On Sunday, Kenyans mark a year since the terrible terrorist attack on the Westgate mall last September. It should be an occasion for reflection about what went on in the mall, of not just remembering the heroes and victims but also taking stock of the lessons that we have learnt from the tragedy. However, if history and current indications are anything to go by, it looks like becoming another exercise in selective remembrance and myth-making.
An editorial in the Standard earlier this week urged us to “salute those who risked life and limb” saying all would-be rescuers who went into the mall that day “meant well”. The paper is right that there were many unrecognized acts of valour both by police and ordinary civilians. Many do indeed “bear the scars of battle” and deserve to be celebrated. It is fitting, therefore, that also this week, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s wife, Margaret Kenyatta, opened a memorial in Nairobi which features, according to one report, “photos and videotaped testimonials of those affected by the attack, including families of the dead, rescuers who found survivors and saved their lives, and workers inside the mall who were the last to see and talk to the victims before the raid started.”
Though I haven’t seen it myself, the reports indicate the exhibition honours the memory of the victims, the grief of those who lost loved ones, the many who survived and the many acts of selfless courage that were on display on that day. It is right and proper that we do so. The best of Kenya was on show even in places as far removed from the mall as the much-maligned Dadaab refugee camp where large numbers of the displaced gathered to donate blood. All these are an indelible part of the Westgate story and they should have pride of place in the deep recesses of our hearts.
However, this is not the only story. This week too, saw the release of a new documentary on the Westgate tragedy. Done by British film maker, Dan Reed, it is a mash up of footage from more than 100 CCTV cameras inside the mall and offers quite a different rendition of events from what we’re been led to believe. While recognising the valour of the armed civilians and plainclothes police who helped rescue so many, the documentary claims most of our security forces, including the much-feted General Service Unit’s Recce Squad, took too long to mount an assault on the mall and actually played little part in saving lives. It now appears that many of the accounts we were given were more than a little embellished.
The fact is, it is not only our scar-bearing heroes who have been forgotten. Sadly, along with the good also came the bad, much of it courtesy of the bungled response, and the ugly, not just in the form of the unconscionable looting that went on during and after the attack but also in the continuing refusal by the government to institute a comprehensive inquiry and to establish the truth of what went on in that mall for four days. These the Standard editorial does not mention. Neither is there querying of President Kenyatta’s satisfaction with what he called the “the excellent work of our security forces” despite all indications to the contrary, nor of the state’s subsequent persecution of the Somali community under the pretext of fighting terror.
As uncomfortable as it is to countenance, we must not forget the bad and the ugly. It is true that whatever our security agencies got up to inside the mall pales in significance when compared with the sheer evil unleashed by the four young gunmen. But it is crucial that we remember it nonetheless.
Crucial because, as the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Excising uncomfortable moments from our collective memory has only served to pave the way for a repeat of the tragedies. In the last year, we have seen the same ridiculous responses to other attacks from the so-called Al-Shabulb incident at JKIA (where the Inspector General of Police initially tried to convince us that an IED attack was actually an exploding light bulb) to Mpeketoni.
Since independence, we have unfortunately made a habit out of forgetting. The realities of and victims of colonialism lie forgotten. The violence and corruption of the post-independence regimes has been swept under the carpet of a false nationalism and the villains and despot of yesterday are today reborn as national heroes and elder statesmen.
Our propensity to forget means the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the 40,000 witness testimonies the Commission recorded, continue to gather dust, the lessons contained in them remaining unlearned.
It has never ceased to amaze me how our national anniversaries have often served as occasions for forgetting and not remembrance. They are the occasions of national myth-making and reinforcement of partial truths; occasions to hide the uncomfortable truth rather than examine it.
As we saw during the Golden Jubilee celebrations last December, and with the historical revisionism that marked the 90th birthday of Daniel arap Moi, Kenyans have a tendency to play fast and loose with the facts of history. Inevitably, however, comes a painful collision with reality. The past we try to run from all too often becomes our future. What Jean de La Fontaine said of individuals is just as true of nations. “A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.”
So as we approach the anniversary of the Westgate we would do well to insist on a full remembrance. As Samira Sawlani tweeted recently, “the ONLY real tribute the Kenyan government can [pay to the] victims of Westgate is the truth. Nothing else is enough.”