RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For months now, in Kenya, excavators have been destroying buildings across the country's capital city. We're talking about brand-new multimillion-dollar malls, hotels, even beloved restaurants. The government says it's all an effort to fight corruption. Here's NPR's Eyder Peralta.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The Nakumatt Ukay building was an icon in Nairobi, a five-story shopping mall home to a 24-hour supermarket and - hands down - the best chicken joint in the city. And yet, just like that, two green excavators start tearing down walls. This was a building that few thought would ever come down, but the city government said it was built many years ago with a fraudulent permit over the Nairobi River.
Patrick Muthi, 29, watches with admiration as the excavator wiggles out of a tangle of steel and concrete.
PATRICK MUTHI: To me, it is a new start for our nation, like when it comes to following the law.
PERALTA: In a lot of ways, these demolitions have become symbolic of the Kenyan government's vow to fight corruption. Over the past few months, hundreds of buildings have been brought down. Some, like this one, have been standing for decades. Others were in the midst of construction.
PETER WANYANDE: Corruption, in this country, is systemic, and it is pervasive.
PERALTA: That's Peter Wanyande, a political scientist at the University of Nairobi. He says these buildings provide a perfect metaphor for what ails Kenya. They were built over rivers, in brazen violation of zoning laws and sometimes even on government land. It's clear that they were built after wads of cash were given to the right people. And no one said anything, not even the commissions set up to police such things.
WANYANDE: They did more shouting than actually acting. But it's partly because the system - corruption is so entrenched. The powerful and the influential are part of the corrupt groups in this country.
PERALTA: Indeed, in a speech, President Uhuru Kenyatta himself said his friends have called, begging him to stop the destruction. But he vowed to continue because all Kenyans have to realize, he says, the days of lawlessness are over.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: No matter how much you think you know people in high positions, no matter how much money you have, that will not save you. That will not save you.
PERALTA: Wanyande wonders, though. Right now, he says, these operations seem cosmetic, not really touching the upper echelon of the Kenyan elite.
WANYANDE: It is selective. There are many that will not be brought down.
PERALTA: Out on the street, the reaction seems partisan. Those who support the president say he's fighting corruption. Those who don't say it's all politics. At the Nakumatt Ukay building, I find Michelle, a 40-year-old businesswoman, who only wanted her first name used to avoid being targeted. She says her favorite chicken place had just been renovated. They were busy all the time and provided jobs for a lot of Kenyans. This makes no sense, she says. And she's sure the demolition is being used to settle political scores.
MICHELLE: They probably want - one of them probably want to own it.
PERALTA: And so it's not about...
PERALTA: ...Like, reclaiming the river?
MICHELLE: No, it's all going back to them. This is not our land as Kenyans. It has its owners.
PERALTA: The government was supposed to decide on whether to demolish a hotel owned by Kenya's deputy president. Everyone was watching, waiting to see if they would punish one of their own. But on decision day, the government stopped all demolitions across the country. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "STAR TREKKING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.