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Westgate rises from the ashes: A celebration of the undying Kenyan spirit

By The standard | July 17th 2015

NAIROBI: A majority of Kenyans were unaware of the existence of the Westgate shopping mall before September 21, 2013. Located in the upmarket suburb of Westlands, the mall catered mostly to the well-to-do in society, foreigners and members of the diplomatic corps. On the fateful September day, the country woke to the news of a siege by the Somalia-based Al Shabaab terrorists.

For four days (September 21-24), the terrorists killed and held people hostage as security forces planned how to rescue those trapped in the building. Many will remember the valiant efforts put up by the civilians and the Kenya Red Cross personnel who braved bullets to rescue those injured. At the end of the siege, official figures put the number of the dead at 69. More than 175 people were reportedly wounded, but the number of terrorists who were killed remains a mystery today.

Following the attack, President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to set up a commission of inquiry. This was not to be. A report by a joint parliamentary committee that investigated the attack was acrimoniously thrown out of Parliament.

The Kenya Defence Forces came under heavy criticism for the manner in which they conducted the clearly uncoordinated operation and for preparing a report that is yet to see the light of the day. That notwithstanding, the Westgate mall is set to reopen its doors tomorrow after repair works to restore the damaged complex were completed. The terrorists might have claimed temporary victory, but ultimately, the victor is the Kenyan people who have refused to be cowed by the cowardly acts of a few misguided individuals bent on sowing seeds of discord and dividing the country along religious lines.

The resilience of the Kenyan people is impressive. It touched hearts to see the thousands of people who lined up to donate blood to save the lives of those who were seriously injured and needed blood transfusion. Some donated food to those helping in the rescue mission. The generosity, the kindness and the unity exhibited was unlike any we have seen before. That is the Kenyan spirit.

This newspaper celebrates the Kenyan spirit that has always remained unbowed. The spirit to lift ourselves up and stand up after a tragedy of such proportions. We did it after the Mtongwe Ferry, the 1998 US embassy bombings, Mpeketoni, Garissa, Mandera and even the 2007/08 post-election violence. The list is long.


But then, we are not just faced by the divisive schemes of terrorists, there are times when we have felt (and rightly so) let down by the national leadership who continually engage in hate speech that propagates tribalism, sectarianism and brutality.

But even as the shopping complex reopens, have lessons been learnt from the Westgate mall attack? It would seem not. The shambolic response to the Garissa University massacre that led to the death of at least 142 students in April was a sad reminder that few or no lessons had been learnt since the last tragedy. In supermarkets, shopping malls, Government offices and other important buildings, the security and surveillance put in place is laughable. Guards run their metal detectors over you without really paying attention. They absent-mindedly run Soviet-era mirrors on the underside of vehicles while looking away sometimes chatting among themselves.

The Government has budgeted for sophisticated surveillance methods. Yet despite that, occasionally, the country still comes under attacks, with the attendant loss of property and human life.

More needs to be done to assure Kenyans of their safety. Most importantly, we have acknowledged that security is a shared responsibility.

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