Looming Election Threatens to Shatter Kibera’s Relative Peace Once Again

Nairobi | 02/18/2013 9:12am
Sam Sturgis | Informal City Dialogues

“[President] Kibaki was announced the winner at 6 p.m. By 6:01 the entire slum went dark. By 6:02 all you could see was red light coming from the roofs. The fires had started.”

Grabbing her cell phone in the dark, Asha Ngotwa quickly climbed to her own roof – the nearby shanty homes being set ablaze didn’t dissuade her from climbing higher for better phone service. She needed to make sure her family members were okay.

She also wanted a better view of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement and the only place Ngotwa has ever called home. The light coming from the engulfed shanty homes provided her with shadows of “what I thought was a swarm of black birds,” she explains, chuckling now in hindsight. As the fires grew, however, the sight gave way to a more concerning revelation: Kikuyu and Luo residents, two of Kenya’s largest ethnic communities and historic political rivals, were throwing stones at each other – the Kikuyus proud victors, the Luos now dejected losers.

Kenya’s 2007 election dispute would result in a devastating ripple of violence and humanitarian need that extended far beyond Kibera. An estimated 1,300 were left dead throughout the country, over 600,000 were forced into internally displaced camps and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had to mediate a power-sharing agreement between the two presidential candidates. Moreover, ethnic tensions between Kenyan tribes escalated — along with your ethnicity you also carried a presumed political affiliation that could possibly cost you your life depending on where you traveled.

Five years later, however, it’s difficult to picture Kibera, despite its immense poverty, in such strife that the United Nations had to initiate a massive food-distribution program.

Today, not only is Kibera’s electricity back up and running, but Ms. Ngotwa, rather than squatting on a corrugated roof amidst a mob of angry youths, is sitting comfortably on a leather couch surrounded by the beautifully decorated hostel she operates in Olympic, one of the many neighborhoods that make up Kibera. With two buildings on the lot, her hostel is a spacious rarity within Nairobi’s most densely populated area, and according to her, its doors are open to any of Kenya’s 42 tribes.

“I buy anything from any tribe as long as they offer quality,” she explains, adding that it would simply be bad business to prohibit people of certain tribes from staying at her hostel. This business-first mentality can be found throughout the informal settlement’s creative income generators, and is part of the reason The Economist once characterized the slum as possibly “the most entrepreneurial place on the planet” and “a thriving economic machine.”

But an economic and social shock is looming. With only two weeks remaining until Kenya’s next presidential election, the tribal prejudices that appear to be absent from the slum’s merchant class – in its restaurants, shops and hotels – may be poised to surface yet again at the ballot box.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report issued earlier this month emphasized that election-related concerns stemming from 2007 have been swept under the rug. “Underlying causes of past election-related violence remain in place,” the report states, and ethnic tensions appear to lie dormant in Kibera’s everyday life.

Prior to 2007, Fiona Atieno worked for a successful women’s clothing designer, a stable job that was much more lucrative than her current gig selling women’s jewelry on the street. Atieno, who is of the Luo tribe, recalls that her job security vanished when presidential candidate Raila Odinga, also a Luo, disputed the 2007 election results – arguing that the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, stole the presidency from him.

“I lost my job because I wasn’t of the same tribe as my employers,” Atieno claims, her presumed political affiliation to Odinga making her an instant liability to her Kikuyu employers. After five years of reconciliation programs, a new constitution and numerous “one tribe” campaigns, Atieno believes that festering ethnic tensions remain, even if they’re hard to detect in the slum’s individual business dealings. “Tribalism is here, just no one is openly claiming it,” she concludes.

Edwin Karanja, an employee with one of Kibera’s only media production companies, believes that the slum’s residents can be manipulated politically when elections are held. The informal economy, on the other hand, has the tendency to reflect everyone’s interests regardless of tribe.

For instance, “Nearly all of Kibera’s butcheries are operated by members of one tribe,” he says. “Yet all tribes buy the meat and appreciate the service they offer because they do it the best.” When it comes to voting, however, “Even if we know the leader is bad, it’s better if he’s one of our own,” Karanja explains, a mindset that often leads to the type of unrest that is rarely seen between elections.

With March 4 growing ever closer, things are looking highly unpredictable in Kibera, and the sense of volatility is equally high in other informal areas of Nairobi. Riots and police brutality were reported in Kibera last month during the primary elections – police officials even targeted journalists during the mayhem. Moreover, a Kibera peace initiative has publicly expressed concern about the current political stability of the slum.

But when it comes to buying earrings or getting your suit tailored, business as usual continues along Kibera’s trash-strewn roads. The only interruption to the relative peace appears to occur at the ballot box. When asked whether she would ever discriminate against a customer based on their tribe, Fiona Atieno was taken aback. “Of course not!” she said. “As long as we don’t have to talk politics.”