Garissa: What has changed since Westgate?

More action will be required in Kenya if the war against al-Shabab is to be won, say analysts.

Kenya - Garissa University attack
The attack on Garissa University College in the northeast left 148 people dead, mostly students [AFP]

In September 2013, I covered the Nairobi Westgate Mall four-day siege. The government response then was dismal and uncoordinated.

There was a huge disconnect between security agencies and the central command was unclear. We were given conflicting, sometimes incorrect information on what was really going on.

The government response to that crisis can at best be described as clumsy.

Until now there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Many Kenyans don’t even believe the government when it says the gunmen were killed.

Accusations and counter-accusations between agencies followed. It turned out that the country’s intelligence service had actually warned police bosses of an imminent attack. Several public institutions including Westgate Mall were listed as potential targets.

Al-Shabab bragged about the siege and warned of another “spectacular” attack. “Blood will be running through your streets” was the threat used.

Fast forward to 2015 and I find myself in Garissa with another difficult story to tell. Another 148 people, mostly students, have been brutally murdered. It’s widely believed the toll could be higher.

So what has changed in terms of strategy and response since Westgate? What lessons have we….has the government learnt?

Proper chain of command 

Some people say much has changed, others say very little has and the sceptical will say nothing has changed.

The response to this university attack was considerably better. Security agencies were more coordinated, there was a proper chain of command and one source of information.

This time however, the government tightly controlled the narrative. Officials gave us what they wanted us to hear, showed us what they wanted us to see. The scene was completely sealed off.

We were frequently confronted by angry military personnel who had firm instructions to keep journalists away.

One soldier angrily shoved me and said he was tired of journalists “embarrassing” them.

Another thing that was done differently this time was a public display of the remains of the Garissa University College attackers. The government was eager to prove to Kenyans that the gunmen had indeed been killed and to also see if anyone could identify the bodies.

As with Westgate, it has now emerged that days before this tragedy, there were intelligence reports of an imminent attack on public institutions including universities. Some campuses in Nairobi warned their fraternities of these threats, and told their staff and students to stay alert.

In Garissa, at the only university in northeastern Kenya, no such measures were put in place. At the time of the attack there were only two police officers assigned to guard about 815 students and unarmed private security guards – two of whom were killed.

‘Political rhetoric’

After Westgate, a fragmented political elite united and the government promised the “severest” action against the masterminds of the attack. A sombre-looking president Uhuru Kenyatta vowed “never again”.

Fast-forward to Garissa in 2015 and politicians – particularly northeastern leaders who are usually at loggerheads – are again united. They’ve stood together and promised action.

But a doctor who has worked in Garissa for years and has seen many other attacks says he is tired of “too much political rhetoric”.

“The script is the same. An attack happens, we’re told no stone will be left unturned, that security will be beefed up,” he said at a public meeting.

“Top government officials and politicians fly in, tell us they’ll protect us better and when they leave, another attack happens.”

His frustration is shared by many.

To be fair to the government, there have been several radical security changes since Westgate.

The police chief and interior minister under whose watch that siege and several other subsequent attacks happened, were replaced. An amended security law aiming to strengthen security forces in the fight against terrorism was passed. Some clauses gave sweeping powers to police to detain terror suspects for up to a year, compelled journalists to seek government permission to cover terrorist attacks and allowed police to tap into the communication gadgets of “terror suspects”.

Eventually the High Court threw out some of the amendments that seemed to contravene the bill of rights enshrined in the constitution. The new law may not be what the government wanted, but it still strengthens the capacity of Kenya’s security forces.

No manual against terrorism

State officials also say that through vigilance, many intended attacks have been foiled.

The truth is, there’s really no manual on how to deal with terrorism, especially when it appears to be home grown.

Al-Shabab has infiltrated the country and young Kenyans are now being recruited to carry out the group’s dirty work. 

Many of those we’ve talked to in the northeast and the coast are frustrated about injustices and marginalisation. A huge population of disillusioned youth is vulnerable to radicalisation and recruitment – for a fee.

The Kenyan-Somalis who live in the north feel disenfranchised. They say they are viewed with suspicion and as “lesser citizens” by the government and fellow Kenyans, and are targeted indiscriminately by security forces in terrorism related crackdowns.

They agree that, yes, there are bad elements within them. There are those who harbour and help people intent on doing harm to others in the name of misplaced religious ideologies – but they say security forces often make it difficult for residents with crucial information to collaborate.

One of biggest failings though is the government inability to deal with corruption, which is deeply entrenched in the police force.

Police officers are poorly paid and normally easy to corrupt.

When I was at the Kenya-Somalia border town of Mandera last year after a bus attack that left dozens of people dead, residents told me that sometimes a bribe of as little as a hundred shillings (a little more than a dollar) can buy anyone entry into Kenya.

Analysts say that these problems must be addressed.