February 7, 2013
NAIROBI, KENYA – A ramshackle bus snakes its way out of the business district in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
Most of the windows are broken, and women pull scarves over their heads to shield themselves from the wind blowing into the bus. Music plays at full blast while two conductors shout at the top of their lungs, beckoning people to enter the already-full bus.
“Eastleigh, Garissa Lodge,” they shout, holding onto a metal rail on the bus’s door.
Garissa Lodge is a business district with nearly 40 multistory shopping malls in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi. Each mall contains tiny shops, most owned by Somali nationals. Small-scale entrepreneurs, locally known as “hawkers,” buy goods from the malls at wholesale prices then retail them in the streets.
The bus enters a dirt road, a detour from the main road to Eastleigh, which is under construction. A man enters the bus with two bags and squeezes them under a seat.
Pauline Awiti, another passenger on the bus who has been quiet, stares at the two pieces of luggage and shifts uneasily in her seat.
“Since the day a bomb exploded in a bus plying this route in November last year, I’m very cautious,” the heavily built woman says.
Awiti, a clothing retailer, says she suspended her monthly trips to the neighborhood for two months because of frequent attacks that police have attributed to al-Shabab, a Somali militant group. She only decided to make this trip when she completely ran out of clothing to sell in her shop.
The dirt road proves to be impassable as the bus encounters a series of craters filled with sludge. The two conductors order everyone out of the bus, forcing the passengers to cover the rest of the journey, about a kilometer, on foot.
Garisssa Lodge is a beehive of activity. People unload goods from lorries, porters carry goods around the market and customers move from one mall to the other. Small-scale entrepreneurs take over the streets, hawking goods from wheelbarrows and makeshift stands of wooden tables under large umbrellas.
But a series of attacks has interrupted trade at Garissa Lodge during the past six months, driving away customers and Somali business owners living in Kenya. Police have linked the attacks to al-Shabab but have not arrested anyone yet in connection with the attacks. Somalis in Eastleigh allege that police are rather using the attacks to detain and extort money from them. Police respond that officers are acting legally. Some Somalis blame the attacks on rival business areas, but a committee of government officials and business owners has yet to complete its investigation.
Eastleigh has been a bustling business area since the early 1990s. Garissa Lodge serves as both a market and a living space. Most of the residents are Somalis from Somalia or northern Kenya.
Somali nationals entered Kenya as refugees after war broke out in their country in 1991 following the collapse of the Somali government, says Mohamed Mohamud Gutale, the organizing secretary of Eastleigh Business District Association, which comprises the mostly Somali business owners in the area.
Traders come from all over the region to buy goods that the Somali business community ships from Thailand and China, Gutale says. Some customers travel as far as Nyanza in southwestern Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.
But seven attacks during the past six months have interrupted trade at Garissa Lodge. Most have been grenade attacks.
When Awiti enters Garissa Lodge, she finds one of her suppliers at a makeshift stand in the middle of a street. Yusuf Ahmed, a Somali from northeastern Kenya who sells baby clothes, spends half an hour haggling over prices with Awiti.
After the sale, Ahmed says business has been bad since the attacks started last year.
“Biashara mbaya kabisa,” he says in Swahili with a heavy Somali accent.
He continues that he now receives fewer than 10 customers a day. Before the attacks started during August, he attracted more than 30 customers daily.
Gutale says the Eastleigh District Business Association used to have more than 10,000 members, most of whom were Somalis from Somalia. But more than 6,000 members of the association have left Eastleigh since attacks began in August. They returned to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, which they now consider safer than the Nairobi suburb.
The first attack in Eastleigh occurred on Aug. 3 near a supermarket, killing one person, according to Kenya Red Cross Society. Although witnesses reported that a grenade was hurled from a moving car, police’s preliminary investigations indicated that it was a suicide bombing.
The incident that caused the most casualties – nine – was a bomb explosion on an Eastleigh bus during November, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society.
There were several attacks during December, including a grenade assault on a crowd leaving a mosque on Dec. 7, killing six people, according to Kenya Red Cross Society. The former Eastleigh member of Parliament was seriously injured.
Ahmed says the most recent grenade attack happened on Dec. 19 across the street from his stand. He says he was quite shaken but still opened his shop the next day, as his wife and five children depend on him.
“If I’m supposed to die today, I cannot escape death,” he says. “But there are many police officers patrolling the streets these days, so I feel safe.”
The police suspect that al-Shabab is behind the attacks, said Eric Kiraithe, who served as Kenya Police spokesman until Jan. 30. Al-Shabab called on its supporters in October 2011 to launch attacks on Kenya in retaliation to Kenya’s declaration of war on the militant group.
