The story of city land, the police, the army, and the restive Kenya ‘natives’

Wednesday July 04 2012

I attended a conference in Nairobi on Tuesday where, amongst others, civil rights activist Okiya Omtatah spoke.

Omtatah, who cautioned against the Turkana oil euphoria, said one way to create wealth in Nairobi (and the wider Kenya) is to look at a very critical natural resource, which is currently in the hands of the police and Kenya Army — land.

He cited reports that have calculated that in Nairobi alone, the land occupied by the police and army is about 50,000 acres. While these two entities are critical for security, he said, they don’t have to live in barracks in prime land around the city.

Kenya should do like other countries that have located large military barracks outside the cities. These 50,000 acres, he argued, should be allocated to housing, business buildings, industries, and infrastructure.

The economic pay-off for Kenya and Nairobi he said, would be huge. So what are those 50,000 acres worth? I am illiterate on land matters, so I asked a good man in Nairobi who lives and breathes land.

He told me that prices for an acre range from about Sh650 million in the Nairobi central business district to Sh15 million in the outskirts. He suggested I work with a conservative average of Sh150 million, by which the land held by the police and army in and around Nairobi would be worth Sh7.5 trillion.


At that price, it is probably worth more than Turkana oil; and that is before you throw in other precious lands inhabited by the police, army, and General Service Unit all over the country.

Which left the question: What happens if the police and army move out of Nairobi main? Omtatah said transporting the security officers wherever they are required would provide the same level of security.

It is what he said next that grabbed my attention more. The reason why there are police and army barracks on all the main approaches to Nairobi, he said, was the way the British colonialists conceived of their security.

The Governor, colonial officials, and other British expatriates used to live in the city centre and the near suburbs of Nairobi.

The “natives”, like in many other African countries during the early colonial period, lived far outside the city and sometimes needed passes to come to the city.

It helps to remember here that in the colonial days, the merchant and business classes in East African capitals were mostly of Asian descent. Most of them lived behind their shops or in apartments on the top floors.

Police and army barracks were situated in such a way that should the “natives” revolt and try and come to the city to attack and spear the colonial officials (and possibly even eat them as some of the colonisers feared), it would be easy to ring off the city quickly.

Thus the colonialists would be kept safely inside the city, and their angry subjects outside. Likewise, the merchants and their goods and shops would be safe.

With independence, things changed. No self-respecting politician or government official lives in a flat in the CBD.

The rich business people have also moved out of the CBD, and these days, the middle class shop in the malls — most of them in the suburbs.

So things have reversed, and it’s the poor and working class who live closer to the city in slums like Kibera where they can walk to work, while the rich and powerful are moving further and further away from the CBD.

Going by this, the best way to protect the rich and powerful would be for the big police and army barracks to follow them in the far suburbs.

To keep the barracks where they are now is to protect the people who are not the priority of the African state apparatus — the underclass!

Anyhow, the results of these changes can be quite interesting. During the post-election violence in early 2008, the location of the police barracks meant they were able to ring off the CBD from Museum Hill, Uhuru Park, Uhuru Highway, and so on.

Looters and arsonists couldn’t get to the CBD. However, there were virtually no people in the CBD.

In this case, you might argue that buildings got more protection than people during the PEV! Omtatah might have been on to something.

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