Tag Archives: kenya

The Sad Aftermath of the Nairobi Attack

APphoto_Kenya Mall Fact Check

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.

Tragedy in Kenya

Joseph Mwangi, 34, sits in a state of shock after discovering the charred remains of two of his children at the scene of a fuel explosion in Nairobi on Monday. Image: Ben Curtis / AP

Today, a gasoline explosion killed more than 100 people in a slum in Nairobi.  The ones who did not burn to death were left badly injured .  Here is a description of the scene from Jeffrey Gettleman:

The whole slum seemed to spring into action, with men, women and children grabbing buckets, oil tins, battered yellow jerry cans — anything to carry the spilled fuel. Even minibuses raced in from miles away, looking for free gas, a small godsend in a place where most people are jobless and live in rusty metal shacks that rent for $25 a month.

But then the wind shifted, witnesses on Monday said, and embers from the garbage fires that routinely burn by the river wafted toward the gushing pipeline. There was no time to escape. The fuel exploded, sending a giant fireball shooting up over the slum, engulfing scores of people and scattering bodies that were left in various poses of anguish, burned to the bone.

I don’t know much about Sinai slum, other than that the company I work for operates a school serving the community.  It is similar to the 65 other slums in Nairobi, which house more than 50% of the city’s population, yet occupy only 5% of the land.  You can imagine the circumstances that lead to a tragedy like this.

My friends and family emailed to check in and see if I was affected, but the reality is the slums are another world from the other parts of Nairobi.  Yesterday, I was thinking about writing a post on the cognitive dissonance that stems from seeing the Kenya I see, and the fact that the country is considered the 16th most failed state in the world.  But I suppose this is it.  The growing middle class and cosmopolitan young people that make Nairobi a culturally diverse and sophisticated African city stand in stark contrast to the kind of poverty that drives people to the site of a gasoline spill, risking their lives to earn a few extra bucks.  Gettleman again:

Residents of the Sinai slum, where the fire broke out, said that fuel spills happened all the time.

“I can remember four times,” said Zackiyo Mwangi, a vendor of pirated CDs. “People started saying this morning, ‘There’s a spill, in the usual place, let’s get over there.’ ”

“Yeah, I know,” Mr. Mwangi added, “it’s dangerous, but that’s how life is here.”

“This just shows you how these people will do anything to generate a coin,” said Johnson Muthama, a member of Parliament. “Just look at them.” He gestured toward a crowd of thousands of onlookers, mostly young men in grubby clothes, staring gape-mouthed at all the bodies on the ground. “They are ready to risk their lives for anything.”

It is a tragedy.  100 people, including children, were killed.  They shouldn’t have been anywhere near a broken gas line.  Until the conditions change for Nairobi slum dwellers, the desperation that created this situation will remain.  And that desperation will drive people to do it again.  That is the real tragedy.

A woman is comforted after she saw the body of her child at the scene of a gasoline explosion in a slum area of Nairobi. (Tony Karumba / AFP/Getty Images / September 12, 2011)

Also, I need to comment on the photo at the top of this post.  Few photos have affected me in the way this one has.  For the last two days, I’ve come back and stared at this photo, which captures so vividly the numbness and despair when someone loses a child.  This man, Joseph Mwangi, lost two of his children to the inferno.  What is amazing about this photo, to me, is that it captures a moment in time that speaks to the despair felt by everyone in the community.  This is the moment of realization after the initial confusion – somewhere on the spectrum of denial, anger, and acceptance.   I can only imagine the grief he is feeling right now.

It shouldn’t have to be this way.  After a period of mourning, everyone needs to take a long, hard look at the institutions responsible for creating this tragedy and demand a change.  I’m afraid the fire in Sinai Lunga Lunga won’t be enough.

M-PESA and Mobile Money in Kenya

I’ve now been in Nairobi for two weeks and have settled in well.  I moved into my fairly upscale apartment in Kilimani, a section of Nairobi that is the beating heart of the tech and social enterprise scene here.  Up until last Saturday, I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor.  The landlord wanted to deliver a new bed frame, so I needed to let the movers into the apartment.  It was a total gong show getting this frame up the stairs, and I had to help them move it.  When it was all done, I was instructed to call the landlord and confirm that the job was finished.  After I hung up, the phone of the lead mover made a sound, they all smiled and went on their way.  In the ten seconds that elapsed after my call, the landlord successfully paid the movers via M-PESA, the ubiquitous mobile money platform in Kenya.

For those have never heard of mobile money, it is exactly as it sounds: money that can be transferred from on cell-phone to another via an SMS platform.  The most popular platform is called M-PESA, offered by Safaricom, the leading telecom provider in Kenya with almost 80% market share.  Created in March 2007, M-PESA is a dominant force in the country.  As of late 2009, an estimated two-thirds of the households in Kenya had at least one person using M-PESA.  A recent report titled “Mobile Money: The Economics of M-PESA” details a research effort that surveyed 3,000 users.  Here, the authors, William Jack and Tavneet Suri, describe the model:

Safaricom accepts deposits of cash from customers with a Safaricom cell phone SIM card and who have registered as M?PESA users. Registration is simple, requiring an official form of identification (typically the national ID card held by all Kenyans, or a passport) but no other validation documents that are typically necessary when a bank account is opened. Formally, in exchange for cash deposits, Safaricom issues a commodity known as e?float or e?money, measured in the same units as money, which is held I an account under the user’s name. This account is operated and managed by M?PESA, and records the quantity of e?float owned by a customer at a given time. There is no charge for depositing funds, but a sliding tariff is levied on withdrawals (for example, the cost of withdrawing $100 is about $1).

E?float can be transferred from one customer’s M?PESA account to another using SMS technology, or sold back to Safaricom in exchange for money. Originally, transfers of e?float sent from one user to another were expected to primarily reflect unrequited remittances, but nowadays, while remittances are still a very important use of M?PESA, e?float transfers are often used to pay directly for goods and services, from electricity bills to taxi?cab fares. The sender of e?float is charged a flat fee of about 40 US cents, but the recipient only pays when s/he withdraws the funds.

It is effectively a system of cashless payments and money transfers without the need for a bank account.  In essence, it functions as either a replacement for or a compliment to a traditional current account.  Much of the country, however, has limited access to bank branches or ATMs, making M-PESA the alternative to opening an account with a bank that may be located far away.

Customers can register for service on their phones and deposit money at one of the 25,000+ agents located throughout the country.  Agents can be independent retailers, stores, or any other business establishment.  The person gives the money to the agent, who then transfers the e-money to their phone.  The person can then transfer money to another M-PESA user or pay for goods or services rendered from a business.  Some people use it to pay school fees, or electric bills, or even taxi fare.

The impact on the country has been significant, and will continue to be a model for future mobile money programs.  According to the authors, M-PESA has had several rippling effects that have changed the way the country operates. Continue reading