Nairobi’s gone funky, that’s why it is now a target...

Saturday January 19 2019

Nairobi night skyline

An image of Nairobi's city centre at night. The Kenyan capital is a very different city from its siblings in East Africa, in that it is simply years ahead in its cosmopolitanism – making it easier for terrorists to blend in. PHOTO | NMG 

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On Tuesday, the Somali militant group Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for another horrific terror group in Nairobi.

At least 14 civilians were killed in the attack on the 14 Riverside Drive office and hotel complex in Nairobi’s leafy Westlands suburb.

In the past 10 years, counting small, medium, and large attacks in Kenya linked to or claimed by Al Shabaab, this was about the twentieth. The worst one over this period was April 2, 2015, at Garissa University when the Shabaab killed 150 people, and then the Westgate Mall attack on September 21, 2013, in which 71 people died.

Why do terrorists “love” Nairobi? One popular explanation is that the Shabaab is punishing Kenya for its military incursion into Somalia in 2011 and its continued role in Amisom, the African Union Mission in Somalia. But Uganda and Burundi went into Somalia four years ahead of Kenya, and Uganda has witnessed only three significant Shabaab attacks, and Burundi one.

The patriotic-tainted view from Uganda is that Kenya is vulnerable because its security services are incompetent and “porous.” And an equally nationalist-flavoured perspective from Kenya is that Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are able to clamp down better on extremist violence because they are police states of varying types.

Some years ago, I read a short essay by a Somali scholar at a university in the United Arab Emirates, whose name I can’t remember. He argued that terrorists thrive in failed state conditions, yes, but the elite ones who act on a regional or global scale, require the same infrastructure that top-end best businesses do: A sophisticated financial system, cutting edge technology, high levels of urbanisation, good Internet and tech-savvy operatives, a labyrinthine transport network, and multicultural cities.

Nairobi may be crime-riddled and nowhere as clean as Kigali, but it is a very different city from its siblings in East Africa, in that it is simply years ahead in its cosmopolitanism – making it easier for terrorists to blend in. You can choose to roam its suburbs and eat at a different restaurant offering cuisine from a foreign land every day, and barely be done by year’s end.

Its financial services and integration into the global economy is half a generation ahead of its neighbours’. That’s what made it attractive for Somali pirate money. And it has developed nearly autonomous micro societies (European, Asian, West African, Central African, or Ethiopian, for instance) in ways that would be strange elsewhere in the region.

There are even separate dialects of the Sheng pidgin in different parts of the city.

Westlands and suburbs like Gigiri, where the sprawling UN compound is located, could as well be a different country from Eastlands, for example.

The food, music, supermarkets, churches, are as different as day and night.

The consciousness of how much Nairobi has evolved, is not universal, hence it is still governed like a mid-20th century city. Nairobi’s biggest vulnerability, therefore, is what makes it one of the continent’s leading cities – it is a good place for regional and international players.

Unfortunately, some of those transnational players are also terrorists. They’ve probably figured that, just like what happened with Westgate, an attack on any upmarket side of the city will kill not just Kenyans, but all sorts of foreigners too – ensuring that, with the concentration of foreign media here, they will get bigger international coverage.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]