NAIROBI, Kenya—The recent attack on the Dusit D2 hotel complex is not the first time terror was visited on Nairobi. Since the first post-independence bombing in 1975, the city has been regularly targeted by terrorists of all stripes—from the state-sponsored variety, to those opposed to the state, to militants pursuing causes far beyond Kenya’s borders. And since Kenya sent troops into neighboring Somalia in October 2011 to take on the al-Shabaab terror group, the militants have made good on their threat to target buildings in the capital. These attacks have had a profound effect on the character of the city as well as on the relationships between its residents.
The most obvious and visible change has been in the gauntlet of security checks and metal detectors that ordinary Nairobians have to navigate in nearly every aspect of their everyday lives. This has been accompanied by the vacuuming up of citizens’ data on an industrial scale. Entering malls and office buildings, going to church, and sometimes even boarding public transport requires the permission of a wand-wielding security guard who may demand your phone number and record your ID number and car registration.
Looking back in history, one sees that Nairobi has always had a cloistered and exclusionist feel. It has always been a rigidly segregated city. The separation of the classes—initially based on race and now on wealth—is built into its DNA and has always required the maintenance of elaborate systems of walls, gates, guards, and guard dogs to keep out unwanted blacks and the poor.
However, as the state atrophied in the 80s and 90s, eaten up from within by corrupt officials, crime waves meant security was further privatized and the walls and gates began to spring up within neighborhoods, replacing hedges and wooden fences within the housing estates, such as BuruBuru and Ngumo, built for the small, but growing, middle-class.
The 1998 embassy bombings inaugurated a new set of challenges which were focused on public rather than private spaces. Previous incidents had either been government-orchestrated—and so lost the arbitrariness that makes terrorism so scary—or were considered rare, black swan events. The 1998 attack, on the other hand, brought Kenya, which had previously seen itself as “an island of peace in a sea of chaos” to the frontlines of a violent and growing global conflict. And it was one that could explode on any of the capital’s public streets at any time and target anyone.
As they had always done, Nairobians turned to private solutions to address public problems, employing the same securitization of private spaces they had used to secure their homes in the absence of the state. Public buildings and spaces were increasingly securitized. Guards and metal detectors begun to materialize everywhere, as did the requirement to carry ID to access buildings.
But it was Kenya’s invasion of Somalia and the blowback that elicited from the al-Shabaab that completely shattered the public’s sense of safety and supercharged the securitization of public spaces. By the time of the attack on the Westgate mall in 2013, Nairobi was increasingly a target of a low-intensity bombing campaign that was ramping up. Public confidence was not helped by the city’s chronic public vulnerability, which continues to this day.
A Masters’ thesis study by George Odipo found that “the increasing problem of traffic jam, construction of commercial complexes and office blocks in residential zones, the absence of buffer zone of some distance between the security checkpoint and most public buildings in Nairobi, lack of building bylaws touching on threats of terrorism and even lack of enforcement of the already existing ones, are all creating very fertile targets for terrorist attacks.”
Westgate was a boon for the private security industry. Two years later, according to one report, the security industry employed more people than Kenya’s tourism industry and nearly ten times the number of policemen in the entire country. The reaction to the Dusit D2 attack and the calls to allow private security guards to carry firearms are part of this pattern whereby attacks become the excuse for expanding private security.
The privatization of public functions, from healthcare to education, has been a major theme of responses to government failure. For example, when the government introduced free education in 2003, the school system was overwhelmed and quality of learning in public schools seriously compromised. In reaction, everyone who could, including the poor, took their kids to private school. There was little demand for reform. Similarly, security in Nairobi is progressively privatized in place of a public debate on accountability and reform for state security agencies.
The invasion of Somalia and the terror attacks have also strained community relations within the city. Ever since the secessionist Shifta War of the 1960s, the government has treated Kenya’s own ethnic Somali population as second-class citizens. Most Kenyan Somalis, as well Somali refugees in the city have settled in the district of Eastleigh where policemen tend to treat them like ATM machines, regularly arresting them for the purpose of extorting bribes. A spectacular example of that came in the wake of the Westgate attack when the government launched Operation Usalama Watch during which doors to family homes were kicked in by police and over 4,000 people were arrested, many held for days in a cage at the Safaricom Stadium on the city outskirts. Others managed to secure release after paying bribes to local policemen.
Neil Carrier, author of Little Mogadishu: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub, says Usalama Watch was “by no means the first such security operation in Eastleigh,” and that such operations have been quite frequent since the 1980s. Although in the wake of Usalama Watch, prominent residents have done much to portray Eastleigh in a different, positive light, there remain fears that the stereotyping could once again rear its ugly head. In the aftermath of the Dusit D2 attack, members of the Eastleigh Business District Association responded by closing their shops for an hour and holding a procession in honor of the victims and survivors. “We reject [al- Shabaab’s] ideologies, they don’t represent us and they don’t speak for us,” area MP Yusuf Hassan declared.
A terrorized Nairobi has become a much less hospitable city. Constant Cap, a Kenyan urban planner, notes that in the name of “security,” some roads and sidewalks have been closed off permanently and many buildings turned into forts with a single entry and exit point. In a recent article, Macharia Gaitho has also pointed out the poor reasoning behind the almost universal prohibitions on photography around the city.
Rather than debating and instituting reform to reduce its vulnerability to terrorism, Nairobi has doubled down on its old habits. The common threat has not proven enough to unite city residents and to overcome over a century of segregation, xenophobia, and exclusion.