Nairobi is back to normal after a confusing afternoon of city rioting that proved less serious than first reported throughout the world.
Because the march by about 50 young Muslim youths following Friday prayers at Nairobi’s main mosque was a surprise, news reporters were not on the scene. Virtually all of the reporting came after the shots had been fired that killed between one and five people, possibly including one policeman.
Police were on the scene, and that’s the odd part of the story. Reporters usually follow police. But in this case neither local journalists or Nairobi’s most prominent foreign journalists (the BBC and Reuters) were there.
I was unable to find anyone I know who was there, so the best I can do is piece together what seems most reasonable from widely different reporting:
Wednesday following continued difficulties in getting the unwanted radical Muslim cleric Abdullah Al-Faisal deported from the country, the Muslim Human Rights Forum of Kenya announced that following Friday prayers at Nairobi’s main mosque there would be a parade of supporters across the middle of downtown Nairobi to the President’s Office to deliver a petition demanding the release of the controversial sheikh.
They asked for a permit to march from the police and were denied the permit. They did not – as has happened in the past with contentious groups – then announce the march would go on, anyway.
So a relatively small contingent of police positioned themselves in the parking lane off the main Kenyatta boulevard that cuts into the city from the big airport highway. I don’t know how small, but photographs by Capital FM’s radio station show only a single police van.
When the “small” group of marches left the mosque, which is one block south of the city market and one block east of where the police van was, the police tried to stop them. But there were too few police, so the police retreated and started firing teargas.
Demonstrators temporarily returned to the mosque, where the police followed and then surrounded with increasing numbers arriving from other parts of the city. And large numbers of anti-demonstrators began converging on the scene, especially from the City Market.
The second surge from the mosque was much larger, and this time included more prominently displayed placards and including one black flag reportedly representing Al-Shabaab, which is Al-Qaeda in Somalia and the organization with which Faisal is linked. Several marchers in the lead wore military fatigues and covered their heads with black masks, typical of jihadists.
Police retreated, again, and in the mayhem which ensued shots were fired. Police have not contended that the protestors had guns, so this would mean they shot one of their own.
Before the protestors got one block onto Kenyatta street, the now larger group of anti-demonstrators began attacking the demonstrators with knives and anything they could find lying around in the street. The battle between demonstrators and anti-demonstrators went on through the city for several hours as shops and businesses began to close up. Police had lost entire control of the battle.
One Nairobi newspaper claims that Muslim leaders from the mosque joined police in trying to quell the situation, but were unsuccessful. The Standard reported that several hours into the battle the police simply “became spectators” unable to stop the two factions from fighting.
The first march from the mosque was just after 1:30p. By 4 p.m. most of the fighting had subsided, the city center was a ghost town, and the police and shut off all access into and out of the city center. By 7 p.m. the streets were quiet but deserted, not entirely unusual for a Friday night. (Most of the entertainment areas are outside the city center.)
Kenya National Human Right Commission Vice-Chairman Hassan Omar said, “It was a simple demonstration which has turned ugly because police failed to control the crowd letting hooligans to take lead in the protest.”
Muslim groups claim that five people died and more than 20 were wounded. Police say that only two people died, and that one policeman was seriously wounded with a shot to the neck.
The Standard newspaper says that four people died; the Daily Nation says that one person died, Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times reported that three people had died, and the BBC reported that five people had died.
So far, the only person named dead is Ahmed Hassan Abdullahi, 25.