Monday, 30 September 2013

Why We Must Never “Move On” From Westgate

On the morning of August 7, 1998, a truck laden with a bomb powerful enough to level a number of building blocks was driven to the gate of the United States Embassy in downtown Nairobi. A gunfight ensued between the occupants of that truck and the US Marines guarding the embassy before the bomb went off, completely destroying the nearby Ufundi House and massively damaging Co-Operative House. The embassy itself suffered minimal damage because of the solid nature of the building.

It is said that had the terrorists managed to drive their death machine into the basement of the embassy as had been the plan, a number of buildings in the immediate vicinity would have been brought down, and the death toll would have been much higher than the 213 souls that were lost on that day.

Aftermath of the US Embassy Bomb Blast

On the morning of September 11, 2001, a commercial airliner carrying passengers crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City killing everyone on board and many others in that building. A short while later, another passenger aircraft crashed into the South Tower of WTC, repeating the cycle of death that had been witnessed earlier. Two other planes were to crash later, one into the Pentagon and another one in an open field in Pennsylvania. All these aircraft had been hijacked by terrorists to unleash untold horror on an unsuspecting civilian population. This incident became known as 9/11. Almost 3,000 people lost their lives that day.

The second plane approaches and slams into the South Tower of the WTC

The reason I mention these two incidents is the difference in which the respective governments of the two nations reacted to these acts of terror. The Government of Kenya took immediate decisive steps to protect its citizens from further terror attacks, but they were cosmetic in nature and were quickly forgotten as soon as we “moved on”. After all, Kenya was not really the target of that attack; America was. Al-Qaeda had said as much, that they were targeting US interests. So in our collective mind, we were not really the intended victims of the US Embassy bombing. This was not our fight. The terrorists had made their point and it was unlikely that we would be targeted again.

In contrast, the US Government threw a bitch fit and went all John Rambo on Afghanistan in their “shock and awe” campaign as punishment for that country’s insistence on sheltering Osama bin Laden, who had ordered the 9/11 attacks. Beyond that, the Bush administration took a long hard look at what had caused the massive failure in their intelligence network and local law enforcement. They changed the way they did things, and they vowed that no terror attack on such a scale would be allowed to happen again on the US homeland.

On the morning of September 21, 2013, an unknown number of gunmen walked into the Westgate Mall in the Westlands area of Nairobi and opened fire indiscriminately on innocent civilians. They went on to lay siege on the building for almost four days, and at the time of writing this post, the official government position on the dead is 61 civilians, 5 terrorists and 6 security agents who lost their lives in the course of the liberation of the building. 175 people were injured in the incident.

Westgate Mall after the siege

For me personally, Westgate was probably worse than the other attacks I have mentioned on account of the nature of horror that characterized it. Sure, more lives were lost in the embassy bombing and 9/11, but it was the personal engagement between the victims at the mall and their killers that makes it more horrifying than any Hollywood fictional movie has the imagination to capture.

These terrorists took out their targets one by one. They saw their faces. They saw the look of fear in their eyes. They heard the pleas for mercy. They saw pregnant women and small children. And in the end, it did not matter to them. These were not human beings. They were animals to be slaughtered as a means to score political points on the altar of religion. They used Islam as an excuse to carry out their madness.

The people who managed to get out of Westgate on that Saturday morning, either by means of escape or death, were the lucky ones. We are now hearing unconfirmed reports of unspeakable torture and horror visited upon the hostages that remained behind. The details of the goings on inside the mall from Saturday night until the end of the siege do not bear repeating here.

On the three occasions that President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the nation on the attack, it was very clear that he was going through personal pain at what had happened, and not just because he had lost close relatives. In fact, in his last address on the evening of Tuesday following the end of the Westgate horror, he appeared to be holding back tears. This had happened on his watch, and I am sure he was taking personal responsibility as the nation’s Commander in Chief.

I was not at Westgate that morning. I did not suffer personal loss in that attack. Yet I feel affected mentally by this whole tragedy. I feel impotent in the face of such danger. I watched TV coverage of events for the entire period of the siege, and I could not bring myself to think about what the victims were going through. It could have been me in there. It could have been any one of us, really.

Are we going to accept the inevitability of Westgate and “move on”, just like we “moved on” from August 7, 1998?

Or, are we going to allow ourselves as a nation to be sufficiently affronted by the audacity of Al-Shabaab and change our mindset on how we approach issues of security?

I have confidence that President Kenyatta will do whatever it takes to ensure that Westgate never happens again anywhere else. But he will need to become badass, just like George W. Bush post 9/11. He has no choice but to shake up the intelligence network and the police service, and ensure that there is seamless coordination between the two security organs.

The colossal failure of inaction against credible intelligence reports on a possible attack on Westgate cannot be excused. The corruption cartels in government that allow for the registration of persons of dubious origin must be brought down ruthlessly. Firepower that had the ability to kill 61 civilians and hold a whole security battalion for days was introduced into Westgate Mall! How was that allowed to happen? Is that the WTF-est thing about this whole sad episode or what?

My fear is this: Kenyans, God bless us, have a very short attention span. We forget quickly. Perhaps it is because we just have too much drama going on from one week to the next. But we “move on” quickly. And the danger in that is that we will forget that we are still exposed as a country to possible future attacks by Al-Shabaab.

I do not care how we couch this, but the terrorists won this one. By killing as many people as they could, and in such a cold, calculated manner, and then dragging out the whole thing for as long as they did in front of a global audience, they won the propaganda war. They are the baddest group of madmen in the world right now. They got everyone’s attention, which was the intended purpose of this horror show.

My humble submission is this: President Kenyatta must not “move on” from Westgate. The responsibility of securing the nation’s borders and preventing any possible future terrorist attacks lie at his doorstep. He must ask himself if he has the right people working for him because as much as history has been kind to him up to this point, it is about to get seven kinds of mean if he drops the ball on this one.

The rest of us must also not “move on”. We must be actively engaged in our immediate security. We must keep our eyes and ears open to any suspicious activity because none of these things happen in a vacuum. We must become “nosy” and find out who our neighbours are. What they are up to.

This is what happened in America after 9/11. And this is why the US has never suffered another terrorist attack on a massive scale, not because none has been planned, but because they always manage to stop the act in its planning stages.

I am not “moving on”. I will do my bit.



So, in the week before the unfortunate events at the Westgate Mall, we were all talking about Njeri Mucheru-Oyatta and her controversial blog in which she sensationally hung out her (dirty?) laundry to air. Wow!

Her husband must have, in a tragic twist of fate, been relieved to suddenly have everyone not talk about the social media drama that his life and that of his family had suddenly become.

Isn't she just the preeetiest you guys?

Perhaps we have “moved on” from that story.


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