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Mombasa struggles to stay afloat amid beaten nightlife

By Daniel Wesangula and Benard Sanga | May 2nd 2021
An aerial view of Mombasa City after sunset on April 30, 2021.[Omondi Onyango,Standard]

As the muezzin makes a final call for the Maghrib prayers, Mombasa is bustling. With some of its peers clamped down in a bid to control the devastating effects of the third wave of infections from the coronavirus, tuk-tuks zoom past loud 14-seater matatus to fight for that extra client that will determine whether the day will end in profit or loss.

Men, who know each and every crevice on the faded asphalt on the city roads, cut up deep-fried cassava and pack them in brown paper bags for mothers hurrying back to their homes. With a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of chili, they dash off into the darkness.

In neighbourhoods such as Tudor, young men with pull carts carrying now-empty jerrycans of water, sometimes up to 20, fight for space on the same faded roads with the tuk-tuks and the matatus. Everybody seems to be in a rush to get to their next destination. Everyone looks to be in their own individual fight for survival.

Men from mosques meet along roadside cafes for Iftar before proceeding home for a more communal meal. Others, it being a Friday, take some time off and meet over a beer or three with friends. The clubs are buzzing from Mtwapa to Bamburi.

But even as the waiters move from one table to another and the men from the mosque deep their samosas in tamarind sauce, the city has lost a certain glow. Some of its magic from the past is just not there and now, this historical city that sometimes seems as old as civilisation itself has joined that fight too. A fight to survive. A fight to keep its head above the water.

A fight to fend off the devastating effects of association with terror groups, the invasion of the Standard Gauge Railway, the emergence of criminal gangs and now the effects of the virus on the city’s most famous export –tourism.

“Mombasa’s economy has been on a decline for a long time. Job and business opportunities have been declining. The few job opportunities that were left, especially in tourism, were killed by Covid-19 restrictions,” says politician and businessman Suleiman Shahbal.

“Mombasa now needs new money, which should be invested in areas like real estate and special economic zone to create jobs for the people.”

After surviving invasions by the Portuguese and failing to buckle under the iron fists of blood-thirsty Omani rulers and the recklessness of traders like Ibn Batutah, it is those that the eye cannot see that stand in Mombasa’s path.

“The past decade has seen us fight ideological wars,” says Halimu Shauri, Dean of School of Humanities at Pwani University. “At some point in our recent past we have had to struggle with radicalisation and the growth of terror cells.”

Between 2002 and 2013, tourism numbers in the city have fluctuated depending on the country’s security situation.

“The impact to this was devastating. Not just in Mombasa, but the entire coastline felt it,” Prof Shauri says. To date, once popular hotels and resorts in the North Coast and the South Coast have never recovered.

Many iconic ones are now shutting down completely, with ‘for sale’ signs painting an ominous picture of the future while the sagging Makuti roofs remind passers-by of happier times.

Although that decade was characterised by the Kikambala bombings of 2002 that saw a twin attack on an Israeli owned hotel as well as an attempt at bringing down a plane, the decade also saw a rise in grenade attacks fanned by fiery sermons from radicals such as Aboud Rogo and Abubakar Shariff, also known as Makaburi.

Something else was also chocking the city. The fight for the city’s soul wasn’t just limited to ideology. The streets were run by drug barons and drug cartels. From Nyali to Likoni, there were names to be feared. And these names controlled the entire city, from the narrow alleys of old town to the wide, tree lined driveways of Nyali.

Years later, the effects of this is still being felt. Every morning, dozens of recovering drug addicts line up for treatment outside methadone clinics in Frere Town, Shimo La Tewa, Kisauni, Miritini, Likoni and Mvita.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Mombasa has some 10,000 people who inject heroin every day. The same body puts the national figure at 18,000 people. These statistics however do not tell the entire story.

A tale of struggle

Behind the numbers, behind the figures, behind every individual who lines up for a methadone dosage is a tale of struggle, not just for those recovering, but for everyone around them. Mothers have abandoned their children, fathers have ended up in jail and sons have raised their hands against everyone around them.

The lawlessness that characterised the drug years led to the emergence of a different set of problems. The happy-go-lucky attitudes of the Akasha brothers – Ibrahim and Baktash – who at one point ran the city like their own personal fiefdom, paying off police and judges who in turn gave the notorious brothers the keys to the city, to do with it as they pleased, raised a certain kind of generation.

For the Akashas, the law was to be bent. To be manipulated to serve their own interest. The law, to them, was never about governance.

“The drug menace is to blame for high rate of crime in Mombasa and coast in general. Because they share syringes we also have high number of HIV infections among the users. There is an increase in mortality rates and broken families,” says National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada) Coast Regional Manager George Karisa.

By the time the brothers were being extradited to the United States of America on drug trafficking charges, they left behind hundreds who wanted to follow in their footsteps. To become the next Ibrahim or the next Baktash at whatever cost.

“A recent survey shows that we have children as young as 10 abusing drugs. These are the ones who have dropped out of school and have joined criminal gangs.”

And Khalid Hussein, Executive Secretary of rights group Haki Africa, believes things will get worse before they get better.

“At the moment we are seeing the re-emergence of gangs positioning themselves for the 2022 politics. But other gangs have come up because of the economic hardship,” Khalid says.

