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'Nairobbery' grapples with pre-Christmas crime wave

29 November 2013, 08:16

Nairobi - Sydney advertising executive Patrick Richer led the typical Nairobi expatriate lifestyle, living in a home in a leafy part of the city, protected by high walls and round-the-clock security.

But on a November weekend tragedy struck: a gang of least 10 men cut their way through a back fence, tied up his guards and raided his home in the early hours of the morning, hoping to lay their hands on a bonanza of cash, jewellery and consumer goods.

Richer, 39, was shot twice at close range, and taken to hospital by his wife. He was declared dead on arrival. The thieves were dressed in police uniforms and made off with a television, laptops and phones, reports said.

The case, while shocking, came amid what appears to be a worsening pattern in Nairobi: a pre-Christmas crime wave carried out by thieves who are increasingly prepared to use lethal violence.

"Over the past 10 years or so there's been an upsurge in crime in November and at the beginning of December, followed by a downturn in January," Rocky Hitchcock, security consultant at KK Security, one of Nairobi's biggest private security firms, told AFP.

"For the festive period Kenyans go back to their rural homes. When they get there they are expected to dispense gifts. It's a cultural African thing. You're taking hospitality and so you need to give them something," Hitchcock explained.

Hitchcock said the seasonal crime wave was now known in the security business as "Christmas shopping" -- with burglaries and carjackings targeting expatriates and wealthy Kenyans on the up.

Nairobi, which has over the years earned the unfortunate moniker "Nairobbery", has one of the biggest wealth gaps of any city in the world.

The rich live in mansions set on landscaped lawns, protected from the world outside by electric fences, private guards and piercing electronic alarm systems. Most big houses are equipped with bars and grills protecting doors and windows, and some have safe rooms offering a last point of retreat.

But across the city are also sprawling slums, where millions live in shacks lacking even the most basic amenities. Each day young men head into the city or industrial areas hoping to secure casual work, and public parks and roadsides are crowded with the disenfranchised, sprawled full-length in the grass.

"People are getting hungrier and hungrier," said Mwalimu Mati, who heads the Mars Group -- a civil society, political and anti-corruption watchdog. He said he had received reports of a rise in shoplifting for food across the country.

"There is that kind of a spike over Christmas because wealthier people start to travel and so you get burglaries. Where we are there have been several house invasions. The security office is quite worried."

Influx of guns

Although crime levels are seen as being roughly similar to those seen at the same period in previous years, armed robberies appear to be on the rise, according to the private security sector.

"It's partly due to porous borders with Somalia that allow weapons through," explained Hitchcock of KK Security.

John Ogembo, who works as a guard at a residential house in an upmarket district of Nairobi, but lives a few kilometres (miles) away in the city's crowded Kangemi slum, said criminals were becoming more and more bold.

"There are the really dangerous guys who seem not to fear police and can do carjackings and house invasions, but there are also smaller criminals looking for a place they can sneak into and get away with what they can carry... money, electronics, even a nice pair of shoes," he said.

"Everyone wants to have drink and roasted goat at Christmas, and people in the slums have children too."

One particular crime hotspot is Karen, a wealthy suburb southwest of the city dotted with colonial-era homes on vast plots of land. An entire street of houses there was attacked recently, with the exception of the home of Vice-President William Ruto, whose residence is guarded by elite police.

In addition, security sources say that members of the security forces, both serving and retired, are increasingly involved in violent crime. The lowest-paid police officers earn less than 200 dollars a month.

Police service reform was one of the cornerstones of Kenya's 2010 constitution, after it transpired that many of the more than 1,100 people who were killed during the violence that followed the disputed 2007 election fell victim to police brutality.

Analysts say that with an underpaid, poorly trained force and a standoff underway between the force and the civilian body that is supposed to oversee it as part of the reform package, police involvement in crime will continue.

"In the end it's hardly surprising," said one Kenyan executive, who was recently the victim of a carjacking and house robbery.

"When you look at the conditions that the police officers live in and the peanuts they are paid, why shouldn't they resort to crime. In the same position I would do the same thing."



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