Westgate mall attack: how Kenya’s vibrant media exposed the army’s botched response


Kenyans should resist attempts to introduce legislation that would restrict press freedom

Murithi Mutiga
The Observer

Nairobi’s gold-chain-wearing senator Mike Sonko is Kenya’s answer to Boris Johnson: eccentric, slightly erratic and blessed with a popular touch and a political nous that belie his clownish persona.

Following the Westgate attacks, he came up with a curious wheeze. He bought eight parachutes, the better for him and his staff of seven to glide out of their 25th-floor office at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre and down to safety in the event of terrorists storming the building. The anecdote is the only one that has perhaps brought a smile to Kenyans’ faces since the Westgate attack, one of the most tormenting episodes in independent Kenya’s 50-year history.

The drawn-out nature of the siege at the mall and the casual cruelty of the attackers, who murdered pregnant women and children attending, of all touchingly innocent things, a cooking competition under the blue Nairobi sky, shocked people around the world. But Kenyans struggling to recover from the horror must also take in the shocking revelations of official bungling on an epic, even criminal scale that characterised the response to the attack.

Kenya has a famously vibrant media sector. It has faced criticism in the past, but after Westgate it was at its finest. The Daily Nation, Kenya’s best-selling newspaper, revealed that army special forces soldiers shot the commander of an elite police unit in a friendly-fire incident that prompted the Israeli-trained police squad to pull out of the rescue mission.

The most devastating news was revealed by the private TV stations that have proliferated in the last 20 years and compete fiercely for ratings. Reporters uncovered video footage that showed soldiers helping themselves to expensive phones and other items at Westgate after they had shelled the terrorists’ hideout.

That revelation has stunned Kenyans. Unlike the police, who are well known for their appetite for bribes, surveys before the Westgate attack showed that the military was the nation’s most trusted institution. Its soldiers are regarded as highly professional and have served with distinction in many United Nations peacekeeping missions. Unlike many of their counterparts in Africa, they have stayed in the barracks and not toppled a civilian head of state (although some junior officers attempted a putsch that was swiftly put down in August 1982).

Their reputation was only enhanced by the success of their mission in Somalia. Western armies could do worse than study the Kenyan mission to oust al-Shabaab from the key port city of Kismayo. The war was won before troops crossed the border. The military engaged in careful alliance-building with the dominant clans in the south of Somalia and won the support of figures such as Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, a henna-bearded former al-Shabaab commander who switched sides and is the commander of the most formidable fighting force in the south.

The fact that the Kenyans fought alongside the main clan group in the region meant it was easy for them to rout al-Shabaab and, more importantly, their alliances with clan leaders meant they didn’t face any meaningful local insurgency after al-Shabaab turned tail. But the Kenyan military now has a serious credibility problem following revelations that troops could not resist the temptation to line their pockets.

The government has not dealt well with the negative attention it has received. Its reaction was an error of colossal proportions. On Thursday evening, with only a handful of MPs present, parliament passed a ludicrously harsh media law that could seriously curtail the operations of the most vibrant press on the continent outside South Africa. Media houses and journalists that fall foul of the new law face fines of up to 20m shillings (£145,000). Reporters could be committed to civil jail if they don’t pay.

This new law is a big mistake. Freedom of the media in Kenya has deep historical roots. The country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was an imperious, confident character, part monarch and part political overlord of a young nation. Unlike many of the early African nationalists, Kenyatta felt confident enough to let the press be. At one point, the Kenyatta clan attempted to buy the Nation, but its owner, the Aga Khan, convinced him to drop the plan.

Kenyatta’s decision to make Kenya one of the more open societies on the continent and to pursue free-market economic policies at a time when many early nationalists chose the socialist path proved beneficial.

Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, is the current leader, having clinched the presidency in elections seven months ago. He is clearly not as confident as the family patriarch. But cracking down on the media is not a bright idea.

The fact that the press has shone a bright light on official incompetence shows one of the better sides of Kenya. Journalists doing that in many countries in the region would face prison or worse, but this openness is precisely why Kenya is the place where most investors and international organisations choose to set up camp when they come to East Africa. Kenyatta should not seek to drag the country down the path of authoritarianism. Serious security sector reform, with the help of partners in the war against international terrorism, would be a far better option.