News of the on-going terrorist attack filtered into Nairobi already in the early morning. The nation followed the slaughter unfolding before its very eyes. Why was the government response so slow? No one apologized to the families of the victims for the poor job done. Once again people felt let down by President Uhuru.
Kenyans lived the drama and felt the wound. More than 148 students killed cannot be ignored. Yet, the realization that most could have been saved made the wound fester. Journalists left Nairobi as soon as reports reached the newsrooms and arrived in Garissa before the fast-reaction units that were supposed to stop the carnage. Kenyans started to ask questions; the answers they got saddened the nation even further.
On April 2, the Al-Shaabab’s attack started just before dawn. At least four terrorists killed the two guards manning the main gate of the university and gained access to the hostels where students lived. Hundreds of telephone calls alerted the police, the military – the barracks in Garissa borders the campus – and the families of the people living there. By 6:00 a.m. it was clear that terrorists were killing people. However, anti-terrorist units reached Garissa only late in the afternoon and had eliminated just four terrorists by 4:30 p.m. – but were they all?
Why did the State respond so slowly to the menace? Terror attacks are not new in Kenya, and the eastern regions have been the worst hit in the past years. One would expect a large presence of military and specialized units there, so as to counter attacks in the shortest time possible. Things became worse once security spokespersons claimed on international media that the response was adequate and swift. The truth of the matter emerged in a few days, and that has hit Kenyans even harder than the terrorism.
Elite anti-terror units have a helicopter at their disposal to allow for fast intervention everywhere in the country. Garissa lies less than 200 km east of Nairobi, a short flight by any standard. However, on the day of the massacre the helicopter was not available. The high brass had rented it out to businesspeople on a journey to Mombasa. This was not the first time it had happened, and most probably the deal was not sanctioned by a higher authority. The truth is hard to swallow: the very officials in charge of providing security to citizens are using state pledged equipment as their private property to make a profit, at the expense of the public. Because of this, hundreds of lives that could have been saved were sacrificed instead to the greed of a few.
Yet, the lack of proper transport cannot answer the question of the slow response. It took hours for the unit to simply board a lorry and proceed to Garissa by road. People are asking themselves if we are dealing with corruption and the reality of sabotage from within. This is not the first occasion security forces have taken a long time to respond. Is there someone, within the government, that is deliberately slowing down the security response in the case of critical events? In 2014, when the coastal town of Mpeketoni was attacked, the population was left at the mercy of terrorists for hours, even though security forces had manned camps at a walking distance from the town.
Kenyans felt let down by the government also because of other issues. Government spokespersons minimized the mistakes and admitted there were issues to look into only after a strong popular reaction. Also, no one apologized to the families of the victims for the bad job done. The smoke and mirrors strategy did not pay off. Kenyans are not prone to public demonstrations, and so there was no popular uproar. Even so, the government’s approval reached a new low. The bodies of the slaughtered students were taken to the Chiromo mortuary in Nairobi. Parents and other relatives had to go from body to body to recognize their sons and daughters. A gruesome exercise, capped by lack of proper refrigeration and ventilation in the mortuary. People were helped by volunteers: some offering tea, others offering counselling. The great absentee was the government. Even religious leaders visited Chiromo only after several days had passed.
The real reaction to the Garissa killings shifted to the funeral ceremonies and other religious and political gatherings held in the following weeks. These were completely missed out on by the international media houses, which seldom succeed in reporting the real political reverberation of the country. These meetings afforded people the opportunity to ventilate the need for change. In several cases, both majority and minority politicians were called to task. At a gathering in Gatundo north, President Uhuru’s home base, people who expressed support for the president still showed their aversion for the poor job done in the past weeks. Even though the critique was not aimed directly at the president, it was clear that feelings for him and his coalition may well change soon.
The opposition was not free from blame either. The Nation, the major Kenyan daily, noted how ‘the head of the opposition is too busy saving the country that he did not have the time to visit and offer condolence to the victims’ relatives’. And this is coming from the same newspaper which usually gives plenty of space to the opposition activities. Islamic bodies published the usual bulletins against violence, the wording never too strong against fellow Muslims. In private, representatives of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) lamented that the government did not support their proposal to identify and isolate dangerous individual within their own community. SUPKEM believes that a joint effort of government agencies and a selected group of imams would easily identify those who work for the radicalization of youth. Measures could then be taken to punish the culprits.
As usual, political matters in Kenya are extremely complicated. The intricate network of alliances and interests often leads to unforeseeable solutions. This time round, the lack of overt reaction may mean that people want to wait and see. The issues at stake are many: the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia, the commitment to war on terror on the part of the USA and Europe, internal security. Tribal and religious alliances have not entered the fray yet, but they could. That would be a negative and dangerous turn of events. The real evaluation of the situation will be made later this year, when President Barak Obama will visit Kenya, the land of his ancestors. The visit poses serious security concerns, ones the government will not be allowed to overlook.