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Eastleigh sheds ‘terror hotbed’ label, one year after crackdown

Sunday October 18, 2015


 Ben Mungami, Director of Kwa Mzairwa Restaurant in Eastleigh, Nairobi. His hotel had been bombed a year ago. But he says that there is no more tension in the area. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Ben Mungami sits next to a raised stool near the door to his eatery, a wad of notes in one hand and receipts in the other.

It is Friday evening in Eastleigh’s Eleventh Street and customer traffic is high at Kwa Mzairwa Restaurant.

On the night of April 1 last year, two grenades were hurled into the restaurant and another a few blocks away, killing eight people and injuring many more.

What followed was the largest operation yet by the government to flush out illegal immigrants and suspected Al-Shaabab terrorists.

When Operation Usalama Watch was eventually scaled down, the vibrant “Little Mogadishu” was on the brink of collapse.

Massive job losses set in as businesses closed down, landlords stared at vacant houses, and the population was on tenterhooks.

It is 18 months since the twin restaurant attacks and Eastleigh, once seen as a hotbed of terrorism, is buzzing again.

Previously deserted houses are now fully occupied and Mr Dennis Maina, an agent for a block of flats on Seventh Street, whom the Sunday Nation interviewed in June last year at the height of the crackdown, is now happy and optimistic.

“Only four houses out of 30 are unoccupied, and that is because the tenants vacated them recently. A few people have come to look for houses. In a few weeks, we should have full occupancy,” he said.

NO TENSION

Mr Maina, who gets paid on a commission basis, was on the verge of despair after the occupancy level fell to 10 per cent during the crackdown. Even slashing the rent to Sh20,000 from Sh25,000 did not seem to help matters.

On Friday, Garrisa Lodge was a hive of activity. Crowds weaved through the shopping malls it is famous for as hawkers hustled for customers. Occasionally, a preacher would be seen in the streets.

Business operators said the environment was good, once again.

“I have lost count of how many people come to the restaurant on a given day because they are so many, both Somalis and non-Somalis.

The tension that used to exist is gone,” said Mr Mungami, owner of Kwa Mzairwa restaurant.

Mr Hussein Robba, chairman of Eastleigh Residents Association, says the community switched to tackling extremism using a bottoms-up approach after realising that the top-down approach favoured by the government was not working.

“Even at the height of Operation Usalama Watch, a car bomb exploded at Pangani Police Station, the nerve centre of the area, killing four people. The community was at the time not supporting the bottom-up policy,” he said.

SECURITY IMPROVED

To work with the authorities and the youth, the residents were grouped into clusters, each with a chairman, secretary and security official.

“The chairman is responsible for the welfare of the people on a particular street, the secretary is in charge of knowing the number of people living there, while the security person identifies potential threats,” he said.

From the basic street level, the three prepare a report at the end of every month which is forwarded to the ward chairman.

The ward chairmen are then supposed to submit the reports to the chief by the seventh day of every month, after which the chairmen meet the chief and discuss the issues.

The resolutions reached are passed on.

Every mosque and church has a representative at ward level. Being a predominantly Muslim community, the Imams have tried to harmonise the madrassa curriculum.

“For long, Muslim leaders have been accused of keeping quiet as some mosques get turned into radicalisation centres,” said Sheikh Jafaar Abdukaril.

“We took it upon ourselves to give a counter narrative through the mosques and radio stations,” said the Sheikh, who also gives talks against radicalisation on the local Muslim Radio Station.

A new police station donated by the county government in March has improved security. Residents and the police now hold certain events together.


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