Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Year Later, Confusion Still Reigns Over Westgate

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.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What Will We Remember About Westgate?

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.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Who Today Speaks Of The Kenyans?

When, following the Second World War, the surviving Nazi and Japanese leaders, were arraigned in military courts to face charges of, amongst others, crimes against humanity, Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson described the trials as “one of the most important tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason”. However, given that only crimes of the Axis Powers could be tried and that it was not a defense to argue that the Allies had done many of the same things the Axis Powers were being accused of, "one of the most important tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason” turned out to be little more than victors' justice.

Last week, nearly seventy years after Nuremberg, we witnessed another example of victors’ justice in a crimes against humanity trial. International Criminal Court prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, surprised no one with the admission that the case against President Uhuru Kenyatta with regard to the 2007/8 post election violence had practically collapsed. It perhaps was never a strong case to begin with and the ICC’s dismal track record in securing convictions does not inspire much confidence.  However, it would be hard to deny that the death knell for the case was rung on the day Uhuru and his fellow indictee, William Ruto, won the 2013 elections and ascended to the highest office in the land.

The campaign that followed, which sought to intimidate both the court and its witnesses, was unprecedented in its ferocity. And it succeeded. Many of the witnesses had sudden changes of heart or experienced what can only be described as an attack of conscience - previously suppressed memories of being bribed and coached abruptly surfaced. At the same time cartels were said to be hunting witnesses down, the government was expending huge amounts of time as well as diplomatic and fiscal resources trying to stop the trial and ignoring the Constitution. Specifically Article 143(4) which expressly allowed for the prosecution of a sitting president.

As the President looks set to cast aside the “personal challenge” he has succeeded in disguising as a national problem, similar things are happening in his Deputy’s case. Meanwhile, we long ago learnt that the other 4500 pending PEV cases meant to be prosecuted locally had similarly collapsed. The rub of it is that no one will now be held responsible for the deaths of 1200 Kenyans and the maiming and displacement of hundreds of thousands of others.

Such impunity is, of course, nothing new in Kenya. In fact, it was because of our scepticism over the ability of local justice system to deal with our high and mighty that many were ready to say: “Don’t be vague; It’s the Hague.” However, when it came to it, our incestuous elite closed ranks to protect one of their own. Nary a voice was raised, even in the opposition when the state subverted the Constitution, refused to cooperate with the ICC and failed in its duty to protect witnesses. In fact, even before the election, the CORD coalition, under Uhuru’s bitter rival, Raila Odinga, had promised to scuttle the ICC trials if he won. Few politicians on either side are perturbed by the failure to prosecute more than a handful of PEV-related cases.

The collapse of these PEV cases, both locally and at the ICC, is profoundly depressing because it reinforces the disposability of Kenyan lives. The fact is, from the dawn of our history, Kenyans have been regularly slaughtered in large numbers, mostly at the behest of our ruling elites who picked up their bad habits from the colonials. And throughout, impunity has been the order of the day. The Indemnity Act, which formed a crucial part of the constitutional and legislative framework for the application of emergency laws in Northern Kenya , gives blanket immunity to all government personnel for crimes committed against the population of North Eastern Kenya during the Shifta War in which up to 7000 people died. No one has been held responsible for the many subsequent massacres in the same region nor for the government-instigated mass killings and displacements in the 1990s. According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, “from 1991 to 1996, over 15,000 people died and almost 300,000 were displaced in the Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western Provinces. In the run-up to the 1997 elections, fresh violence erupted on the Coast, killing over 100 people and displacing over 100,000. ”

Rather, the men on whose watch many of these murders and displacements occurred are today feted, both in death and in life. Within the last month we have solemnly marked 36 years of the death of Jomo Kenyatta and celebrated Daniel Arap Moi’s 90th birthday. At these anniversaries, the many victims of their brutal rule remained conveniently hidden and forgotten, their lives and suffering as cheap today as it was when it was inflicted.

The fact that Kenya refuses to demand justice for its people is the most telling sign of how little our lives are esteemed. The fact that we die and are displaced nameless and in nice round numbers is a marker of our individual insignificance. There are no monuments to remind us of the thousands we have sacrificed for our elites save for the hidden camps for the displaced whose existence the government is quite happy to deny. For most of the time they are invisible, their unending suffering rendered meaningless. Even during the ICC trials, they have mostly remained unseen.

The ease with which we have forsaken our brothers and sisters does not bode well for the future, not just of our countrymen, but also of the victims of similar across the continent. The charge of “crimes against humanity” was first articulated in reference to the Armenian Genocide of 1915-18. However, the Turks were never formerly prosecuted under international law. This failure to hold them to account paved the way for the Nazi Holocaust. As Adolf Hitler rhetorically asked his generals: “Who today still speaks of the Armenians?”

Who today will speak of the Kenyans?