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No answers to shopping mall massacre


Kenya's President, Uhuru Kenyatta, talking to former Foreign Secretary William Hague, during a conference in London, 2013. Foreign and Commonwealth office under a Creative Commons Licence

On 21 September, as Kenyans commemorated the one-year anniversary of the 2013 Westgate attack, government officials were largely missing from the memorial ceremonies.

Well-wishers, relatives and friends of those who lost their loved ones gathered at Westgate, the Nairobi mall where the terrorist siege took place, and later moved to a conservation area, Karura forest, where they planted trees and unveiled a plaque with the names of the 67 people who died in the attack.

Last year, gunmen linked to al-Shabaab terrorist group raided the Westgate shopping mall, killing a total of 67 people (six security officers and 61 civilians). It was one of the most daring attacks by terrorists in Kenya, comparable only to the 1998 attack on the US embassy in Nairobi.

As Kenyans remembered this event, much is still not known about what exactly happened. At the time, president Uhuru Kenyatta announced that the government would launch an inquiry commission to establish the facts. Now, the president’s spokesperson, Manoah Esipisu, has said that the government is still waiting for forensic reports from Israel and the US Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Until then, Kenyans would like to know how many terrorists were involved in the siege and where their bodies were taken, if they were killed at all. They would like to know what the security agencies knew before the attack and what they did with the information they had.

Only a public inquiry will help citizens get answers to these questions and in turn, renew confidence in the country’s security agencies.

The Westgate issue is still a mystery to many Kenyans. This is the feeling that one gets after watching the recently released documentary, Terror in the Mall, with survivors, interviewed by British filmmaker Dan Reed, saying that the number of casualties would have been much smaller if security forces had acted on time and in a coordinated manner.

A report prepared by a joint parliamentary committee on National Security and Defence was ignored by members of Kenya’s parliament, and its recommendations were not adopted, with parliamentarians saying the work was shoddy.

Immediately after the attack, Kenyans from all walks of life called for the resignation of senior security officers for bungling the operation. Closed Circuit TV cameras in the mall showed that there were only four armed terrorists, who held off hundreds of security officers for four solid days.

Security experts have said the lack of cooperation and coordination was one of the things that made the security operation in Westgate to take that long.

Unconfirmed reports indicated at the time that there were turf wars between the regular police and the army, over who should be in charge of the rescue operation.

In the end, the president announced that the army would take charge, but that the inspector general of police would lead the operation. This did not make matters any better.

In the wake of the attack, the Kenyan government took a number of measures aimed at combating terrorism and security issues.Their impact is yet to be felt.

One such government initiative is Nyumba Kumi, which involves the community cooperating with the police: every 10 households in a locality come together and meet regularly, with the aim of sharing information and reporting any suspicious persons or activities.

The initiative has not taken off well, as Kenyans are reluctant to co-operate with the police because there is a general distrust of security officials. The concept was borrowed from Tanzania, where it has been working well for many years.

In December 2013, the president announced the formation of the Nairobi Metropolitan Command, a move which meant involving the military in anti-terrorism and routine crime-fighting operations. Since then, nothing more has been publicly revealed about the new programme’s leadership structure.

Additionally, the government has initiated the process of registering all Kenyans afresh in a new national digital database. The registration addresses security issues and would assist the government with identifying persons with forged or fake identification documents. It has yet to kick off properly.

On the other hand, the chairman of the Foreign Relations and Defence Committee, Mbuthia Gethenji, says the government has done a lot, pointing out that someone with a military background has been appointed in charge of immigration, as per his committee’s recommendations. He says loopholes in the immigration department have been aiding illegal immigrants come into the country undetected.

On top of everything, the chief of Kenya’s National Intelligence Service, Maj-Gen Michael Gichangi, retired, and General Phillip Kameru previously the director of Military Intelligence, has now taken his place.

He has cited the recent death of al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, killed by US forces in Somalia, as an example of success by Kenyan forces working with regional and international security players.

‘Our intelligence and security forces should collaborate better with international agencies... the taking out of Godane was a collaboration between Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) and the United States government,’ he claimed in an interview.

Nyambura Wambugu, a researcher at Leeds University, says that in order to address terrorism, Kenya needs to look at much broader issues.

‘We have to start addressing petty corruption, things that have actually contributed to the bigger problem that is very well illustrated by Westgate. It [Westgate] is endemic and it is indicative of complacencies within our own structures domestically’, she says.

Terrorism is still a big threat in the region. Last week, Ugandan authorities announced that they had thwarted an attempted terror attack, just days after the al-Shabaab vowed revenge for the US air strikes that killed their leader earlier in the month. The Uganda police also arrested several suspects and recovered explosives in Kampala.

Earlier, the US embassy in Uganda had warned its citizens in the country to stay indoors as an attack was ‘imminent’.

For now, Kenyans are still waiting for their government to reassure them about their safety

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