A Brief Background to these latest travel warnings
Early last month (September 11, 2011), an armed gang raided an exclusive tourist resort in Lamu, killed a British tourist, and abducted his wife. See the full story in the Daily Nation.
Three weeks later, in October 1, 2011, another gang kidnapped a 66 year old French woman from her private home in Manda Island in Lamu. You can see this story too in both the Standard and the Daily Nation.
The minister for tourism, Najib Balala, has since then assured Kenya tourism stakeholders that the government has put measures in place to ensure such incidents do to occur again. Too late perhaps, coz the harm has already been done.
Under such circumstances therefore, the travel warnings about Kenya are somehow justified. And to be fair, the advisories only advise against traveling to Lamu and the region near the Kenya-Somali border. But I know safety is an important consideration for many people planning to come to Kenya, whether on a safari holiday or a business trip. So, is it safe to travel to Kenya?
As a Kenyan resident, I’d confidently state that yes, Kenya is still a very safe destination. However the most objective way to address the issue is by looking at some of the commonly identified security threats and concerns in Kenya.
This is considered Kenya’s biggest security threat, mostly because of al-Shabaab and similar groups from the neighboring Somalia. In this day and age however, no place in the world can really claim to be entirely safe from terrorism. Terrorists can strike anywhere, and without warning. The porous Kenya-Somali border may make Kenya look particularly vulnerable, but the government security agencies have so far been doing a good job preventing attacks.
Update October 18, 2011: About five days ago, al-Shabaab struck again, this time kidnapping two Spanish doctors who work with Medecin sans Frontieres at the Dadaab refugee camp. See the full story on BBC. The Kenyan government viewed that as a declaration of war by al-Shabaab, and has now decided to take the battle to al Shabaab’s turf. As I write this, the Kenya Defence Forces have already started an offensive deep into Somalia territory, targeting al Shabaab strongholds.
NB: Daadab is in Garissa, near the Kenya – Somali border. It is quite far from Kenya’s main tourism circuit. So far, apart from the two earlier incidents in Lamu and Manda, the main tourist areas remain safe. Kenyan security agencies have become even more vigilant to reduce the chances of terrorist acts and to ensure the safety of both the citizens and the visitors/tourists.
In the recent past, Kenya has had two major terrorist attacks: the US embassy bombing of 1998, and the Kikambala bombing of 2002. These served as wake-up calls for the Kenyan government to take strong counter-terrorism measures. Today therefore, you can be as safe from terrorism in Kenya as in the US, UK, and most other western countries.
• Political Unrest and Riots
The 2007-2008 post-election violence remains one of the darkest moments in Kenya’s history. In those days it was indeed quite unsafe to travel to the country as a foreigner. In my opinion, the biggest cause for that violence was the heightened tribalism and ethnic tensions that started in 2005, coupled with a few other historical facts that are too complex to discuss in one post. However, the violence taught us a very bitter lesson, and I don’t think we are willing to go down that road again.
At the moment therefore, Kenya has a calm political environment. The likelihood of highly-charged political rallies and riots is almost nil. Next year, 2012, will however be an election year. There will definitely be some heightened political temperatures because of the stakes involved, but I can bet my last coin it will still be peaceful. We, the “ordinary Kenyans”, learnt our lessons well in 2007-2008. Even the political leaders are aware that anyone who attempts to incite people to violence will be commiting political suicide. So, yes, it will still be safe to travel to Kenya even in 2012.
Nairobi and other major Kenyan cities have relatively high crime rates, with armed robberies, kidnappings, and carjackings being common. However these crimes are mostly indiscriminate in that they do not specifically target tourists or foreigners, but rather anyone who happens to be at the wrong place, and at the wrong time, just like in most other cities of the world. You should therefore follow the same safety precautions that you follow in the cities in your home country. You know the rules:
- Avoid walking alone at night in isolated places (e.g. beaches) and unsafe streets in the cities
- If driving at night, close your car windows, and lock all the doors. Unless you really have to, do not stop your car at the side of the road.
- Leave your valuables in a locked safe place when taking a walk/going to public places, especially at night.
- etc. etc. mostly common sense