The figure was a blow that sent one’s senses reeling. I was expecting a high number but 147 left me numb. I47 lives brutally snuffed out in a horrific, day-long orgy of killing. It is almost too much to grapple with, to ponder.
Yet ponder it we must. For even as the Cabinet Secretary for Internal Security, Joseph ole Nkaissery, solemnly announced the number that would make this the worst terrorist attack on Kenyan soil in nearly two decades, questions were already forming about whether this was just the latest in a series of eminently preventable terrorist atrocities that have now claimed more than 350 lives in the last two years.
The attack had begun about 16 hours before NKaissery’s announcement. Before dawn, four gunmen had stormed the Garissa University College, located within the eponymous county, killing two guards and then opening fire on students who had gathered for morning prayer. Then, as panic and terror spread, they moved to the four student accommodation buildings, killing at will.
By the time most Kenyans were getting the news, a coordinated response by the Kenya Police and the Kenya Defense forces was already underway and for once the security forces seemed to have learnt the lessons from the shambolic responses to previous attacks. Unlike the attacks in Mpeketoni in June 2014 in which more than 60 people were killed, it did not take more than six hours for the first security agencies to arrive. Some reports suggest a KDF unit was on the ground within an hour although they were largely ineffective in stopping the killings.
In contrast with the confused response to the September 2013 attack on the upmarket Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, at first glance the coordination between police and military units seemed much smoother. Certainly the media statements were much better choreographed. But there the differences end.
Like most other attacks, there was prior warning that this might happen. Along with other universities in Nairobi, the Garissa University College had warned students about a possible attack and police presence there had been doubled to four officers. A few days prior, the British government had issued a travel advisory to its citizens advising against travel to Garissa, among other counties. Such advisories, which the Kenya government continues to blame for the collapse in the tourism industry, were rubbished by President Uhuru Kenyatta the day before the attack.
Further, though it boggles the imagination that four gunmen could hold off police and military units for many hours while systematically massacring “hostages”, it is hardly unprecedented. Pretty much the same thing happened at Westgate where 4 gunmen supposedly kept hundreds of cops and soldiers at bay for four days, apparently taking time off to pray and relax while the security agents looted the mall.
Also, at Westgate, the famed elite police unit, the Recce Company, was forced to pull out early in the operation after their commander was shot by the KDF, allowing the terrorists to kill many more people than they otherwise would have. This time, their arrival at the Garissa University College was delayed by up to 11 hours, even though it apparently took them less than half an hour to end the siege. Just as it was stunning two years ago to hear the then Cabinet Secretary for Internal Security, Joseph ole Lenku, dismiss claims that the operation at Westgate was botched, so it is dumbfounding to today hear a spokesman for the Ministry describe the delay in deploying the Recce Company as “reasonable”.
Following that attack, the government responded with a crackdown that targeted the ethnic Somali population within Nairobi and was little more than an exercise in scapegoating and extortion. Similarly, Garissa itself, which is populated mainly by ethnic Somalis has been the site for “security operations”, the favoured official euphemism for collective punishment, for well over half a century. One such operation in 1980 resulted in an estimated 3000 deaths. Two years ago, a week into the Kenyatta presidency, another security operation saw the indiscriminate arrest of over 600 Garissa residents, including newly elected local leaders, by a security team the government itself had described as “rotten”.
Even worse, last year, under the pretext of responding to terror attacks, the government forced through Parliament draconian legislation to curtail fundamental rights to privacy, expression and a fair trial, which was subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the courts. Similarly, after the latest Garissa atrocity, President Kenyatta has once again responded with another directive of dubious legality, directing the police to ignore a court order that had frozen police recruitment following a corruption-riddled exercise last year.
Predictably, and as they did after Westgate, Kenya’s rapacious political elite has closed ranks to frustrate any prospect of accountability, with the leader of the opposition CORD coalition, Raila Odinga, coming out in support of the President’s illegal directive.
So, while on the surface it may have seemed that the Kenyan government had learnt some lessons, a closer inspection reveals that this is little more than window dressing. Fundamentally, nothing has changed except the government’s ability to project change. It is still treating security challenges primarily as public relations problems.
On Tuesday, the President’s spokesman, Manoah Esipisu, was asked about his boss’ promise in the aftermath of the Westgate attacks to institute a comprehensive inquiry into the security failures. He said that the President had concluded that a Parliamentary committee report (which Parliament itself through out as incompetent) and a forensic audit (which no one has seen) had provided all there was to know about the affair.
In truth, the President had deemed the country’s security less important than the egos and jobs of his top security officials. If you want to understand why 147 people died at the hands of terrorists two days later, and why for the last two years Kenyans have continued to regularly perish in large numbers at the hands of terrorists, that tells you everything you need to know.