After years of progress, a deadly setback in Somalia

The New Yorker
Nairobi, Kenya

The bombing that killed over three hundred people in Mogadishu, on Saturday, signalled the resurgence of the Shabaab and the weakness of Somalia’s American-backed government (Photograph by Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP)

The district of Hodan, in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, exemplifies the city’s transformation in recent years. Visitors can find open-air pizza restaurants, ice-cream parlors and shisha bars, hotels and restaurants, barrow boys hawking bananas and mangoes, and taxis and cars honking their way through the throng. Pretty much every day is busy, but Saturdays are especially so. This past Saturday, a massive truck bomb detonated in Hodan, killing more than three hundred people, an unprecedented death toll in Somalia which may rise as bodies are hauled from the wreckage. Continue reading After years of progress, a deadly setback in Somalia

The judges who defied the president: why Kenya’s election is being rerun

New Statesman
Nairobi, Kenya


It’s a rare thing for a judge to become a folk hero, and rarer still for one to defy a president and overturn an election result – but that is what happened in Kenya last month. On 1 September, Chief Justice David Maraga – ascetic, God-fearing, 66 years old and with a perpetual look of mild amusement – declared President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 54 per cent victory in the August election to be “invalid, null and void”. The election commission was blamed for mishandling the presidential poll so badly (it was “neither transparent nor verifiable”) that it is scheduled to be run again on 26 October. Continue reading The judges who defied the president: why Kenya’s election is being rerun

Wildlife pays the price of Kenya’s illegal grazing

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Nairobi, Kenya

African wild dogs (AFP/Handout)

“It’s devastating. I’ve been following them every day of my life for the last year,” said Dedan Ngatia, a wild dog researcher in Kenya’s central Laikipia region. “They’re all dead.”

Months of invasions by sometimes armed semi-nomadic herders, and tens of thousands of their livestock, have had a disastrous impact on the wildlife of a region heralded as a conservation success story. Continue reading Wildlife pays the price of Kenya’s illegal grazing

Forgetting Westgate: how Kenya erases terrorism

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Nairobi, Kenya

Staff of the Nakumatt supermarket chain gather in front of candles lit to mark the second anniversary commemorations of the Westgate shopping mall attack by militants (Simon Maina/AFP)

On the inside Nairobi’s Westgate mall is a shiny shopping centre, all sparkling glass shop fronts, Bose-conveyed muzak and boutiques stuffed with expensive imports. On the outside it is a fortress.

Four years ago, Islamic militants raided the mall killing at least 67 people. They tossed grenades over the balustrade from the pavement then stormed through the front entrance and up the car parking ramp shooting as they went. The modus operandi was reminiscent of the Mumbai attacks five years earlier.

Yet Westgate has drifted into what Caine Prize-winning Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes as “our national propensity to amnesia for ‘bad things’.” Two years after the mall reopened, Westgate remains glossy and new, as if nothing happened. There’s plenty for the well-heeled shopper but not even a plaque for the dead. Continue reading Forgetting Westgate: how Kenya erases terrorism

In Kisumu

London Review of Books
Kisumu, Kenya

When people in Kisumu, in western Kenya, began voting on a Tuesday morning in early August it was more like a party than an election. At the Kenyatta Sports Ground, a large triangle of dirt and trees in the city centre, whistles blew, vuvuzelas honked and drums banged; there was shouting, laughing, singing, cheering, even dancing. Cigarette smoke and the smell of booze drifted up from boisterous clumps of young men. Other voters smiled and chatted as they queued in their hundreds, some with babies swaddled in polyester blankets. It was 4.45 in the morning, still dark and more than an hour before the polling stations were due to open, yet new arrivals were latecomers already. To work out which of the dozen growing lines of people they should join, they used the torchlights on their mobile phones to read lists of names taped to a breezeblock wall beside a sign declaring the availability of ‘Clean Executive Toilets & Bathroom’. At the front of each queue stood a police officer with an AK-type rifle. Behind each police officer, inside little pagoda tents, officials in yellow reflective vests branded IEBC (the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) worked by gaslight to prepare ballot boxes, papers and fingerprint-operated electronic voting machines. Continue reading In Kisumu

