In an Airport Fire, Flames of Discord

On one of Kenya’s main television networks on Wednesday night, the news announcer wore a funereal expression as she called the fire that destroyed the arrivals terminal of our main airport earlier that morning a national “calamity.”

The response to the blaze was slow. There was a shortage of fire engines and a lack of sufficient water for the fire hoses. Soldiers resorted to carrying buckets of water to douse the flames, which took four hours to put out. There are reports that emergency responders may have engaged in looting.

A third of Europe’s flower imports, a majority of Kenya’s tea exports and millions of tons of fresh produce pass through the airport each year. Built in 1958 by the British colonial government, it underwent a huge expansion in 1972 under Jomo Kenyatta, the post-independence leader after whom it is now named. Nairobi is one of the main transportation hubs for sub-Saharan Africa.

Kenya does not claim the vast natural resources of many of our neighbors. We do not have the deep gold reserves of South Africa, the diamonds of Tanzania, the oil revenues of Nigeria, Ghana and Gabon, or the vast mineral wealth (and related misery) of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instead, our economic fortunes have been tied to a transport network that serves much of eastern and central Africa. Our largest sectors, agriculture and tourism, depend heavily on a functioning airport.

Although a limited number of international arrivals resumed Thursday morning, the damage from the fire will take years to repair. The timing was especially inauspicious. This is peak season for the tourism industry, as throngs of Westerners (and, increasingly, Asians) gather to witness the annual migration of some two million wildebeests as they make the perilous crossing from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

Oddly, as experts and pundits have pored over the fire — its causes are not yet known — their mournful mood has not been reflected in Kenya’s buzzing social media, where the fire has brought out the deep divisions that have characterized the nation since a bitterly contested presidential election in March.

That race — the first under a new Constitution designed to avoid a repeat of the bloody unrest that followed an inconclusive presidential election in 2007 — was a fight between leaders of two ethnic communities whose elites have been rivals since independence, Uhuru Kenyatta (a Kikuyu, and a son of Jomo) and Raila Odinga (a Luo).

Mr. Kenyatta’s razor-thin majority in the election has left the country deeply divided. Kenya has one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in Africa, so it was no surprise to see some questionable jokes in response to the fire, like this one, posted on Twitter: “For sale: airport, slightly burnt.”

But other online messages were exchanged in angrier tones. “Choices have consequences!” crowed one Odinga supporter, quoting Johnnie Carson, who until March was America’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Mr. Carson was implicitly criticizing Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, who face charges at the International Criminal Court over their alleged role in financing the 2007-8 postelection violence.

Supporters of the president were swift to defend his government’s response to the fire. “Any negativity may try to exhaust our govt, her cabinet ministers, her economy and her Leader, but I am sure the little devil is coiled at a corner somewhere feeling so helpless seeing how swift the govt has been today in trying to restore normal travels,” one wrote. “God bless you all who are loyal to our Nation and our President.”

It could be worse: the lively discussions on these social networking sites are preferable to the rigid controls exercised by more autocratic regimes in Africa. And the ethnic sniping has largely been confined to members of just two of dozens of ethnic communities. Also, these divisions are a mainly urban phenomenon, with rural voters far less animated by national political divisions.

The fire occurred on the 15th anniversary of Al Qaeda’s shocking attacks on the United States Embassies here and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. Many Kenyans were heartened to learn that President Obama called Mr. Kenyatta on Wednesday to offer support in rebuilding the airport and to commemorate the anniversary of the bombings.

In a sense, the airport fire could prove to be an opportunity. Chinese companies are building a $650 million terminal as Kenya strives to stay competitive with the continent’s other airports. But even as the Kenyatta administration prepares to fix the hardware needed to maintain Nairobi’s status as a transport hub, the divisions in cyberspace point to the need for repairs in the software of its citizens’ minds. For too many cynics, political and ethnic divisions are so deep that not even a disaster on the scale of a disastrous airport fire could unite them.

Murithi Mutiga is an editor at the newspaper Sunday Nation.

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