Al-Shabab has fought the Somali government to take control of the country since 2006. Al-Shabab controlled large parts of southern Somalia before the Kenya Defence Forces, Kenya’s armed forces, invaded the country during October 2011.
During October 2012, the Kenya Defence Forces, took over al-Shabab’s base in southern Somalia. Kenya’s military remains in Somalia.
Kiraithe said police had arrested many people during police swoops in Eastleigh. But most of them were charged with other offenses, such as illegal residence for Somali nationals without identification documents. The police did not have enough evidence to link them to the attacks or al-Shabab.
“Several people have been arrested and charged,” Kiraithe said. “Investigations are, however, still going on.”
Police have conducted security operations in Garissa throughout the years, Gutale says. But the swoops to flush out armed groups in the area became more frequent after the attacks in Eastleigh started.
These operations have not gone down well with Somali residents.
“The police are taking advantage of the situation to fleece us,” Ahmed says. “They come all the time and ask for the identity card, and when you show it to them, they claim it is fake. They can’t leave you until you give them money.”
Traders from Somalia register for alien certificates, which serve as identification documents. About 16,000 Somali nationals living in Eastleigh have such documents, Gutale says. But he says that some police officers refuse to accept the documents, calling them fake.
Guled Mohamed, a Kenyan journalist whose family originally came from Somalia, says he was a victim of police harassment.
Mohamed says a police officer stopped him during October 2012 while he was changing money in a Nairobi hotel casino. He says the officer told him that he was under arrest on the charge of planning to blow up the building as a member of al-Shabab.
“I tried to reason with the officer, telling him that I was a law-abiding Kenyan citizen who was going about his business,” Mohamed says. “But he never let go. He insisted that I accompany him to Central Police Station to be thoroughly grilled and investigated, because apparently my presence there was a major security threat.”
Mohamed says the police officer asked him for a bribe in exchange for letting him go, but Mohamed refused. The officer took him to the police station and kept him waiting for several hours, then told him to leave without booking him.
“Police officers are supposed to protect citizens, not victimize them,” Mohamed says. “Nobody has been arrested in connection with the attacks, and even if a member of the Somali community is arrested, he should be dealt with as an individual. Condemning an entire community because of actions of a few individuals is not reasonable.”
Ironically, harassment by Kenya Police in Eastleigh has driven many Somali businessmen back to Somalia, where peace has returned to most areas since the Kenya Defence Forces invaded the country to challenge al-Shabab, Mohamed says.
Aden Duale, a member of Parliament for Dujis constituency in Garissa district who is of Somali descent, alleges that the General Service Unit, a reserve police unit deployed for special operations, has been harassing residents.
“The government deployed GSU officers to the area to flush out perpetrators of the bomb attacks,” he says. “But instead of doing that, they’ve been harassing residents. The officers even go to residential houses and steal money and jewelry.”
Dumba Tankarani, the district criminal investigation officer at Pangani Police Station in Nairobi, gave a statement on TV during January denying allegations of police harassment of traders in Eastleigh.
“All the operations we conduct are legal,” he said. “The police officers who conduct the operations are led by senior officers. And the allegations that anything taken from the houses, I do not agree with that. What I know is that there is no one that has come to the office to report that their money has been stolen.”
The new spokesman for Kenya Police was not able to be reached for further comment. The Anti-Terror Police Unit also did not respond to requests for comment.
Mohamed says the attacks in Eastleigh may be the result of business rivalry or politics, not al-Shabab.
“I know al-Shabab’s ways of operation,” says Mohamed, who reported for Reuters in Somalia for six years on al-Shabab and Somalia’s war. “They always aim for maximum impact, so I highly doubt that they are the ones behind the attacks.”
Gutale says he suspects that rivals who want to destroy business in Eastleigh are behind the attacks. He says Garissa Lodge attracts many customers from East Africa who buy goods from the Somalis instead of from their local areas.
“There are business interests involved,” Gutale says. “If terrorists were behind the attacks, police would have arrested some of them by now. But no arrests have been made so far.”
The government formed a committee on Dec. 20, 2012, to investigate the attacks in Eastleigh, Gutale says. It comprises five business people from Eastleigh and five government officials. But it has not yet announced any findings, he says.
Duale says that the committee has not met once and is rather a political gimmick by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is running for president in the March elections.
“The committee has not had even a single sitting since it was formed,” Duale says. “I’m calling upon the prime minister to be a man of his words and ensure that this committee begins its work.”