Flying in the face of danger

Mogadishu, Somalia

Having entered Somali airspace, aircraft dip to sea level; disembarking at Mogadishu (Photograph: Andrew Renneisen)

The passengers waiting to board at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport include a bunch of UN staffers, a couple of British diplomats and security contractors spottable by their shaved heads and tactical backpacks. The US ambassador to Somalia is also in the line, as are aid workers from a host of charities that are busy trying to alleviate Somalia’s latest drought. They’re all waiting for the morning flight to Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, operated by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS). This three-times-a-week service is a lifeline to one of the world’s most dangerous cities. With 70 aircraft in 17 countries and an operating budget of €205m this year, UNHAS is the biggest airline you’ve never heard of, and its rugged fleet ferries aid workers in and out of humanitarian crises all over the world.

Continue reading Flying in the face of danger

‘They’re like the mafia’: the super gangs behind Africa’s poaching crisis

The Guardian
Nairobi, Kenya

A wildlife service officer holds one of the ivory tusks used as evidence in the case against Feisal Mohamed Ali (AFP/Getty Images)

Late on 6 June 2014 Kenyan police, acting on a tip-off, raided a used car lot in Mombasa’s industrial area. Inside Fuji Motors East Africa Ltd, in one of the lock-ups, they found two tonnes of ivory.

Days earlier a white Mitsubishi truck, its paperwork claiming “household equipment” but in fact carrying more than 300 elephant tusks secreted beneath a tarpaulin, had pulled into the yard on Mombasa Island’s dirty northern fringe, far from the tourist hotels and beaches for which the city is famous. Continue reading ‘They’re like the mafia’: the super gangs behind Africa’s poaching crisis

Kenyan cattle herders defend ‘necessary’ land invasions

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Crocodile Jaw Bridge, Kenya

(AFP Photo)

Close by a narrow, rickety bridge in Kenya’s central Laikipia highlands two herders sit on blistering hot rock next to the muddy trickle of the Ewaso Nyiro river to explain why they routinely break the law, invading private land to graze their cattle.

“The reason we go there is not to grab the land, we go for pasture, nothing else,” says Lemerigi Letimalo, a 28-year-old Samburu herder in a Manchester United T-shirt with a mobile phone hanging in a pouch around his neck. “The white settlers are the ones who call the police forces to attack us,” he adds. Continue reading Kenyan cattle herders defend ‘necessary’ land invasions

Politics not pasture drives violence in Kenya’s heart

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Kamwenje, Kenya

Violence has spiked in Laikipia this year, with smallholder farms and huge ranches alike invaded by armed herders. (AFP Photo)

Footsteps came first, then unfamiliar voices, the smell of cow dung and the kicking in of the front door. Suddenly awake, John Mbogo wrapped his 11-year-old daughter Tabitha in his arms and rolled under the bed. His wife, Anne, crawled next to them, eyes wide.

Torchlight fell on the now empty beds and they saw naked legs smeared in manure, a “shuka” blanket rolled at the waist and the muzzle of a gun. Continue reading Politics not pasture drives violence in Kenya’s heart

Kenya’s Most Famous Critic of Politicians Runs for Political Office

The New Yorker
Nairobi, Kenya

Boniface Mwangi. Photograph by Daniel Irungu / EPA / Redux

On a March afternoon, as gray clouds gathered overhead, Boniface Mwangi procrastinated outside the walled Kariokor Market, in Nairobi, scrolling through text messages on his iPhone. Mwangi is thirty-four years old and a well-known political activist whose tactics frequently put him at the center of attention. On that day, however, he was entering the narrow, crowded alleys of the market not to protest government corruption—his signature issue—but to campaign for a seat in parliament, and he was nervous.

Continue reading Kenya’s Most Famous Critic of Politicians Runs for Political Office