Conflict between traders, tenants of county houses and suspected land grabbers is believed to be behind Nairobi’s perennial Gikomba market fires.
Gikomba, the largest open air market in the country, has taken over every space in the area, including Gorofani Estate.
Not even the national or county governments get to the bottom of the blazes.
On October 6, thousands of traders and residents watched in disbelief as a fire that started around 3am destroyed property valued at tens of millions of shillings.
Witnesses said the inferno started at the fish and groceries section of the market.
The Nation team visited Gikomba on Saturday. Surprisingly, the market was jammed with traders and buyers, despite the tragedy just days before.
Gorofani Nyumba Kumi initiative chairman David Ndala said the fires were being deliberately started to destroy the estate “since the houses are marked for demolition”.
Phase Four and Five of Gorofani Estate have 42 blocks of the county houses, each comprising 16 units.
Officials want the houses torn down to pave way for multi-storey business buildings.
Mr Ndala said the June 23, 2015 fire was the worst to hit the area.
“We have not recovered from the 2015 blaze that was witnessed in the whole estate. As if that was not enough, young men attempted to demolish the houses to pave way for grabbers,” he said.
The dilapidated houses were not renovated after the incident. However, officials still demand rent.
Mr Ndala said area residents are owed more than Sh7 million by the devolved unit.
“We are aware that an insurance firm paid the county government after the fire,” he said.
The estate, which has been swallowed up by stalls, has no mains water, toilets or roads.
Most of the houses are in ruins because of the fires, while many have cracked roofs and walls.
The traders have turned toilets into stores as bathrooms overflow with human waste.
Gorofani resident Josphat Kiema said locals suspected top government officials were behind the constant fires.
“There are reports that a clothes factory is to be put up here once the government bans importation of used clothes,” Mr Kiema said.
“We are ready to move, provided the government compensates us.”
Ms Pamela Akinyi, a resident, was also a victim of the 2015 inferno could not salvage anything from her house during the Friday fire.
She said she heard shouting at 2am while asleep with her two grandchildren.
Ms Akinyi said a woman from the neighbouring block who prepares tea for sale woke up to start her business only to see the huge fire.
“She went round waking us,” Ms Akinyi said, adding that by the time she opened the door, the fire was consuming stalls just metres from her house.
“I had a bed, two sewing machines, a gas cylinder and other items but they were destroyed,” she said.
Ms Akinyi added that children abandon school in favour of the quick money they get for doing menial jobs at the market.
Mr Augustus Mutuku, another Gorofani resident, expressed fears of another fire after traders hurriedly reconstructed their stalls.
He and others have urged the county government to separate the estate from the market.
A resident who refused to be identified said the October 6 incident was arson “as masked people were spotted pouring petrol in different parts of the market before the fire”.
He said those behind the fires were known by security guards “who conveniently disappear just before any outbreak”.
“The fire was not accidental as many want us to believe. There are very many outbreaks here,” the man said.
“We have a reason to believe that some government functionaries are involved.”
Mr Ndala blamed the incidents on lack of dialogue between business people and Gorofani residents “because those working in the market are outsiders and will burn the stalls out of vengeance when dismissed”.
“We have never had negotiations with the business community. Instead of employing Gorofani residents, the traders look for strangers. These people will not feel anything if they burn the stalls,” Mr Ndala said.