Westgate: “our turn eat” costs national security

During my brief tenure in government I clashed with senior colleagues who insisted that ‘eating’ from security contracts in particular was okay because the money was essential to pay for democracy that we all know is messy and expensive.

‘National security’ became the final refuge of the corrupt. My repost then and now was: when you eat from procurement deals meant for the police, military, customs, immigration at the top, then bureaucrats below watch and learn.

Like termites munching at the wooden foundations of the house of State everything soon becomes porous. Driving along a pretty rough road deep in a rural part of Pwani we once turned a corner to find ourselves staring at a magnificent palace of a residence in an area where the next best nearby house was the one that had corrugated iron on the roof.

When I asked whom the first house belonged to, I was told: “Oh, he works for Customs at the port of Mombasa”. And the house owner was a relatively junior civil servant.

That beautiful house was a bricks and mortar illustration of how systemic graft in Kenya makes a mockery of national security. Additionally, the networks used by money launderers, drug traffickers, modern day slavers and participants in grand corruption in the 21st Century are increasingly the same.


Then on September 21 terrorists linked to al Shabaab and possibly al Qaeda too attacked the Westgate Mall in the high-end suburb of Westlands in our capital.

Their stand-off with our security services lasted four days that were collectively infuriating, traumatising, saddening and utterly confusing to us Kenyans. At least 67 were killed, more than 170 injured and it remains unclear how many bodies remain under the rubble.

The truth was quickly the first victim of the attack. Today, most people I speak to treat government statements related to these key facts with scepticism. Many are in fact more inclined to believe the international press and even Twitter!

It’s embarrassing that the Guardian in the UK has emerged as the paper of record on Westgate and international broadcast platforms are now considered by many Kenyans as more reliable than the local press.

The episode allowed a demonstration of both the very best and the very worst in us all. On the one hand, many ordinary citizens and members of the security services went valiantly out of their way to assist others, donate blood and generally rally together in a manner unprecedented since the 1998 al Qaeda attack on the US embassy in Nairobi.

The President and opposition leaders joined hands in demonstrating empathetic leadership that was reassuring and much needed. But then it has become clear that actually government officials didn’t really know what they were doing during the siege.

Their ‘be calm and ‘everything is under control’ statements caused an effect not dissimilar to a dentist’s ‘this isn’t going to hurt’. While allowing for the fact that few could have imagined an attack of this scale and sophistication, nevertheless, repeated warnings from al Shabaab of a pending attack ought to have created for a much higher level of preparedness.

The intensity of bungling was demonstrated by an unprecedented ‘leak’ allegedly from the intelligence services desperate to demonstrate that they had warned all the necessary offices within government in advance but no action was taken.

It was much like the fire at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport’s arrival terminal at the start of August that was at first seemingly treated as a spectacle even by those meant to respond to it.

By the start of this week some of the international forensic teams that had been dispatched to help examine the bodies of the ‘dead terrorists’ had decided to leave the country in frustration when no bodies were produced.


To the outrage of many, it would seem that first responders took time to rob the high-class stores in the mall, consume a vast quantity of alcohol and even relieve the dead and dying of their blood soaked wallets and watches. This cold heartedness and corruption was utterly shocking.

Of all Kenya’s institutions the military has always been among the most respected by the middle class. Attitudes towards them in those parts of Kenya where they have conducted counter insurgency operations, however, are far more negative.

When it was announced in September 2012 that the army was being deployed to stop the violence in Tana River district many in the local community fled!

That said, however, our military has historically avoided dabbling in politics and retained an image of professionalism, efficiency and probity. Debating regional geopolitics with a senior Kenyan army officer is like discussing the issue with a PHd. candidate in strategic studies.

This reputation took a severe knock after the Westgate crisis when in hindsight things not only seemed to have fallen apart when the army arrived but reports are now replete of soldiers raiding the banks and stores in the Mall.

Then the highly respected, Lt. Gen. (rtd) Humphrey Njoroge, took the very unusual step of writing in a local daily essentially, gracefully and carefully, criticising his own former colleagues in a piece titled ‘The military lost the plot in Westgate siege’.

The article said that, “As a result Lt-Gen Njoroge worries deeply about two things regarding terrorism in Kenya. One is corruption, the other idle and highly trained former soldiers and policemen.

Corruption is at the heart of every Kenyan failure (emphasis mine)… To resolve these, he urges rearmament of Kenya’s moral fabric, and re-engagement of retired military and police officers.”


It wasn’t what was being said, it was who was saying it that struck me. Kenya has produced the continent’s finest officers in all the disciplined forces, but the key point Gen.

Njoroge was making wasn’t that our troops had the wrong equipment or other logistical limitations: indeed Kenya has almost all the hardware of a middle income country.

The ‘software’ failed at Westgate: the will to serve one’s country honestly and with honour; the will to put one’s life on the line for an idea called Kenya that a few terrorists were determined to violently undermine.

