The recent Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya (September 2013) has tended to highlight insecurity in that country. The current situation owes its roots to the ongoing insecurity in Somalia, a situation that has its origins in the 1991 coup against General Mohammed Siad Barre, which set in motion and interlocking phase of warfare, warlordism and general insecurity in Somalia that has persisted more or less unchanged until the present day. The current boget on the map is the al-Qaeda associated militant group Al-Shabaab, a splinter group of the earlier Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which grew in strength from a general breakdown of law and order following the 1991 coup, and the gradual proliferation thereafter of sharia-based Islamic law as an alternative.
In a nutshell, though, a state of general insecurity and the complete collapse of organized government as occurred in Somalia after 1991 is an open invitation to anyone one, or any group, with an interest in fringe ideology, or the simple spread of anarchy and criminality. All of this has been true at one time or another for Somalia. The current complexion of insecurity is Islamic fundamentalism, but the simple criminality of piracy and kidnapping for ransom has been no less devastating on the direction of Somalia and its perception as an African failed state.
On September 11, 2011, gunmen stormed a bungalow on Kiwayu island, Kenya, shooting dead British publishing executive David Tebbutt and taking his wife Judith hostage. Judith Tebutt was then removed to a hideout in Somalia. Police suspected that militants with the Al-Shabaab Islamist group were responsible, and the following month launched Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country) in what was really an ill advised military adventure in Somali that had all about it the character of a military quagmire.
Be that as it may, on March 21, 2012, Judith Tebbutt’s captors released her after her family reportedly paid a ransom, and her particular chapter of captivity was put behind her, but Kenyan forces remain in Somali, which is an open invitation for Al Shabaan to extend its Jihad into Kenya, evidenced by the attacks this week against Nairobi.
Kenya has one big, fat, soft target that is almost beyond the scope of military or police protection, her tourist industry. A vacation will be no vacation at all if it is accompanied by armed security from airport to airport, but if tourists in Kenya are to be protected from random attacks of this nature, then one supposes that this is the only solution.
I personally have never liked Kenya. Yes it is a beautiful country, and yes it is a natural Garden of Eden on many levels, but it is also corrupt, predatory and grasping. Everybody from a taxi driver to a local security guard is alert for opportunities to lift a few pennies, or a few dollars, or more from your pocket, and while to a certain extent this is to be expected in Africa, in Kenya it is a national disease. Take as an example the discovery after the Westgate Mall incident that the police anti-hostage unit was removed from the mall soon after the siege had begun to be replaced by the army. Under the anonymity of an armed cordon high end clothing, electronics and jewelry shops were looted as a matter of priority before troops began to concern themselves with attending to the crisis at hand. This, I am afraid to say, is very Kenyan indeed.
Tanzania, on the other hand, could hardly be more different. The 1998 Al-Qaeda US Embassy bombings in Dar-es-Salaam and Kenya were without doubt an act of insecurity, but in general I have always found Tanzania to be largely free of petty street crime, free of Kenya-style nit-picking larceny and certainly free of the kind of politicized violence and insecurity that is likely to occur anywhere within a two hundred mile radius of any Somali frontier. I am not entirely sure why Tanzania is so different – possibly it is about ethnic characteristics, but possibly also because of the religious demographics of the country, it is hard to say. I have had many discussions with high profile local Muslims in Tanzania, and sense coming from them is that, whatever image the fundamentalist fringes of Islam give of the faith, on a street level, societies with a high Muslim demographic tend to have very low street crime, and in general I have found this to be true.
It is also true that most criminal gangs in Tanzania are Kenyan, and most organized poaching is Kenyan.
On my recent MS Expedition cruise up the coast of West Africa, an elderly passenger made the cardinal error in a Banjul market of paying for a $25 item with a $100 note and agreeing to wait while the vendor went off in search of change. When I was called to help I asked her if he had been Muslim, and she replied that he was, which gave me some confidence, and indeed, within half an hour, the vendor had returned with $75 in grubby US$ bills.
You cannot universally rely on this, but as a rule of thumb I have rarely been let down. In almost all of the major Tanzania cities it is possible to walk from one end to the other without being harassed or robbed – usually – but try that in Nairobi, in Harare or even in Johannesburg and there will be some incident to report.
Tanzania is a very safe destination, and if the growing insecurity in Kenya has the effect of driving tourism south to Tanzania that will be both an excellent thing and perfectly justified. I have been visiting Tanzania for more than thirty years and I have never been directly associated with an incident of crime, violence or insecurity. Not once. I think that is a fairly impressive record for a country, even if it is only recorded on a personal level.