Skip to content

The insecurities of security provision in Nairobi’s margins


On 22 March 2016, in a span of just a few hours, one person was stabbed, another burned alive, and another beheaded in Mlango Kubwa ward in Mathare, Nairobi. Two of those deaths could loosely be categorised as the result of “enforcing security”.

Piecing together what happened from residents, we were able to surmise that a man who had stabbed his friend to death was caught by the police, who then released him to a crowd of people that preferred the immediacy of “mob justice”. The burning of this man by the group then provoked a revenge attack by his friends, who killed a resident implicated in his death.

This single incident involves some of the main security actors and their extreme enforcement practices operating in the margins of Nairobi. It also highlights one of the paradoxes faced by those living in these densely populated poor settlements: the insecurities associated with security provision. Adding to the complexity of security provision in Mathare are the interventions by village elders, youth groups, CBOs and NGOs and family and friends, all of whom are cited as actors who offer some form of local protection. In these marginal areas, where high levels of insecurity prevail, an overbearing policing system, mob justice, and innovative resident protection practices operate side-by-side.

Our research, conducted in Mathare in 2016, sought to understand why security incidents like those of 22 March are not an anomaly in Nairobi’s poor urban settlements, and to understand the plethora of non-state actors and practices that have emerged to prevent and mitigate them. The intention was to imagine more just security collaborations between state and plural security actors in Nairobi, based on empirical research, and as part of a comparative analysis that also included case studies in Beirut and Tunis.

The core of our research was a participatory action survey in each of the six wards in Mathare, complimented by interviews and conversations. In total, it amassed the views of some 420 residents on the security situation which, without a doubt, reflected their local experiences and wider national political and socio-economic concerns.

Particular ward histories, reflecting class dynamics and geographical location, informed which security issues were raised in the surveys. These factors also influenced residents’ decisions about who to turn to for security. For the most part, the two most cited actors called on for protection were the police and vigilante groups. Paradoxically, both of these actors were also the most distrusted. For example, in the village of Mlango Kubwa, 76% of the respondents said that they would contact the police if they needed protection and 32% said vigilante groups. Simultaneously, 42% of respondents identified the police as the most distrusted security actor, while 40% chose vigilante groups.

The multitude of security actors in Nairobi’s marginal areas means that it is difficult to generalise about how security is enforced. The intensity of insecurity can vary from one situation to another and from time to time. A frequently cited moment of intense insecurity was in the period leading up to the country’s general elections.

Notwithstanding the entanglements of security actors and practices that blur the boundaries between legal and illegal, most of the Mathare residents that participated in the research expressed optimism regarding local plural security actors and state security agencies working together to provide security for all. Their practical suggestions as to how this could happen can be summarised in four areas:

Dialogue: Regular meetings between the police and all community members to discuss safety issues openly, to improve communication and accountability, and chart a new way forward.

Trust: The trust necessary for collaboration with the police would require the police to stop taking bribes and colluding with criminals, to offer protection to residents who give them information, and to work with human rights organizations. The vigilante groups should also conform to these same standards.

Security infrastructure: More security lighting, better roads, and fire and ambulance services.

Economic: Employment for youth would prevent them from engaging in criminal activity.

In addition to this, we also witnessed many robust community protection efforts conducted by actors often absent from mainstream security literature. These included women’s rights defenders and street youth and children, amongst others. It is our heartfelt wish that these determined and innovative protection practices by communities on the margins should not be overshadowed by events such as those of 22 March. Moreover, we hope that these experiences will offer a basis from which to improve safety conditions for all for these communities living in the poor margins of the city of Nairobi.

Wangui Kimari and Peris Jones are independent research consultants who contributed to Plural Security Insights case study on Nairobi, developed in partnership with Rift Valley Institute.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>