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.

Photo: Getty
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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.