• Thursday, February 22, 2024
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Westgate anniversary – taking stock of a nation’s tears


Early this week, American cable and satellite television network HBO released a one-hour documentary on the Westgate terror attack that happened exactly one year ago in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The film, available sometimes on, sometimes off YouTube brought us back to the tragic day on September 21st 2014 when Al Shabaab gunmen unleashed terror on unsuspecting shoppers.

We remember the day like it was only yesterday. The Westgate siege was particularly close to many people who frequented the upmarket Westgate mall located in one of Nairobi’s suburbs.  It was like your routine visit to Ikeja mall before all hell broke loose.
A year later, it is difficult taking stock of the memories that haunt, but as with every nation, there are lessons to learn on what this means to a people’s collective security, to their social gatherings, to their sense of nationhood. From my experience and the images that documentary filmmaker Dan Reed at HBO was able to collect, here are some lessons that can be shared with Nigeria on handling a crisis of this magnitude.

1.Danger lurks everywhere.
Initial news reports coming out of Westgate were of a bank robbery gone sour. As the news filtered in, as families began talking about sms’ and phone calls from loved ones and the Western media showed images from the attack, it was apparent that this was big. These were not gunmen attacking villages and police posts in Kenya’s Northern Frontier, which is routinely disturbed by marauding pastoralists or armed groups from neighboring countries.
The instability happened in a quiet Nairobi suburb at a place routinely visited by locals and diplomats alike, students and aid workers. Westgate mall housed banks and designer shops, tourist agencies, bookstores and the mega supermarket chain Nakumatt.
This is why we must be concerned about Boko Haram and its threat to the Nigerian nation. Abuja recently became a target and other towns should be aware that Boko Haram’s activities unless checked – God forbid- could easily trickle down to the very political and economic centers of the Nation. We cannot be content to saying – it’s a problem of the North. Al Shabaab’s retaliation to Kenya’s engagement in Somalia was routine and on a small scale before Westgate. It can happen anywhere.

2. Anyone can be a first responder.
The heroes of the day – perhaps brought out more visibly by the documentary – were ordinary Kenyans and then the police force. Businessman Abdul Haji, son of a former Security Minister was responding to a phone call from his brother who was trapped in the mall when he went in and realized what was going on. Armed only with a licensed pistol, Abdul sought to challenge the terrorists at their game. Indeed, his single act of courage ended up with the release of many hostages at the mall, hours before the security forces could come in and release the rest.
Kenya Red Cross, the country’s emergency services were quick to use their ambulances to ferry the injured from to hospital and save lives in the course of action. A young man who saved the life of a waiter who had been shot while getting water for an injured citizen quipped, “I had watched too many movies to know what to do with a gunshot wound. You simply apply pressure”. It saved someone’s life. You too can be a first responder.

3. A dark day brought out Kenyan’s collective grief and support.

Ordinary citizens waited outside and hugged shocked shoppers, transported injured citizens and collectively worked in one piece. When a nation possess a collective grief, nothing can be better than the good forces of humanity coming out together in support.
Kenyans quickly regrouped from the shock on their television screens and ran to nearby hospitals to donate blood. There were drives on major town areas – think of a blood drive centre opened at the Muri Okunola Park in Victoria Island – and everyone was eager to help in some way- at least give precious blood to the injured victims. More than Kshs 30 million (about N60 million) was raised within 24 hours of a Red Cross appeal to support the victims. Hospitals discharged people without requiring pay in the collective spirit of nationhood.
We will not forget the communities that made tea for the soldiers in the early hours of the morning and sent in dinner packs at night. The military officers guarding Westgate had the support of Kenyans. It was indeed a moment to be proud of despite the circumstances.

4. Soldiers must be trained in modern warfare and to respond in whichever situation.
I have been privileged in my past life to visit cadet soldiers in training school while our organization gave lectures in different areas. Many of them are trained to defend the nation in the worst terrain possible with the likelihood they will engage in combat in the bush. Terrorism the likes of 411, Westgate and now missing airplanes mean that soldiers cannot be restricted to the old school methods of training alone.
One of the challenges in responding to Westgate was that the Security forces did not have a map to the Westgate mall or know its access areas, as many of them had not been privy to the mall before.  How many of our soldiers routinely visit the Ikeja Mall or the Palms Shopping Complex outside of dropping the Oga to do his business there? Soldiers must engage in modern day warfare and it is the duty of the Defense Forces to ensure our soldiers are ready to tackle whatever security challenge comes our way.

5. Local media must tell our stories.

My former boss at my workstation in Nairobi at one time was Nigerian. Oga Adebayo once wrote a Facebook post where he lambasted the local Nigerian newspapers for culling a story from International news agencies while they had the means to get the story right from under our noses. The Kenyan media got their live feed yes, but the real stories were on the web, coming from as far as Washington, DC and Canada with exclusives. So were the images, until we realized many of those exclusives were taken by a Kenyan journalist and immediately sold to foreign media networks that valued the images more.
The HBO documentary is a good one, but in my view, it is skewed in the way the story is told. The West always carries an agenda in its news reporting. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Reed acknowledges that though this was a Kenyan story, one of its challenges is there are very few local protagonists in it. In his words, ‘“I thought, ‘this is a Kenyan story and a lot of the main protagonists are white or Asian,’ but what happened, happened,”
The Nigerian journalist, the African journalist must tell the African story. Boko Haram is a Nigerian affair and yet so much is unclear and so little honest investigative journalism is being done by the local media on this issue. Recently, a newspaper ran an article by a South African Press agency without even changing the tense in the article.  We must wake up to the reality that this is our nation and no one can tell our stories better than us. We owe it to the 200 girls still trapped in Sambisa forest in Chibok. Their days in captivity must count for something.

Anne Mucheke