A year ago, Kenya experienced one of the worst terrorist atrocities on ever perpetrated on her soil. The gunmen who attacked the Westgate mall on that awful Saturday morning may have killed at least 67 people and wounded many more but the real impact of their actions has been in challenging the country’s commitment to protect its people. As the local and international news media gears up to mark the anniversary, indications are that much of the coverage will highlight the horror as well as the undeniable heroism and courage many displayed during the ordeal. That is all good and proper. But we must not gloss over the many failures witnessed then and since.
The national unity and camaraderie that was expressed at the start of the attack has long since abated. Actually it didn’t last very long. As Kenyans were lining up in record numbers to donate blood for the victims and to cement their commitment to the idea of Kenya, it was revealed that many of those who went into the mall and supposedly risk their lives to confront the terrorists, were actually there for less altruistic motives. “We Are One” turned to “We Are Wondering” as the photos of looted shops and CCTV footage of soldiers from the Kenya Defense Forces carrying paper bags out of the destroyed mall were etched into the national memory. The confused and contradictory statements made by government spokespeople throughout the four day ordeal continue to reverberate to the present day.
In fact, to date, there has been no definitive official account of what transpired in the mall. The Commission of Inquiry promised by President Uhuru Kenyatta in the days following the attack failed to materialize. A report into the attack tabled by a Joint Parliamentary Committee was rejected by the National Assembly. The KDF was reported to have prepared a report on its actions during the siege but this is yet to be published.
Conflicting press reports have added to the confusion about the details of the incident and mirrored the gaps and contradictions in the narrative provided by government officials. A recent documentary by British film-maker Dan Reed has cast doubt on the timeline of events presented in a special investigative report by KTN which now appears to have relied on heavily embellished accounts of the effectiveness of an elite Kenya police anti-terror unit.
Initially, the government said there were up to 15 gunmen in the mall. The attack was said to have been planned over a long period in the Dadaab refugee camp and that ammunition and machine guns had been secretly stashed in the mall in preparation for the attack. The Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Amina Mohammed, claimed that a British woman "who has done this many times before" was among the attackers, as were "two or three" Americans. All this was later contradicted, though recently, a Daily Nation report has once again suggested that there may have been “up to 15 foreigners” involved in the attack. The belt-fed machine gun claimed to be used by the terrorists has never been produced. According to the Daily Nation, “two of the attackers are believed to have flown from Somalia to Entebbe and travelled by road to Nairobi” which contradicts government assertions that they came in via Dadaab. In fact, all four attackers were in November reported to have trained in Somalia and in Nairobi, not in the refugee camp.
On the looting of the mall, the government first denied the reports, then accepted that some looting had happened and said an inquiry into the same, commissioned by the President, was underway. No findings have to date been made public. Parliament did not fare any better, with a committee first rubbished the reports of looting (after supposedly reviewing all available CCTV footage in record time). “KDF soldiers and all the officers who participated in that operation, never, and I want to use the word, never, participated in looting,” declared Asman Kamama, chair of the parliamentary committee on National Security and Administration. Following public howls of outrage, and the airing of CCTV footage showing the extent of the looting and soldiers carrying shopping bags out of the mall, the MPs tried to walk back the claim saying they had not been given access to all the evidence.
On whether the terrorists were killed or escaped, there is still some confusion. The government, now having ascertained that there were only four attackers, despite President Kenyatta earlier declaration that five terrorists been killed, claims all are dead and their remains have been handed over to the FBI for identification. Though the AFP reported last November that Interpol and the FBI were assisting Kenya to identify “four charred bodies recovered from the ruins”, in January Dennis Brady, the FBI’s legal attaché in Nairobi, admitted that only “three sets of remains were found.” This implies that at least one of the attackers is yet to be accounted for.
A January report in the Toronto Star, quoting an intelligence source, claimed that in the midst of the confused response “the attackers are believed to have fled” adding that one of them “is being pursued in southern Somalia.” The Daily Nation has also speculated on a “theory that most of the attackers had Kenyan IDs and passports and could have simply disappeared into the crowds as the rescue got underway.”
The total number of casualties is also in doubt. A month after the attack, Kenya Red Cross Society secretary general Abbas Gullet said 23 people were still reported as missing. At one point, according to the Society’s annual report, nearly 119 people were reported as missing. The rejected parliamentary committee quoted a “forensic report” that is yet to be made public saying 67 people died and over 200 were injured. However, there was no mention of what happened to the missing persons and whether they were ever found. The fact that a week after the attack relatives of the missing had been asked to report to City Mortuary for DNA profiling following “the discovery of more bodies from the ruins of the mall,” simply adds to the confusion.
The rub of all this is that as we come up to the first anniversary of the attacks, we are probably no closer to understanding what happened for four days inside that mall. As a consequence, Kenya has not learnt any lessons that might be useful in preventing further attacks. This is evidenced by the many atrocities the country has had to endure since, and the almost predictably shambolic government response.
When terrorists attacked the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Kenya police were quick to misidentify it as an exploding light bulb, reminiscent of the burning mattresses that supposedly brought the Westgate mall down. To date, Al Shabaab members seem to have no problems passing through the same airport. Just last week, the Daily Nation reported that three of them had flown out of Kenya only to be arrested in Germany. Perhaps the most outrageous of these were the Mpeketoni attacks in June which further exposed the unpreparedness of our security agencies as well as the readiness of some in the government, including the President, to utilize the tragedies for political gain.
Even worse, the government has failed to act on the information it has. Last October, in a piece published in the Wall Street Journal, President Kenyatta identified the illegal trade in ivory as one of three primary sources of funding for Al Shabaab. Yet even as he called for “a global moratorium on ivory trading,” the fact was his own government stood –and still stands- accused of protecting the kingpins of ivory poaching in Kenya. Further, according to the UN, illegal charcoal exports from the Somali port of Kismayo, which exports are widely acknowledged as an important source of revenue for the terror group, have actually increased despite the KDF taking over the port last year.
The truth is, the government has primarily sought to deal with terrorism as a public relations, not a security problem. The dominant political elite has viewed security challenges not only as an opportunity to loot the national treasury through dubious contracting, but also to intimidate the opposition. It has been reluctant to address the root causes of disaffection and corruption which groups like Al Shabaab have exploited to perpetrate their atrocities.
If Kenya is serious about protecting its population from terrorists, then we must dispense with the meaningless declarations of victory which government spokespeople like to spew in the aftermath of attacks. We must stop the scapegoating of Somalis which today passes for policy. Rather, we should work to deconstruct the narratives that have kept us blind to our vulnerabilities and that have allowed us to pursue red herrings at the expense of attending to the real historic and systemic failures which have left us open to attack.
To do this, we must begin with an honest account of how we got here. As Ndungu Gethenji put it, with reference to Westgate, "people need to know the exact lapses in the security system that possibly allowed this event to take place.”