A report by the National Intelligence Service says in Likoni, for instance, new groups have emerged, such as Chicago Bulls, Jamaica, Shiranga and Chafu that extort, rob and terrorise residents at will.

George Musamali, a security analyst, says these gangs flourish in the coastal city because “they enjoy some political protection.”

“That is why we always see politicians bailing them out whenever they are arrested,” Musamali says.

A section of Digo road in Mombasa.[Omondi Onyango,Standard]

The insecurity brought about by these gangs continues to deflate more air out of the struggling lungs of the city. Mombasa, it seems, cannot get a single easy breath. For the city, breathing is a torturous and laboured process. But still, it refuses to give up and tap out. Governor Hassan Joho, on his last term as Mombasa’s leader, insists some gains have been made. He remains confident that the city he has run as governor for nearly a decade, and been part of all his life will turn the corner.

But the city cannot seem to get over the bend before it sets itself off on the homestretch in one final mad rush towards what Ibn Batuta, the Sultan of Zanzibar, the Omani rulers, the British colonisers, successive national governments and Joho’s governorship all promised at different stages of the city’s history.

Now, an even bigger hurdle has presented itself, and if Mombasa does not jump high enough, it may never recover from the ensuing fall. Disruptions brought about by Covid-19 to another industry that the city is known for; its night life.

On any normal night, Mombasa is deserted. Its yesteryear glitz and glamour long main thoroughfare is gone, most entertainment clubs shut down but the number of homeless families is swelling in the streets.

Locals say the city’s status as a preferred clubbing and tourist destination was already on its knees before Covid-19. Some point a finger at the infamous Alcoholic Drinks Control Act popularly known as the Mututho laws. The Mututho laws were a raft of measures that sought to control the selling and consumption of alcohol throughout the country.

“The Mututho laws come with unintended negative consequences on the sector,” says Kenya Association of Hotel-keepers and Caterers (Kahc) Executive Officer Sam Ikwaye.

He says the law was enacted to fight poor drinking habits in mainly agricultural parts of the country but has affected tourist or entertainment cities or counties like Mombasa.

“The drafter of the legislation failed to consider the fact that entertainment was part of the country’s tourism package and it limited the timelines tourists go to a club and drink,” Dr Ikwaye says.


The city though has tried to stay afloat. The county government has enacted its own Mombasa County Liquor Act allowing clubs to operate outside the prescribed Mututho time limits, especially in the morning hours.

“We have introduced incentives to cushion the tourism players. We have also been seeking partnerships like sister-to-sister agreement with Ukraine cities to bring in guests for our hotels. It should also not be lost that major infrastructure projects going on in the county act as a stimulus package for the economy,” says Mombasa Chief of Staff Job Tumbo.

Tumbo says the planned construction of the special Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) in Miritini will create jobs for the youth.

Street Families sleep along the streets of Mombasa.[Omondi Onyango,Standard]

County Tourism and Trade Chief Officer Asha Abdi says the county continues to roll out strategies to jump-start the tourism sector that has suffered heavily from the effects of Covid-19.

“We have put in place measures to cushion players in the hospitality industry in Mombasa like the suspension of hotel levies until further notice as well as an extension of grace period for the payment of single business permits for the year 2021 from March to June 20,” Abdi says.

She says the county has given a 50 per cent waiver on specified licences for 2020 and an extension of grace period for payment of land rates for the financial year 2021 from March to June 20.

Abdi says to ensure the Covid-19 vaccination rollout achieves its mandate, they are firming out plans to include tourism frontline workers.

But this has not been enough. To survive, it must let go of the old and embrace the new. It must reinvent itself like it has done throughout history. Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council (KeMNAC) Chairman, Sheikh Juma Ngao, says the campaign to reduce or eliminate nightlife in Mombasa should be sustained.

“I have been a fierce campaigner against clubbing tourism. The number of bars and clubs are still more than churches and mosques combined. We cannot allow that,” says Sheikh Ngao.

The cleric insists Mombasa’s economy can still flourish without the clubbing tourism or nightlife like Saudi Arabia and Iran, which he said have embraced “clean tourism”.

“In a street like Bamburi Mwisho to Bamburi Junction, a stretch of three kilometres, we have 150 bars. This is the industry that has continued to destroy the reputation of Mombasa,” he says.

For others though, the cut that threatens to sever Mombasa from prosperity goes deeper than the shutting down of bars. And their arguments go back to the years of great unease.

“The rain started to beat us in 2002 after the Kikambala bombing. Many nations issued travel advisories against Mombasa, which hit the tourism sector and auxiliary sectors,” says Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry Coast branch Chief Executive James Kitavi. “The SGR and Covid-19 disruptions only accelerated our decline.”

There has been a social cost to these disruptions, the most visible being the increase of street families all across the city and what some of them do in the cover of darkness.

If you take a walk along Mji Mpya, Kwa Shibu, Mnazi Moja, Meru and Mbaraki Roads, you will see dozens of street families hurdled together in groups.

In centuries-old history, Mombasa has been brought to its knees on several occasions. But every time this has happened, the city, that was once the capital for British interests in East Africa, has risen from the ashes.

Every time, even when faced with incredible odds, the people triumph. The city, whose records go back to the 16th century has weathered all the storms that have come its way.

“Mombasa’s future looks bright. Governor Joho has laid the basic foundation. Massive infrastructure projects currently going on will reposition Mombasa as an investment hub again,” says Tumbo.

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