By Barry Nyauke ’13
On September 21, 2013, the world’s attention was captured by a brazen attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Members of Al Shabaab, a Somali Islamist militant group, laid siege on the mall with military grade weapons leaving at least 67 dead and close to 200 injured. The Thunderbird Community converged on October 3, 2013 to reflect on the tragedy and discuss the historical, cultural and economic context and implications of the attack. Richard Beitman ’14 in collaboration with the Thunderbird Student Government organized a panel that included Prof. Eileen Borris, a specialist in international conflict resolution, Prof. Femi Babarinde, an expert in doing business in Sub-Saharan Africa and myself, a student hailing from Nairobi. A majority of the students at the discussion had been directly or indirectly affected by the incident. The interconnectedness and global reach of the Thunderbird community cannot be overemphasized.
The geographical context sets the stage for the historical events leading up to the attack. The two countries share a 682 km (423 mile) border and a porous one at that. Since the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991 and the subsequent outbreak of a long and vicious civil war, Somalia has been a major concern for Kenya. Illegal weapons have been smuggled into Kenya leading to heightened insecurity and the frequent raids and kidnappings by Somali militants have negatively impacted on one of Kenya’s main foreign exchange earners – tourism. In October 2011, the Kenya government finally sent troops into Somalia. As Prof. Babarinde pointed out, this was only possible because of a change in stance by the African Union (AU) regarding non-interference in other member states’ affair. The AU, with funding from Western governments, has been running a peace enforcement mission in Somali thus Kenya’s involvement towards achieving the same goal was welcomed. Al Shabaab threatened to retaliate especially after losing control of Kismayo; a port city on the Indian Ocean that was its main source of financing. True to their threat, Al Shabaab has carried out 12 grenade attacks in Nairobi alone.
The siege on Westgate was therefore not an isolated event. In aftermath of Westgate, debate has been centered on the implications of the attack. Is it the beginning of a religious conflict pitting the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Kenya? Prof. Babarinde was quick to dismiss that notion. Some of the casualties in Westgate as well as the majority of those who have died in the Somali civil war are Muslim. A second critical question is what is the impact of the attack on the Kenyan economy? Undoubtedly, the tourism industry will take a substantial hit. Moody’s estimates are that Kenya will lose $200 – 250 million in tourism revenue. The US government has already issued a travel advisory warning US citizens of the risks of travelling to Kenya. Corruption and poor governance is another theme that must be highlighted. Corruption made it possible for the weapons to the smuggled into the country undetected. Poor governance meant that the security agencies were unprepared for such an attack despite collecting credible intelligence that it was impending.
Institutional reform must take center-stage if such an attack is to be prevented in future. The middle class in Kenya particularly must use take the lead in pushing for reforms. Currently, members of the Kenyan middle class fill the gaping holes left by government. They build their own schools and hospitals, hire their own security, and even in some instances build their own supporting infrastructure such as water supply, power and roads. The focus must shift to government in the provision of public goods. The presence of corruption and a culture of acceptance of incompetence however undermine such efforts. In 1998, Kenya was in crisis after Al Qaeda bombed the US embassy, killing close to 250. Will Kenya learn this time round? Only time will tell.