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Bandits and thieves
Published: 01-MAR-01

Rising crime in Nairobi has forced the United Nations to downgrade the city's security status, putting it on a par with unsafe destinations around the world where its staff are required to work.

The International Civil Service Com- mission, the body that regulates the conditions of service for United Nations employees, downgraded the city from a B category to C following the results of a study on crime and security in Nairobi. The city is the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Centre for Human Settlements.

Over the past three years, the UN office in Nairobi recorded 604 incidents in which the lives of staff were endangered in Nairobi. Of these, 333 incidents occurred last year.

The new rating means that Nairobi is seen as more of a hardship station than Colombian capital Bogota, a city plagued by drug-related violence and kidnappings, or Jerusalem, a city frequently rocked by Israeli-Palestinian violence. The Kenyan capital has been placed alongside Maputo, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar-es-Salaam, Djibouti, Lilongwe and Maseru.

The new classification has irked the Kenyan government which has been trying to boost tourism.

Marsden Madoka, the Minister of State (Internal Security), says what amounts to the blacklisting of Nairobi might send the wrong signals to people planning to visit the country. "No doubt this will injure our tourist industry, though Nairobi is much safer than most cities in our present ranking," he says.

However, recently released police statistics, designed to show that crime in Nairobi is decreasing, instead show a picture of an unsafe city.

While violent robberies and carjacking dropped by 16 percent from 3,618 incidents in 1999 to 3,227 last year, assault cases rose by 80 percent from 931 incidents to 1,679 last year. Murder dropped by 20 percent to 230 last year from 290 the previous year; burglaries dropped by four percent from 2,304 cases in 1999 to 2,214 last year while rape cases rose by six percent, from 155 to 165.

However, this is just the tip of the ice- berg, since only eight rape cases out of 100 are reported to the police, according to Pathfinder International which recently carried out a survey on sexual violence in Nairobi.

The increase in violent crime in Nairobi is partly the result of a proliferation of handguns into Kenya from war-torn Somalia, southern Sudan and the Great Lakes Region.

Safe areas are getting fewer in Nairobi. Gangs armed with sophisticated hand weapons are on the increase and some of them are not afraid to get involved in shoot-outs with police.

Upmarket estates that were once safe have become targets of gun-wielding robbers. Recently, armed robbers raided an upmarket estate adjacent to the UNEP compound, attacking the family of an employee of the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry.

Although anyone in Nairobi is a potential target, UN employees are high risk targets as it is assumed they are well paid and they own decent cars, says Tore Brevik, the UN spokesman in Nairobi. "House break-ins have also become common and we have asked our 860 internationally recruited staff to get home before dark," he says.

Between 1998 and 2000, three UN staffers were shot dead in separate incidents. In the past three years, 50 UN employees have been robbed of their cars at gunpoint.

These are the type of incidents that have led to the city getting a safety rating just a notch above Baghdad, currently under UN sanctions, or East Tomorese capital Dili, a city often under siege from armed militia.

The increase in violent crime in Nairobi is partly the result of a proliferation of handguns into Kenya from war-torn Somalia, southern Sudan and the Great Lakes Region. Stolen pick- ups are usually sold to warlords in Somalia. They are fitted with machine- guns and transformed into crude but efficient battle vehicles.

Robbers also target four-wheel drive vehicles, which are commonly favoured by UN staff because of the poor roads. The vehicles are dismantled for spare parts or taken to the Great Lakes region, particularly the rebel-held territory in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The situation has made UN operations in Kenya costly. The UN has made special arrangements with city police to have several officers on standby every day to assist should UN staff need them. In case of distress calls, the UN sends vehicles to collect the officers and take them to the scene of the crime. To operate outside Nairobi, even to distribute relief food, the UN has to pay for a police escort.

A UN security map indicates that three-quarters of the country is unsafe. Additional insurance cover is given to those travelling to districts prone to banditry and cattle rustling. The UN World Food Programme and UN High Commissioner for Refugees have a strong presence in such areas.

But despite all the problems, the UN is in Nairobi to stay. Says Brevik: "We are not going to relocate. We love Kenya and will remain working in Nairobi."

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