Last month, terrorists from the group al Shabaab attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people. In the wake of the devastating event, Kenyans rallied together in a showing of national unity often missing in this deeply divided country. Outside Kenya, the world expressed its sympathy and offered support to the country. And over the last month, under the bright spotlight of media, the government has manage to squander that good will so spectacularly that it calls into question the integrity of the most respected state institutions.
The attack occurred on a Saturday morning. The police were the first to respond, and, according to reports, managed to contain the terrorists in a corner of the Nakumatt grocery store. On Saturday evening, the KDF (Kenya Defence Forces) took over the operation from the police. A breakdown in communications between the groups led to confusion about the whereabouts of the remaining terrorists, and possibly allowing some to escape. At one point, the Kenyan military fired at the police inside the mall, killing one policeman who was responding to the attack. The siege on the mall lasted for four days, ending only after the Kenyan military fired anti-tank missiles into the store and destroyed three floors of the mall, possibly killing additional hostages.
During the siege, few details emerged about the attack and its immediate aftermath. Initial reports said that between 10 and 15 attackers stormed the mall. A month after the attack, a CCTV camera from the Nakumatt released to the press showed four men armed with AK-47s seeking refuge in the loading area of the supermarket, often putting down their weapons to pray. In addition to killing 70 innocent people, Al Shabaab could now say that four of its members held off one of the strongest militaries in Africa for four days.
A week after the attack began, shop owners were allowed to return to the mall to survey the destruction, and were surprised by what they saw. The entire mall had been looted. Everything – watches, jewelry, lingerie, electronics, and alcohol – was gone. The banks had been robbed. Six ATM machines were shot open and cash registers were emptied of their contents. Stunningly, the military claimed that it had not stolen the money, but rather “recovered and repatriated” it for the tenants at Westgate.
Within a week, 21 of the 85 businesses had filed reports with the police saying their stores were looted. Some business owners even questioned whether the military deliberately prolonged the attack to enable it more time to steal. Jeffrey Gettleman describes the aftermath:
Four days after that, the first shopkeepers were allowed back in to survey the wreckage. Millions of dollars of property had been destroyed, and businesses said that at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise were missing.
On Thursday, the talk among a group of forlorn shopkeepers was of “terrorism insurance.” Nobody there had it. But Mr. Manji hoped that would not matter.
“This was not terrorism; this was looting,” he said. “It’s sad that the people who were supposed to protect us have robbed us.”
At first the Kenyan military denied the accusations. A spokesman for the KDF, Major Emmanuel Chirchir, claimed that the military was being falsely accused, citing that one store – a shoe store – had not been looted. Chirchir stated: “It would also be good to list shops that were vandalised out of the over 80 stores. So far, Bata shop has talked of its shop being intact. KDF did a fantastic job, we know our enemies who have decided to use propaganda to undermine our public good will.” That was on October 5th.
On October 3rd, A Kenyan TV station claimed to have viewed surveillance footage that showed soldiers emptying cash registers into bags and walking out of the mall with white plastic bags. Last week, television stations in Kenya aired that footage, and it was damning. Soldiers walk into the supermarket, guns raised, and later are shown walking out carrying goods with one hand and rifles with another. One soldier is shown trying to break into a jewelry case, but is unsuccessful. The military claimed that the men were only taking bottled water from the supermarket to “quench their thirst” during the assault.
The Kenyan news media, led by the Daily Nation and the Standard, are generally hard-hitting journalistic institutions, particularly by African standards. They were highly critical of the military in the aftermath of the attack, as more information came to light. And they spared no institution in their excoriation of the government and its handling of the attack.
Instead of admitting they had indeed looted the mall, the military instead began looking for the source of the leak. They interviewed the founder of Nakumatt at a police station, and, when that did not turn up anything, trained their guns on the media. On October 24th, they announced that they would be arresting and prosecuting two journalists from the Standard for their coverage of the scandal. “You cannot provoke propaganda and incite Kenyans against the authorities. The two journalists will be apprehended,” explained the Inspector-General of the police, David Kimaiyo. So much for freedom of the press.
In perhaps the strangest twist of all, the Standard published an article on October 26th titled “Kenya Defence Forces considered among strongest, most disciplined army in the world.” The timing is certainly suggestive.
The drama continues to unfold in plain sight of the rest of the world. Coverage of the looting and the internal squabbles and blame-throwing can be found in every major newspaper in the world. Kenya’s reputation as lion of East Africa – a fast-growing economy with tremendous potential in the midst of region wracked by instability – is slowly being chipped away.
No where is this feeling more palpable than in Kenya itself. In a letter to the editor, a Nation reader shared his thoughts about the crisis:
Much has been said about Kenya Defence Forces’ conduct during the Westgate siege. I feel betrayed by our forces should the allegations against them be proved true. It is disheartening watching the last bastion of integrity falling to the beast of looting and corruption.
His opinion reflects the broader feelings of many in the country. Kenya is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It ranks 139th out of 176 on the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, the standard for assessing the level of graft in a country. The average urban Kenyan pays 16 bribes every single month. By some estimates, one-third of Kenya’s GDP is lost to corruption every year.
The national security apparatus was thought to be the last bastion of integrity in a sea of corrupt state institutions. This is why the realization that the KDF exploited one of the most vulnerable collective moments for the country in recent memory for its own deeply selfish gains is so troubling. If the core of the military is rotten, the thinking goes, what else is left?
The role of a free press is to expose corruption and graft and hold the guilty accountable for their misdeeds. Yet now the institutions that were supposed to protect the country are threatening that freedom by arresting and prosecuting journalists who are doing their jobs. It is a sad turn of events for a country that, just a few months ago, seemed to be on the verge of a renaissance.
John Githongo, a former journalist and anti-corruption official in the Kenyan government and subject of the book It’s Our Turn To Eat, lamented the Westgate scandal as unfortunate, not only with respect to the looting itself, but because of its predictability. In his conclusion, he explains the current state of affairs:
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.
The scandal is in the process of unfolding now. Where it will go remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the Al Shabaab did more than just murder 70 innocent people and terrorize a country. It revealed that even Kenya’s most venerable institutions are mired by corruption. And it is not surprising. Corruption is a cancer. Once it metastasizes, it spreads through the organism, infecting every piece of it. And Kenya, it appears, is even more infected than once thought.