The dramatic events surrounding the siege of the Westgate Shopping Mall, Nairobi that began on 21st September 2013 has become seared into the Kenyan psyche. The three day siege and the deaths and casualties that resulted ensured proved both shocking and yet strangely unifying at the same time. Just as the series of attacks in the US on 11th September 2001 caused convulsions and reverberations locally and internationally, the events at Westgate underscored the vulnerability of the East African powerhouse. For all the horrors and futility of it all the local media was determined to find heroism in the darkness and this it indeed managed to do, but equally whilst many sought solidarity in the face of danger further human frailty emerged in the form of bungling and looting on behalf of certain members of those forces sent in to ‘neutralise’ the attackers.
Kenya’s soul searching about the causes of acts of violence has yet to begin, for thus far to have done so has appeared in some way unpatriotic and may have lead to searching questions. The Kenyan Government has readily resorted to deploying the post-9/11 lexicon, talking of “terrorists” and the need to wage war on those it deems a threat to the values enshrined in the country’s constitution. The use of such language seems strangely reminiscent of that used by the Colonial Authorities during the Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1960) and the atrocities and retribution that followed. History as ever teaches us that these matters are rarely as simple and clear cut as some might like us to believe. The current security situation has its genesis in a number of areas:
- Regional instability in the Horn & East Africa
- The inability of the African Union (AU) to come up with a coherent policy with regard to irredentism
- The desire by certain East African states to work overtly and covertly for the Balkanisation of Somalia
- The fear in some quarters that a movement for a Greater Somalia might gain serious traction
- The near total abdication and indifference on the part of the international community with regards to Yemen
- Unemployment, food insecurity & drought that has caused some young men drawn out of desperation to seek gainful ‘employment’ amongst extreme groups that purport to be adherents of Islam
- Military adventurism into sovereign Somali territory, often upon the pretext of tackling radical elements
- The perception that an international war is being waged against Islam
Radical groups such as Al Shabaab are a pernicious presence both inside and outside Kenya that delights in seeking out the young, the vulnerable and the marginalised in order to win them over to their perverse cause. The Kenyan State and those that operate in its name have indirectly become key recruiting sergeants for Al Shabaab not through any sympathy for its cause, but by the manner in which its heavy handed and brutal tactics have totally alienated Somalis as well as disposed elements residing within Kenya. The vast majority of people in Kenya of Somali heritage are law abiding individuals and yet all too often the Somali community and those from other countries in the Horn of Africa are routinely stigmatised. Derogatory remarks are made about ‘the Goat People’ and if Kenya is truly to live up to its democratic and pluralist aspirations such racism and xenophobia must end. A recent spate of bombings, instead of being approached with intelligence and equanimity has instead witnessed disgraceful conduct from some in the Kenyan Security Forces.
When the Westgate Mall Siege began and once President Uhuru Kenyatta was finally roused and able to focus on the job in hand he made a televised address to the nation and made clear that a unity of purpose was paramount if such evil was to be not only confronted but defeated. Sadly, sensitivity and intelligence in regards to combating dangers has been conspicuous by its absence. Old Kenya hands will tell you that trust in the Police has been being eroded for years. Such a dismal situation begs the question: Will David Kimaiyo, the Inspector General of the Kenya Police, declare all out war on mismanagement, rampant corruption and the terrorising of innocent civilians by his officers? – currently the signs are far from encouraging. The Wikipedia entry for Kenya’s General Security Unit (GSU) opens as follows: “The General Service Unit (GSU) is a paramilitary wing of the Kenyan Military and Kenyan Police, consisting of highly trained police officers and special forces soldiers…”. Well I would like to know what exactly is meant by “highly trained”. A series of events from Westgate to the systematic raids, robbery and intimidation of the Somali residents of districts such as Eastleigh have demonstrated a desire not to serve and protect, but to self-serve and abuse. The activities of the GSU and other elements of the Kenyan State bring shame upon the country and raises serious questions about the ethical standards of those who are supposed to be leaders. True leadership is not about the heel of insolent might, it is about sensitivity, discretion and the ability to recognize that with power comes responsibility. At present all we see is thuggery and ill-disciplined behaviour that surely must have been sanctioned at the very highest level.
As Somalophobia is allowed to take hold and in certain quarters is actively encouraged it is regrettable that nations that are the usual cheer leaders of human rights have manifestly failed to condemn the human wrongs taking place in Nairobi and elsewhere. Political expediency and a multiplicity of base motives have ensured a silence that is near deafening. Incarcerations, beatings and the carting off of innocent citizens including women and children to Kasarani stadium have nothing to do with a so-called war on terror. Whilst some may choose to look the other way, at the very least bodies such as the Commonwealth that claim to espouse ethical values should be raising concerns and even be prepared to consider suspending Kenya if the current abuses continue unabated. Ethnic Somalis whether Kenyan citizens or not feel betrayed and failed not only by the international community, but also by their own community leaders and those across the Horn & East Africa. In addition the attitude of the Somali political leaders across the region has been described as at best weak and at worse positivity supine in nature.
Kenya has legitimate fears and as a sovereign nation is entitled to take reasonable steps to protect its people, but much of what is taking place at present is worthy of a lament: ‘Oh Kenya, what crimes against the innocent are perpetrated in thy name. Surely, this is not what your founding fathers struggled for?’
Mark T Jones
International Speaker & Leadership Specialist