COVID-19: Setting the stage for radicalization into violent extremism in Pumwani, Kenya

By Francis Kinyua, Kamukunji, Community Empowerment Initiative

Pumwani, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, has in the past been depicted as hub of radicalization for youth turning to the Somali militant group al-Shabab. The situation changed due to preventing/countering violent extremism (PCVE) interventions by different groups. However, due to reduced business in Gikomba market caused by COVID-19, fire outbreaks and demolition of businesses and residential premises, the stage is set for extremist groups to manipulate local grievances to gain position and traction.

Gikomba market is the most vibrant economic center in Pumwani area. For a decade, Omar has been selling second-hand clothes, locally known as mitumba, at Gikomba market in Nairobi. Nothing has posed a greater threat to his business than COVID-19. Although high political tensions during election campaigns and frequent fires at the Gikomba market have been trying, for the first time businesses have taken a massive hit, with some considering temporary closures.

“The number of customers has gone down. We are also no longer getting clothes from our usual source. We deal in clothes from China, which are preferred by customers because they are affordable,” said Omar. “A few days after the virus began spreading, stocks from China disappeared from the market.” He further added that many customers are scared of going to the market because of crowding, while others want nothing to do with products from China. “But we have to persevere because we depend on what we earn here to cater for our daily needs. We must work in order to eat.” Effects of the lockdown, implemented following the COVID-19 outbreak, are being felt by Pumwani youth as traders in Gikomba market deplete their stock.

“I did not even have the chance to secure my belongings. All I am left with are these clothes that I am wearing,” John, a father of two, said amidst tears. The latest setback came after his business  was razed down during the dawn fire at the largest open air market in Nairobi on early Thursday morning. “Where does one go from here? I’ve lost everything and the government does not seem to care,” Salim, who sells boiled maize, said.

A day after a section of Gikomba market was burnt down, a double tragedy unfolded for dozens of families at Gikomba market after they were evicted on Friday night and their houses were demolished overnight under police supervision. A resident says: “An excavator arrived at around 10am with a contingent of NYS officers and Administration Police.” An angry youth explains: “The demolition sets me back to ground zero after quitting crime to start a second-hand clothes business.”

Pumwani has a population of about thirty-thousand people with some 60% comprising of youth  between the ages of 18-35 years. Unemployment here is high with most youth doing odd jobs to earn a living. Pumwani youth relegated to informal and short-term labor as casuals, porters and garbage collectors in Gikomba market are now left jobless due to COVID-19 and the reduced business in the market. The dwindling economic opportunities in Gikomba market are rendering vulnerable Pumwani youth at risk of joining organized crime and being radicalized into violent extremism to ebb away their bitterness, disappointment, frustration and disillusionment.

For instance, a group of youth in Pumwani who lost their casual work as porters in Gikomba due to reduced business caused by COVID-19, fire and demolition, regrouped and forcefully evicted another group of youth which was managing public toilet No. 43 commonly known as Angola base. The situation has created a lot of tension between the groups as they plan to challenge each other for management of the public toilet which is charged per use (a dollar per month for residents and 0.1 $ per visit for non-residents).

The clients who utilize the public toilet No. 43’s services are at odds with some supporting the group that took over, while others are supporting the former group. Toilet No. 43 or Angola base,  was previously an operational base and focal point for recruitment and radicalization of young men into violent extremism which often spreads through localized conflict in which extremist groups manipulate local grievances to gain position and traction. The high level of Muslim sectarianism in Pumwani provides entry points for violent extremist groups, who can manipulate Pumwani community-youth grievances such as lack of a source of income and Muslim religious divides to their advantage.