October 1, 2015
On Tuesday, September 21, 2015, mall and Nakumatt staff gathered at the new Westgate Mall in Westlands, Nairobi to honor those lives lost in the attack two years ago. The same day, a few minutes down the road in Karura Forest, where a memorial plaque is placed to remember those killed in the attack, a small group of people, mostly the families and friends of those lost, gathered to honor them with interfaith prayers.
That day, two years earlier, al-Shabaab gunmen entered the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killed 67 people, wounded 175, and left the country with a resounding sense of loss and the collective trauma from the event. This loss and traumatization would only worsen as the nation spent the next several days watching footage of the 80 hour standoff as though they were seeing friends, family and fellow residents gunned down live, before their very eyes. One university student at Moi University wrote, “Millions of people watched the media circulate images of the traumatic events that transpired and gripped the nation together in real-time. The Westgate mall terror attack can only be compared to America’s 911 attack…” For many Kenyans, this event changed their lives forever.
Though the personal loss was great, Westgate marked two important changes for the country as a whole: 1) It changed the way the Kenyan government and its officials approach questions of security; and 2) It changed the government’s approach to terrorism.
Towards a Greater Security
Following the attack, two important things changed about security in Kenya. First, it got bigger, both physically and monetarily – with thousands more police and security officers and significantly more money spent on personnel and training. Second, the government started designating many more resources for anti-terrorist campaigns. Today the vast majority of malls and businesses in Nairobi require visitors to pass through several levels of security before entering. One security firm executive said, “In a way it has [boosted business] because our clients have been concerned.”
The every day lives of Kenyans have been permanently impacted. From a walk to the grocery store to a ride to work each day, security, be it administrative or general police, pervades Kenyan Society. This is largely due to a shift in the governmental approach to security. In the first year after the Westgate attack, the government increased security spending by 24 percent and employed as many as 10,000 more police officers.
Since the attack, Kenya’s security apparatus has refocused their approach to anti-terrorism training. One former military intelligence officer explained that the government has increased emphasis on anti-terrorism tools through improving skills such as, “surveillance, detection, profiling, and what security officers are looking for in the field.”
The increased emphasis on detection and profiling has changed the way police and other security officials interact with the public. One news source wrote, “Proper verification of national identification cards and other supportive documents along the Kenyan borders with Somalia and Ethiopia have been intensified and mandatory to all nationals.” While tightening border security can be positive, civil society groups and human rights organizations have criticized the long-term negative effects of a heightened anti-terrorism agenda and the use of tools like ethnic profiling as a solution to such problems. The Kenya National Commission for Human Rights, for example, published a document this month called “The Error of Fighting Terror With Terror”, in which they criticized the post-Westgate security agenda for allowing massive ethnically biased human rights violations. The commission writes that it “is concerned that the ongoing crackdown continues to disproportionately target certain groups of people particularly ethnic Somalis and members of the Muslim faith in the coastal region.”
The Kenyan government has taken precautions to ensure an atrocity like Westgate does not happen again. The new Westgate structure has as many as 56 security guards and was rebuilt with no balcony seating to ensure terrorists cannot scale the new building. Beyond these superficial changes, many Kenyans question the ability of the state to keep its citizens safe. Speaking of the Westgate attack and the government’s response, one individual wrote, “Lost an irreplaceable friend and colleague…Kenyan govt has done nothing serious to improve security.” For many Kenyans, while the government has committed numerous human rights violations, not nearly enough has been done to genuinely improve the security situation in the country.
Rajon News September 21, 2015 The Star Kenya September 21, 2015 Voice of America September 21, 2015 The Guardian October 4, 2013 al Jazeera September 24, 2014 al Jazeera September 26, 2013 CNN March 21, 2014 CNN July 19, 2015 BBC September 19, 2014 Daily Mail July 18, 2015 New Vision September 21, 2015 The Standard September 21, 2015 Voice of America September 21, 2014 Tamuka News 2014 KNHCR September 2015 Human Rights Watch September 26, 2013 Open Society Foundation October 31, 2013 Academia 2015