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How violence is manifested in Nairobi’s slums

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By Peter Alexander Albrecht

Structural violence is a mainstay of social life for many inhabitants in Nairobi’s slums, where poverty, combined with the need to make a living, force many people to choose a criminal career. The permanent livelihood insecurity and lack of opportunity that many people face, and must find ways to navigate, in turn impacts directly on the levels of physical violence that they experience. A 2006 survey noted “as many as 63% of slum households report that they do not feel safe inside their settlement […] At least one person [per] household [reported] actual experience of a criminal incident over the previous twelve months”.

As explained by a young man in one of Nairobi’s oldest slum, Mathare: ‘In every family there is a gangster, a prostitute and a street kid.’ Moreover, many households are single parent, and children are from an early age expected to contribute financially to sustain the family. In short, overall social inequality, and the poverty and social marginalisation that underpin it, contribute to a context in slum areas where physical violence is expected, and even accepted as a condition of social life. On the flipside, this also means that inhabitants in an area like Mathare use aggression as a survival strategy, and a way of asserting oneself: ‘they know you are gangster – they must know that you are aggressive.’

Unsurprisingly, state-sanctioned policing plays a central, but also ambivalent role in how security is experienced by the population. On one level, they are considered an aggressor. ‘The way they [i.e., the police] treat you in estates [where the middle class lives]’, one interviewee in Mathare noted, ‘is different from the slums. The people in the estates, they are asked, while in the ghetto they are brutalized.’ And indeed, ‘the main aggressor,’ it was noted, ‘is the government and that is the police and the city council.’ This is reflected in levels of extra-judicial killings that are considered to be both high and systematized, and connected to issues of land-grabbing, which in turn involve collaboration between landowners, chiefs, the city council and the police. In 2015 (January – December), the Independent Medical-Legal Unit (IMLU) recorded 126 deaths at the hands of Kenyan law enforcement, the majority taking place in Nairobi. Three-quarters (77%) of the victims were summarily executed, disproportionately targeting men.

In turn, extra-judicial killings relate to the general ethos that is perceived to prevail within the police. As one human rights NGO worker noted, the ‘police has never changed, they still insist that their main target is the people; people are the enemy.’ Hence, the saying in Swahili, which remains prevalent within the police today, especially in poor urban settlements: ‘adui wa polisi ni raia, rafiki wa polisi ni bunduki’ – ‘the enemy of the police is the public, the friend of the police is the gun.’ A similar sentiment was expressed in Mathare, as one interviewee noted referring to police brutality: ‘the system is the same that the colonial government used.’ Public-police relations are further complicated by an intricate and sometimes symbiotic relationship between the police and criminals where the latter in some cases bribe the former. This makes marginalized groups exceptionally vulnerable: ‘when they [i.e., the criminals] outgrow their purpose, they are killed by the police.’

Police brutality and community violence/crime rates in general have had a number of practical consequences in how inhabitants of Mathare navigate security. First, local groups have started to actively pursue criminals and hand them over to the police to limit police presence in the slums. Second, inhabitants seek to ‘export’ crime outside the area in which they live. As one interviewee put it: ‘we try to bring change to the community, no more crime, no more violence – go and do your bad things, not within the slums, outside the slums, and we will hide them [the criminals]. They go to the middle class.’

One another level, side-by-side with the grievances against the police, there is also an understanding, even some appreciation, of the police’s violent response to crime and criminals. It is a means to an end in a state system where bribes often get criminals released from detention if they are not dealt with immediately. It was a general assumption among interviewees that poverty causes crime and that it has been on the increase, which in turn makes police brutality more necessary, if not acceptable. ‘The public [in general],’ one NGO worker noted, ‘has that kind of anger against the criminals, so when the police shoot, whether innocent or not, they assume that something good has happened, because they have been terrorized by the criminals.’ This sentiment was to some extent prevalent both inside and outside the slums. It was directly linked to perceived weaknesses of the judiciary in terms of corruption, but also in terms of its slow pace and efficient handling of court cases. Thus, violence, also when resulting in death, may in certain circumstances be considered quick and efficient.

This rationale was equally expressed with respect to mob justice and lynching. In Kangemi – an area on the outskirts of Nairobi with a little over 100,000 residents – lynching was described as a common occurrence, taking place up to an estimated three times per month. In Kangemi the police was described as inefficient rather than violent, and mob justice was considered a community response: ‘the area where I come from, we depend on one another, because if we go to the police, it takes time before they come, and if any crime is committed, they come when everything is finished. So we have a system: if we catch a thief, he is not taken to the police, and we take justice into own hands.’ Rarely will the police make arrests following a lynching. ‘I never saw a follow-up,’ one inhabitant of Kangemi noted, ‘the police come and take the body, write a state, take a photo – just to show that they are concerned.’

What the inhabitants of Nairobi’s slums are left with is a fundamental reliance on personalized or localized security arrangements against both internal and external threats. This does not mean that the provision of security is disorganized, but it does mean that multiple actors simultaneously assert claims on the use of force, and often does so in a violent manner.

This blog post is based on research conducted in Nairobi during March as part of the ‘Plural Security Insights’ project. It draws on data collected during fieldwork for the report Hustling for Security: managing plural security in Nairobi’s poor urban settlements.

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