Nairobi Stories: A dodgy passport to the rainy season

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The Independent Online

It's the rainy season here, when the grey skies crack open once a day, dumping a torrential downpour over the city. It's good news for wildlife, but spells discomfort or disaster for many other residents.

It's the rainy season here, when the grey skies crack open once a day, dumping a torrential downpour over the city. It's good news for wildlife, but spells discomfort or disaster for many other residents.

In some places the power grid and phone system collapse for hours. But these are negligible gripes compared to the suffering of poorer city dwellers. This week hundreds of Nairobians were flooded from their homes, train services were suspended and 15 people were swept to their deaths. The depressing thing is that it's the same stories every year. Many hoped public infrastructure would improve after President Daniel arap Moi left office in 2002. But little has changed, just like the rains.

A diplomatic row is brewing between the government and the Somali authorities, and I must admit it has got me worried.

In recent weeks Kenya and the breakaway Somali state of Puntland have stopped recognising each other's passports. It's a wrangle that poses problems for every decent Somali wishing to travel abroad, and particularly this one.

You see I am also a citizen of Somalia - a lesser-known diplomat, in fact. Let me explain. A few years ago I was visiting Mogadishu's notorious Bakara Market when a man led me into the back room of a shop, offering a passport. It was the real thing, he insisted. It could be mine for a measly $25.

Two photos and one officious stamp later I was a citizen of Somalia. For a small additional sum, I could have a diplomatic passport. It seemed churlish to refuse. Of course the little green book was of little practical use, although I admit I was once tempted to claim asylum at Dublin airport.

Today, however, Somalia's dodgy documents are no laughing matter, particularly in Nairobi. Although they are the only documentation available to most Somalis - whose country is ruled by competing warlords - dangerous people can also buy them easily, such as the al-Qa'ida extremists who used Somalia to stage the suicide bombings of an Israeli tourist hotel.

The al-Qa'ida operatives may have travelled on false papers such as mine - hence Nairobi's suspicion of Somali documents. But one can also sense the hand of America behind the passport ban, which has pushed Kenya to crack down on terrorist movements and carried out several military operations along its border. And as ever ordinary Somalis are paying the price.

Some weeks ago I strolled down to Times Tower to renew my driver's licence. Bad idea. Thousands of bus drivers squeezed against the front gate, seeking to renew their driving papers in order to comply with a government crackdown on the matatu, or minibus, industry.

Regulation of the rogue matatus has been a huge success. Before, the buses were overcrowded and driven by drug-chewing louts. Today passenger numbers are regulated, drivers licensed and their Nissans fitted with "speed governors". So public sympathy for the ill-tempered queue snaking outside Times Tower is, understandably, also limited.

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