The global headquarters of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the only UN agency headquartered in Africa, dominates Gigiri. It sits on a sprawling compound with other UN offices in Kenya in a system called the United Nations Office in Nairobi (UNON).
Opposite it is the US embassy fortress, built after the one in downtown Nairobi was destroyed in an Al-Qaeda terrorist bomb attack in August 1998.
A new piece of real estate opened up about a year ago at the edge of the UNON compound. It is the UN diplomatic shop.
The idea of an “UN-owned diplomatic shop” sounds strange.
However, it would sound even stranger if one considered that a stone’s away from it is a fashionable shopping mall called the Village Market, built to cater to the exquisite tastes of the vast expatriate and diplomatic community that lives in the surrounding Gigiri, Whispers, Rosslyn, Runda, Muthaiga and Thigiri suburbs.
Inside Village Market is a huge supermarket, Nakumatt, where you will find everything from Perrier mineral water to Italian-made soymilk and the finest range of wines and whiskies. Climb a few stairs, and you are at the Diplomatic [Duty Free] shop.
In other words, the UN does not need to have a diplomatic shop—and most definitely, not in Gigiri, for between Nakumatt and the Diplomatic Shop in the Village Market, all the requirements of the UN and diplomatic community in Nairobi is more than catered for.
I had always wondered why the UN diplomatic shop, until recently. A Nairobi observer of things UN, told me it is “because UNON is bedevilled by corruption”.
There have been reports in the Kenya media of crooked deals on building, and supplies.
So, according to the UN watcher, the diplomatic shop was probably another opportunity for the UN mafia in Nairobi to cream off some money on the building contracts, and also an avenue for someone to bring in duty free goods, then divert and flog them for a handsome profit in the local market.
I have no independent confirmation of this, but the UNON’s reputation in Kenya doesn’t help it much.
The argument goes that UNON gets away with this in Kenya, as it would in many other African countries, because the media only probes what goes on at Gigiri occasionally, after a disgruntled worker leaks some info on malfeasance inside the organization.
Otherwise, an environment where quite a few government and public officials have been reported to be corrupt, makes for a perfect one in which to host a crooked UN operation.
If this is story, the wonder about it is that the UN has not taken advantage and headquartered more of its agencies in Africa.
I know many decent and honest chaps at UNON, but there are also the odd rotten apples. So we should hold our breaths. As has happened in the past, one of these days a bitter UN diplomat will leak the real story of the diplomatic shop to the media. Then we shall all go to town with it.
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3