The terrorists, however, knew us well enough to take advantage of this fatal flaw. They obviously calculated that in a crisis “these people have the troops, the equipment, the intelligence and communication machinery, the fancy infrastructure of a modern security system, but they don’t have respect for anything other than themselves as individuals.”

The terrorists charged that the Kenyan army was inhumane in its dealings with ordinary citizens; while this by no means justifies what they did, the army’s actions were no contradiction.

The high moral ground was lost in the aftermath of the siege when the nation’s fury turned to the very ones it should have been lauding as heroes.

On Twitter the alleged al Shabaab Twitter accounts infuriatingly oozed with this contempt; they sneered at us, their apparently valueless Kenyan foes.

This makes it difficult to confront a committed enemy who has real faith in their cause no matter how utterly misguided; an enemy who believes enough to die for that idea.

After the siege, the government was quick to declare victory and saturate state owned broadcasting with patriotic music and reports of the heroism of our security services – not all false any way you look at it.

On the internet the regime’s supporters worked hard to whip up a fervour of nationalism and patriotism. President Uhuru’s speech 10 hours after the siege started was utterly impressive.

But it all rang hollow; there was an emptiness to it that was attenuated when one read of or was told about how rescuers turned into vultures at Westgate. This is a strong taboo in African culture.

In the stories told from our ancestors one does not hear of even starving people killing and eating vultures, jackals or hyenas – the scavengers of the savannah. This time though, in truth, the shock has been deep because the most affected have been the middle class.

That group of Kenyans with the greatest ability to make noise about an issue. A friend from Garissa was dismissive: “You people are crying now. This kind of thing has been happening in northern Kenya for decades.”


We don’t want to admit to ourselves that those cops and/or soldiers who may have stolen from the dead or raided shops from which the owners had fled were informed by a deep-set rationalisation of today’s ‘Hustler Republic’: “Our top leaders steal and get away with it, now its our turn!

Why whine about us small people ‘helping ourselves’ when the Big Men do it all the time without consequence?” “Our president and deputy president are at the Hague charged with the worst crimes a human being can be charged with and you are going to ask me about mere ‘theft’?!”

As more information becomes available about what happened, the big picture is beginning to tell a more complex story. One narrative is that the attack was dastardly but the response was far more unsettling in what it said about us and our security services.

Second, it forced the question: perhaps the ‘war on terror’ has excessively focussed on so-called failed states like Somalia and Afghanistan. There hasn’t been enough recognition that a highly globalised country with a coast and good infrastructure as far as the service sector is concerned, combined with a high level of systemic corruption may actually be just as preferable for terrorists to set up base as countries in the failed states category.

Training terrorists in Kenya would be a challenge but the country also is ideal for ready access to financial and legal services, offering a ready base – “for a small fee” to organise stuff.

For it is the case that corruption has in the past made it fairly simple to cross borders, obtain identity papers and generally transact officially. And so it is that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the world’s most wanted men with a US$5 million American bounty on his head for his involvement in a range of terrorist activities was said to have both Comoros and Kenyan identity papers. He slipped out of the hands of the Kenya Police in December 2002 and again in 2008.

This year Transparency International released its Global Corruption Barometer that polled approximately 1,000 people each in 107 countries. The findings are startling.

When respondents were asked if the had paid a bribe in the last year Kenya emerged as fourth from the bottom with 70 percent of Kenyans saying they’d paid a bribe in the past year.

This beat only Yemen (74 percent), Liberia (75 percent) and Yemen (84 percent). Never have we been worse off vis-à-vis graft if this and other surveys by organisations of repute are taken into consideration.


Kenyans are Africa’s most innovative, enterprising and resilient people. One need only marvel at the extent to which Twitter became the primary purveyor of news for many during the Westgate crisis.

It was used to mobilise the emergency response, share the latest developments and generally keep citizens informed in what had turned into an information vacuum on the part of officialdom. Westgate also demonstrated a more corrupt, shambolic and darker side of ourselves.

In truth, we celebrate thieves instead of imprisoning them; we elect those who pilfer public funds instead of throwing the book at them; we virulently abuse each other on the basis of tribe and yet employ grand pretentions to modernity.

This modernity is skin deep. Since the middle of the Kibaki regime, deepening and spreading graft has been excused away by throwing GDP numbers at those who complain about graft.

But then our entrenched corruption is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise that has de facto legalised graft. With the discovery of oil and other minerals, even Western countries that once placed graft near the top of their agenda in their interactions with us have gone silent.

Which is just as well – we need to find ourselves, and to set up systems that defend the integrity of who we are for ourselves. Well-orchestrated efforts have been embarked upon to delegitimise civil society’s role in this particular struggle.

It is Kenya’s good fortune that anti-reformers found themselves with no option but to support the current constitution, which has a host of previously unthinkable accountability provisions, and makes an effort to centralise the question of values that define who we are better than any economic indicator.

The spirit of the constitution carries within it the software of our nationhood. Thus the imperative to protect it. Westgate was so unsettling because we know this software has failed. The answers to fix it lie within us.

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