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Kenya: Ethnic and Economic Grievances Underlie Violence in Eastleigh

Are retaliatory attacks against ethnic Somalis in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighbourhood likely to be repeated as we approach elections?
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Muslims in Eastleigh pray outside a mosque. Photograph by Jason Patinkin.

Nairobi, Kenya:

Last Sunday, a bomb blast on a public minibus left seven dead and scores wounded in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood. The attack, blamed on the Islamist Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab, triggered conflict between Eastleigh’s Somali immigrants and their Kenyan neighbours.

For two days, rioting youths from nearby slums targeted ethnic Somalis, looting homes and fighting running street battles with police. After the tear gas settled, enterprising locals patched their broken windows with cardboard and sold shoes and leather jackets by the shells of shattered cars, but tensions continued to simmer.

Rioting and retaliation

The groups retaliating after Sunday's bombing had to cross Juja Road, which separates the shanty towns of the Mathare slum from Eastleigh’s multi-story buildings and crowded markets. They threw rocks at buses full of Muslim women and vandalised Somali apartment buildings, taking anything they could find.

Nur Ahmed is a Somali refugee who lived in a Juja Road apartment with his family. He resisted repeated assaults on their home before police arrived. “We didn’t eat or drink for 24 hours,” he told Think Africa Press. “I had to hold the doors locked.”

The rioters smashed windows and cut pipes to flood the building, demanding to know at each door whether the occupants were Somali. By Monday night, the building’s 35 Somali tenants fled to safer lodgings with whatever belongings weren’t stolen, while General Service Unit police guarded them from gangs waiting across Juja Road.

Kenyan security forces, already overwhelmed by ethnic clashes that have left hundreds dead this year, face another challenge in dealing with terrorists and rioters in Nairobi. Ahmed praised police for dispersing mobs but also criticised their arrest of four of his friends during 'night operations', the rounding up of undocumented Somali immigrants, and the demanding of bribes.

Ethnic divisions

Ethnic violence is all too common in Kenya, where politicians often command well-organised tribal militias. Since Kenyan troops began fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia last year, terrorist attacks have become more common and 2012 has seen its fair share of attacks on nightclubs, bus stations, and churches in Nairobi, Mombasa, and the town of Garissa near the Somali border. In late September, for example, an explosion at an Eastleigh church killed a nine-year old boy and earlier this November three soldiers were shot in Garissa. Kenyan troops retaliated by burning markets and opening fire on a school – attacks in which two civilians were killed.

This violence has driven a wedge between Kenyans and ethnic Somalis, and Eastleigh is now another potential hotspot for Kenya’s stretched security forces as the country stumbles toward March elections.

What is also of concern is that Eastleigh’s riots were spontaneous, revealing growing xenophobia against ethnic Somalis and frustration among jobless, landless youth. Despite denials from the senior leadership of al-Shabaab regarding the most recent bus attack, Kenyan authorities blame the Islamist group for the bombing and all previous attacks. Reprisals against mosques and Somalis in the wake of such attacks are common, and attitudes among their Kenyan neighbours have become increasingly vitriolic.

Macao, a security guard injured in the bus bombing, was glad to see Somalis flee. “This behaviour is from the Muslim community,” he said, referring to the attacks. “The only way [to stop it] is to remove these Somali people from Kenya”. Macao spent three days in hospital after the blast. He now uses a cane, and his scalp, arms, and legs are pocked with shrapnel scars.

Gordon, another Mathare resident, has also been turned against Somalis by the bombing. “The Somalis target Christians,” he said. He explained that he used to live with a Somali friend, but threw stones at Somali homes during riots. “After the riot, we are not getting along.”

Nairobi’s slums — including Mathare — saw terrible violence during Kenya’s bloody 2007 elections, when politicians stirred restless youth to fight along ethnic lines. Eastleigh’s unrest raises fears of a repeat of that episode. One ethnic Somali woman said rioters threatened to “come back during elections” as they tried to break into her home.

Economic grievances

Ethnic tensions are high but many rioters also used the unrest as an opportunity to loot. Mungai is unemployed and joined the raid on Ahmed’s apartment building. “When I heard of the blast, I was hoping something would happen so I could get something to eat,” he said. “I have been looking for a job for 3 months.” Mungai stole a mattress, mobile phone, and a bag of flour.

Juja Road draws a stark line between Mathare, where landless squatters live in shacks without plumbing, sanitation, and electricity, and more prosperous Eastleigh, where malls bustle with spice vendors, electronics shops, and cafes along the unpaved streets.

To Joseph Mwangi, a 22-year-old student in Mathare, land ownership by Somali immigrants is unfair. “I don’t see the need that these Somalis were given a place to live,” he said.

Fred Njoroge, 24, who owns a video store in Mathare, told how this lack of opportunities is the root of the conflict. “When there’s violence, they have opportunity to steal,” he said, referring to his friends who looted during the riots.

Before opening his business, Njoroge also used to mug Somalis. “Somali people have riches and property. Here it’s a slum. When you see a Somali with a phone you just snatch it,” he said. If not for the video store, “I would be on the front lines [of the riots] too.”

Calling for calm

Still, some calmer voices prevail. In Mathare, mother Ann Wamboi condemned the youth for bringing tear gas upon her community, making her infant daughter sick. Benson Wayama, who buys flour, rice, and sugar in Eastleigh to sell in Mathare, pointed out that “those Somalis are good in business and can help Kenyans”.

And in cosmopolitan Eastleigh, immigrants and locals learn to get along. Ahmed holds no grudge against his attackers, managing to laugh at the irony of fleeing Somalia’s violence only to find it again in Kenya. Johnson Musyimi — who is not Somali — owns a butchery a few meters from where the explosion took place and did not blame Somalis. “They are my customers,” he said. “They too are Kenyan.”

But days after the clashes, Gordon did not regret his actions in the mob. “When the Somalis do that again, we’ll do something they’ll remember,” he said. Looking across Juja Road from Mathare to Eastleigh, he commented: “When you cross that road, you can’t come home empty handed.”

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