessmen are allowed to sell their half-baked ideas anchored on neoliberalism – institutions of higher learning are losing much of their clout.

A local university erected a huge tower recently and the only events sanctioned to take place there are events that can bring money or improve the image of the university to the outside world. Its beautiful theatres cannot host the university’s student travelling theatre group because literature is considered a lesser discipline than commerce (possibly the most useless discipline ever invented by universities, but the most lucrative).

Universities have robbed themselves the agency of owning ideas, and Kenyans now have to rely on Western institutional spaces (embassies or spaces funded by NGOs) to provide forums for the many needed discussions. Young minds in much need of intellectual nourishment beyond what is served in class are poorer for this.

Foreign institutions, for all their accessibility, are viewed by many as elite institutions, and some of us neither feel at home there nor free to express our opinions as we would in a village baraza. You must adjust to certain dialectical expectations of the hosts.

The life of a security guard

Security guards are the best symbol of inequality in Kenya. Kenya is one of the most unequal societies in the world. According to data from Oxfam (often debated upon), 8,300 (less than 0.1%) of the population own more wealth than the bottom 99.9%. The richest 10% earn on average 23 times more than the poorest 10%.

Security guards who work with security companies are among the poorest Kenyans. A casual conversation with them reveals that they mostly walk to work. (Some live in nearby slums that are always near the richer estates and communities.) A simple chat with them will show you how meaningless their job is. They survive on a meal day (usually dinner). The reason they try to strike a conversation and become familiar with the people they frisk daily is so they can get a tip that they can use to buy a packet of milk and a KDF (a pastry favoured by the poor). Most have to moonlight, washing cars parked in spaces they man or running some petty errands for an extra coin to augment their meagre earnings that defy common sense.

What’s worse, the security companies fleece them – not only are they badly paid, the companies even deduct the cost of their own uniforms from their salaries. There is no transport allowance or transport provided by the company; most security guards walk for hours to get to work. Not even Francis Atwoli, the flamboyant Secretary General of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), has stood up for their rights.

When you scrutinise their work, you will find that they are a symptom of a badly diseased nation. At universities they symbolise the breakdown of the flow of ideas from the university to the public sphere. Public lectures were called so because the public could attend, but presently the public is not invited to universities. There are other gatekeeping methods, such as email bookings and notices that only students can access. Security guards best represent the barrier that has been erected. And at universities, they exist to remind us whose interests universities now serve. They are there in the pretext of terrorism, but everyone knows they are badly underprepared should a gunman strike.

***

It is the naiveté of the Kenyan elite that baffles me. We are all like the passengers on the Titanic. Privileged ones think they can escape the inefficiency of a government that has failed to provide basic services to the poor, from education to healthcare and security, by securing the services of private firms.

But if there is one thing that the Westgate, Dusit, Mpeketoni, Mandera and Garissa attacks have taught us, it is that a society only functions properly when the poorest and richest share the same privileges when it comes to basic services and public goods. Private schools and private hospitals will not fill the gaps in education and healthcare. Neither will private security companies fill the gaps in policing.

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