Nairobi lives in fear in aftermath of double grenade attack

Expats can hide behind metal detectors and armed guards, but local people fear for their lives.

A matatu stage [bus stop] is one of the busiest, loudest, most confusing places a stranger to Nairobi can find themselves. Thousands of locals jostle for position to navigate the city's notorious rush hour. But shortly after 8pm on Monday (24 October), was a different story. The usually crowded Kaka terminus in central Nairobi was almost eerily quiet. Camouflaged soldiers lingered, hands on guns, talking quietly amongst themselves. A few metres away, security men redirected traffic and prevented interested bystanders from entering the terminus-cum-crime scene.

Monday saw the second grenade attack in Nairobi in less than 24 hours, but the first fatal one. Eyewitness reports described how the grenade was thrown at a full matatu, but bounced off and landed in a crowd of people attempting to enter various vehicles. The grenade exploded as it hit the ground, killing one and injuring thirteen others, mostly below the waist. Commuters took the full brunt of the blast. It came barely 18 hours after a man hurled a grenade into a busy Mwaura's nightclub on Mfangano Lane, injuring 14 people.

It is only three weeks since I took a drink in Mwaura's, a very local venue visited by working class Kenyans on account of its cheap alcohol. The place was little more than a dive, a rundown crevasse in the wall where ordinary Kenyans drank and socialised. And that is the theme of these attacks thus far. Though the US embassy warned last week that they had "credible" information that bars and shopping malls frequented by westerners could be targeted, the sites of the two grenades have been soft targets used by local Kenyans on a regular basis. While security has been stepped up in the more upmarket venues, it is almost impossible to adequately police local bars, markets and transport hubs. Concerned expatriates have been able to hide behind metal detectors and armed security guards, but local people going about their local business now fear for their lives. The relatively small period of time between attacks suggest those responsible are going for maximum impact.

This effect was seen yesterday morning, with fewer than normal making it into work on time or at all, presumably fearing a repeat performance. Nairobi is on high alert, and the fear is there for all to see. After Kenyan troops entered neighbouring Somalia last week, a military plane in the skies of Nairobi drew a banner declaring: "Defending Kenya". But what has become clear is that, though the police and Red Cross were on the scene with extraordinary speed on Monday, there is no protecting Nairobi's people when the perpetrators of this terror can strike anywhere at any time.

Who is responsible is still open for debate. Al-Shabaab, the Islamist terror organisation that Kenyan troops are seeking in Somalia, have not claimed responsibility as they have for previous attacks in the region. In the wake of last week's invasion, al-Shabaab leaders promised that Nairobi would experience real terror if Kenyan troops did not leave Somalia. It presently seems more likely that Kenya-based Somali sympathisers with al-Shabaab are behind the attacks, acting in accord with the public statements of the group's leaders rather than from direct orders. This was the topic of much whispered conversation on Monday evening.

Nairobi has a large Somali population, many of them students living in the Eastleigh area. Nicknamed "little Mogadishu" because of its high population of Somalian residents, it is now braced for a crackdown that will affect innocent Somalis as well as those with al-Shabaab connections. "We wake up prepared for a day and a time like this," said one resident. "When world events will shape the daily livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands living in this little corner of Nairobi." Comments on the Daily Nation's report of the blasts included vitriol such as "It is very difficult to trust a Somali" and "This is the time the non-Kenyan Somalis be removed from Kenya". Reports of police patrolling the area asking for identity cards have already surfaced. Arrests have occurred in Malindi and Nakuru. It is probable that the difficulties of properly identifying al-Shabaab sympathisers will foster an atmosphere of resentment against Somali residents in Kenya.

Nairobi today lives in fear. My taxi driver home told me that "people are scared, and people will be scared to go out in darkness". Security has been stepped up across the city, but nobody can escape the feeling that a repeat of yesterday's violence is possible anywhere, at any time.

Tom Jackson is a British journalist working for a news agency in Nairobi.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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