It is not any one thing that could have prevented the attack on the Westgate Mall in Westlands, Nairobi. But all the terrorists needed was for one of those things to fail in order for them to succeed. Since the Kenya Defence Forced obeyed their Commander-in-Chief's order to deploy to Somalia and deal with the al Shabaab threat, Kenyans have been placed on high alert to acts of terrorism. These have followed one another with buses, religious crusades, bars and places of recreation being attacked by the terror outfit. Kenyans have had to endure heightened scrutiny from increasingly blase security offices at various installations and businesses. With the notorious attack by the former Deputy Chief Justice on a security officer at another high-end mall on New Year's Day, Kenyans have increasingly chafed at being prodded and scrutinised while entering places of business that prod and scrutinise their patrons.
The safety of Kenyans has frequently taken a back-seat to the security of the nation, and of its means of doing business. The priority, obviously, in security has been the preservation of the State and its authority. This is reflected in the statutes that we have on the books regarding policing, the military forces, intelligence and official secrets, as well as in the deployment of forces of law and order. Al Shabaab must have studied the security situation in the capital and drawn the proper lessons in order for them to take this rather bold step of attacking a symbol of Kenyan middle class advance. The procedure when entering the mall is not designed to identify and stop threats; it is designed to feed the mirage of safety in the minds of patrons. It is ineffective in interdicting threats. It is a facade.
When Kenyans were brutally murdered in Western Kenya in the aftermath of the general elections, the calls for enhanced security from elected lawmakers were more or less ignored. This followed a pattern established in the wake of similar attacks in North Eastern Kenya and the Coast. Indeed, even after dastardly attacks in the Capital, the reaction differed only in the volume of name-calling and blame that issued from elected representatives, and the knee-jerk deployment of uniformed police by the Executive. A determined enemy, which al Shabaab surely is, would find a way around the rudimentary public safety system in place, which it did on Saturday.
The police are fond of reminding us that security, as opposed to safety, begins with us. We, the civilian population, must be vigilant and identify and report security threats whenever we find them. However, our national psyche is such that we refuse to take even the most rudimentary steps to manage public security; we are more concerned in building ever higher razor-wire-topped walls around our homes than in taking notice of strangers in our neighbourhoods. Residents' associations take the question of security only as seriously as they are required to pay security fees and leave the security management to one or two people. Our mindset revolves around "Me, me, me."
Our mindset is a reflection of the Executive's mindset, indeed the mindset of the whole government. In its determination at self-preservation, the State has treated its subjects with disdain and barely concealed contempt. The people are a threat, always. They are to be treated as a threat, at all times. Their input into the management of the security of the State will be taken only when all other options have been exhausted, including extra-legal measures such as unlawful detainments and detentions. Or unlawful renditions of undesirables to places outside Kenya without the bother of an order from the Judiciary. The rule of law, such as it is interpreted to be by the government, is frequently a weapon deployed against the people than for the people.
Our focus on national security at the expense of public safety all but guaranteed the siege at the Westgate. Because of the Executive's selfish outlook on national security, the deployment of forces of law and order is not designed to keep the public safe, hence the lack of police presence in and around high-value, high-volume places of recreation favoured by the public. It is why when the initial reports of gunfire and explosions at the mall were received, the police dismissed it as just another robbery, and why it took them over an hour to respond and even then, not in force. It is why Kenyans are prepared to believe that in addition to the deployment of elements of the Kenya Defence Forces, there are foreigners among the security officers responding to the siege. It is all but guaranteed that if we do not shift focus from national security to public safety, Westgate will not be the last, or the most heinous, success of the dastardly footsoldiers of al Shabaab.