By PROTUS ONYANGO
The Westgate Mall during the attack. [PHOTO: FILE]
Was Kenya paying the cost for its Israeli connection? That was the question many were left asking when terrorists killed more than 60 people and injured hundreds at Westgate shopping mall on September 21.
To begin with, the mall is said to be partly owned by an Israeli while many businesses there were operated by Israeli’s like the ArtCaffe owned by Alex Traitenberg.
But besides the ownership of the mall, Kenya-Israel have deeper connections, some of which are historical. Israel was among the first countries that opened diplomatic links with Kenya having opened its embassy in Nairobi in December 1963.
The two nations have always cooperated on security issues. As late as last year, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga held meetings with the Israelis in Tel Aviv. Israel had promised to work closely with Kenya on combating terrorism. In 2003 Kenya through Raila again requested help from Israel when he requested them to develop a national solar energy strategy.
“Israel has a Solar Energy Standards Committee dealing with the setting up of solar energy equipment around the world and we need their help in setting up such equipment in Kenya,” Raila had said.
Israelis have also been involved in training Kenya’s paramilitary forces like the General Service Unit.
Information available from Israeli news websites say that the owners of Westgate mall in Nairobi also own a similar mall by the same name in Bethlehem, Israel.
Controversy has broken out in Kenya over why security agencies didn’t foil the planners of the attack with Parliament calling for the National Intelligence Service (NIS).
The government has however defended NIS from accusations with sources saying it had raised the red flag long time ago.
But if the terrorists wanted to put a stop to the cooperation between Kenya and Israel, their atrocity only had the opposite effect.
Foreign affairs Cabinet Secretary Amb Amina Mohamed said Kenya “would not apologise for friendship with Israel”.
Security experts agree that owing to the mall’s Israeli ownership and its location which attracted the rich and the famous in political, corporate and diplomatic circles, it presented an irresistible target for the terrorists.
Its status also explains the seriousness security forces attached to the attack during which many people died, among them President Uhuru Kenyatta’s nephew Mbugua Mwangi and his fiancée Rosemary Wahito.
The world was united in grief on learning that one of Ghana’s leading scholars, Prof Kofi Awoonor was also been killed in the attack.
Others included Kenyans, Dutch, Canadians, British and Chinese citizens and diplomats. Some US citizens were also wounded.
The five-floor, 350,000 square-foot storey shopping mall was constructed by Japanese Sony Company from 2004 and opened its doors in 2007.
The mall houses over 80 businesses and can accommodate 12,000 people on a busy day, particularly during lunchtime and Saturdays.
Westgate mall is home to some of the world’s most prestigious brands like Nike, Adidas Bose, Bata, Woolworths, Safaricom, Mimosa pharmacy, Mr Price, Sir Henry and bookshops.
Simiyu Werunga, the Chief Executive Officer of the African Centre for Security and Strategic Studies said the mall was targeted because of its ownership and patrons.
“The mall is owned by an Israeli and terrorists want maximum impact, they want where they can kill as many people as possible and because affluent locals and foreigners frequent the area, that is why they struck,” Werunga said.
Emmanuel Kisiang’ani, a Nairobi-based analyst with South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies holds a similar view.
“Given the mall’s strategic nature, it is certainly a target for terrorists,” said Kisiang’ani.
Steve Oundo, the chairperson of the National Construction Authority (NCA) explained:
“Terrorists like hitting where it hurts hardest and given the international presence that loves the area, it was an easy target. By killing many people from all over the world, the attackers were sending a message that this is not only a Kenyan but international problem,” he said.