Saturday, September 21, 2019

Westgate and African Policing

At noon on September 21, 2013, four armed men entered the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya and opened fire on everyone they saw. They were soldiers of al Shabaab, a fundamentalist Muslim party that had taken over much of Somalia. After Kenya invaded Somalia to destroy them and bombed their towns, killing hundreds of civilians, they decided to strike back at some Kenyan civilians.

In the telling of Ben Rawlence, what followed reads like a lesson in everything wrong with Kenya's government. The first police units did not arrive for 90 minutes, and they immediately began arguing about jurisdiction. Frustrated by the slow police response, some vigilantes found guns and went in on their own, helping many trapped people escape.
Eventually, at four p.m. the police 'Recce' unit entered the building without uniforms or badges and were soon engaged in a fierce gun battle with numerous heavily armed opponents. Only after their commander was killed did they retreat and realize the people they'd been firing at had been the Kenyan army advancing from the rear entrance. They didn't go back, but by then the attack was all but over. Sixty-one people lay dead in the mall. . . .

The next morning, President Kenyatta made a statement that bore little resemblance to the facts on the ground. Ten to fifteen 'armed terrorists' were still inside the mall, he said, and they had hostages. 'We have reports of women as well as male attackers. We cannot confirm details on this. Our multi-agency response unit has had to delicately balance the pressure to contain the criminals with the need to keep our people still held in the building safe. . . .'

The second day at the Mall ended in darkness, rain and gunshots. The third began with heavy gunfire, condemnations from world leaders and a massive explosion followed by black smoke billowing into a gray, baffled morning sky.
Not until the sixth day did President Kenyatta address the nation to say that Kenya had 'shamed and defeated our attackers.'
But in the following days, as the truth emerged about the fiasco of the response by his government, the incompetence and criminal looting of the mall by the army, and the frustrating of any investigations by the police, the shame was most squarely on him. The number of terrorists would be written down, from fifteen to eight and then, finally, to four. Wild clams from the foreign minister of attackers from the US, UK and several other European countries would be proved false. Pictures would emerge of mountains of empty beer bottles and banks and shops stripped clean by soldiers. The collapse of the parking lot claimed to have been caused by a fire started by the terrorists would turn out to be the result of a tank shell fired, allegedly, to obscure the fact that the vehicles inside had been stolen by the army. The FBI and UK Metropolitan Police would leave Nairobi in disgust having offered to help investigate only to find their efforts unwanted. The New York Police Department would release a report which claimed the most likely scenario was that the four terrorists escaped at the end of the first day of the siege. 
President Kenyatta appointed a commission to investigate, but they never issued a report.

From Ben Rawlence, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp (2016), pp. 321-325.

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