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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

The attack on the Westgate shopping mall

Fellows and associates of the Institute responded in online and broadcast media to the attack by al-Shabaab on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall. RVI trustee Lindsey Hilsum reported from Westgate for Channel 4 News, where she is International Affairs Editor. In an article on the C4 site, she wrote: 

I lived in Nairobi for seven years back in the 1980s…. Some people are talking about this being a tragedy for the Kenyan middle class and expatriates, people like me who would shop in Nakumatt and have lunch at the Art Caffe… but many Kenyans who work in the mall also lost their lives.

She described a conversation with a waitress at a neighbouring shopping mall. 'So many of our friends were killed.' said the waitress. 'We cannot believe what happened.'

Lindsey Hilsum interviewed a Somali woman who had gone to Westgate when she heard that her friend–a Muslim Somali like herself–had been shot. From outside the mall, she kept calling his mobile. But the person who eventually picked up the phone was not her friend but his killer. The gunman said: 

'We don’t want him to go to the mortuary. He’s here on third floor at the parking lot. We want you to go the ambulance and talk to those Yehuds…' 

The killer, Lindsey Hilsum explained, 'didn’t want the body of a Muslim to be collected by the authorities, whom he referred to as “Yehuds”, meaning Jews.' It was impossible to go and get the body, so the woman informed the police. They persuaded her to ring the number again. In the middle of the conversation, the terrorist heard the police officers talking and cut the connection. 

Ambreena Manji, Director of the British Institute for Eastern Africa in Nairobi, in whose compound the RVI's Kenya office is located, also wrote about the social divide in Nairobi. 'The mall,' she wrote, 

is at once a response to, and a perpetuation of, a city segregated between the wealthy and the destitute. Reborn each day, sparkling clean, its shelves restocked with international branded goods, the Nairobi mall succeeds in making invisible the messy reality of life in a third world city.. those who clean the mall, serve its meals, guard it… go unseen, unknown, unheeded… The private security guard, paid the minimum wage, carried our children to safety through a pool of blood; the waitress whom we never greeted in three years of coffee drinking hid us in the cafe kitchen; the cleaner whom we never knew of ushered us to safety through a back exit.

Violence and the state

RVI Fellow Binyavanga Wainaina (@BinyavangaW), author of the coming-of-age memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place, tweeted frequently from Nairobi during the Westgate siege. He was one of the first to raise questions about the Kenyan authorities' handling of the crisis. On 23 September, as the battle at the mall continued, he and the novelist Teju Cole spoke at a memorial event for the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, one of the victims of the Westgate killings. (This was the last event of the Storymoja literary festival in Nairobi, which was halted in recognition of the Westgate events.) 

At a meeting at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington DC, Matt Bryden, a Somali specialist who teaches on the RVI Horn of Africa Course, explained that-Shabaab was deeply fragmented. The faction led by Ahmed Godane currently had the upper hand, he said. The Amniyat, an elite fighting unit within the group, was probably involved in the Kenya attack. 

In a blog on the US site Thinkprogress Ken Menkhaus, Director of Studies of the RVI Horn of Africa course, argued that the attack revealed the weakness of al-Shabaab. The organisation no longer controlled significant territory in Somalia, he wrote, and their recourse to terror tactics in Kenya was a sign of desperation. 'Somalia,' he wrote, 

desperately needs a “Sunni uprising” against the hard-core extremists who now make up what is left of Shabaab. If Somalis refuse to act decisively against Shabaab, then it will be up to foreign governments to crush the group. But this will entail crackdowns that will almost certainly impact innocent Somalis and legitimate Somali businesses in Kenya and around the world, and that is not in anyone’s interest except Shabaab’s. 

It required a Somali response on the part of Somalis that was swift and unequivocal. 'If that happens,' he concluded, 'the terrible attack of September 21 will go down as the day Shabaab dug its own grave.' 

Ben Rawlence, an Open Society Fellow, author of Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa's Deadliest War was less optimistic. He asked what it was that Kenya was doing in Somalia, and whether it was worth the price:

If the Kenyan government’s aim was, as it claimed, to destroy al-Shabaab, the intervention has been a spectacular failure. But there is much more to the story. In fact, retaliation against the militant group was little more than a convenient excuse to launch the so-called Jubaland Initiative, a plan to protect Kenya’s security and economic interests by carving out a semi-autonomous client state in southern Somalia… Kenya has installed a client regime in Kismayo, and has supported the new government in its quest to make Jubaland a semi-autonomous region, along the lines of Puntland, Somaliland, and the many other self-declared proto-states that have emerged as Somalia has unraveled… The United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported in July that the Kenyan Defense Forces have actually gone into business with al-Shabaab. The group’s profits from illicit charcoal (and possibly ivory) exported from Kismayo have grown since Kenya took control… The Kenyan state’s endemic corruption constantly undermines its policymakers’ goals. 

The culture of political violence in Kenya was the subject of a commentary by Jeremy Lind of the Institute of Development Studies. He concluded:

Strengthening security in Kenya will require more than tinkering at the edges of its security and intelligence structures, or expanding military operations in Somalia. Kenya’s military involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia, ostensibly to create a buffer between Kenya and violence-plagued southern Somalia, has failed to prevent terrorist attacks in Nairobi and elsewhere. Kenya’s political leaders should also resist the urge to rush through further anti-terrorism laws, or resort to punitive policing of its Muslim populations. Effective security requires getting the basic functions of government to work better for all Kenyans, not just its embattled political establishment. The Westgate attack has touched the very top of Kenyan society. Let us hope they will act in ways that meaningfully improve security not only for Nairobi’s well-heeled but also a wider citizenry terrorised by extremist violence and spreading conflict.

“Westgate tells me even more that we have to deal with accountability,” human rights campaigner and RVI fellow Maina Kiai told the Financial Times, citing allegations of looting and poor command and control by Kenyan authorities during the four-day siege. “We have a system that says if you’re powerful and rich you can do anything you want.”

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