The Westgate Mall attack and Kenya’s national amnesia

There has been little government effort to investigate the 2013 terror attack in Nairobi or to remember its victims.

[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]

Eight years ago, on the morning of September 21, four young men, armed with automatic rifles and grenades charged into the Westgate Mall in the uptown Westlands district of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. They went on a rampage, killing 68 people and injuring hundreds more and sparking a traumatic four-day standoff with the Kenyan military.

What went on in the mall for those four days has remained a closely guarded state secret to date. Media investigations have shown that “the assault on the Westgate Mall lasted only a few hours, almost all of it taking place before Kenyan security forces even entered the building” and that by the time they did, “most of those who would escape had already escaped; most of those who would be wounded had already been struck; and most of those who would die were already dead”.

Yet, with the mall sealed off, for four days the country and the world were treated to an orchestrated performance of “fighting terror” replete with confusing and contradictory government updates, regular explosions and bursts of gunfire, as well as tales of fictitious “hostage” rescues and “terrorists” burning mattresses. At the end of it all, the mall stood empty, cleaned out by the “rescuers” who apparently had time, in between fighting terror, to have beers and break into shops.

Despite promises by President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew was among those killed in the attack, to institute an official inquiry, none has materialised. Today the mall has been refurbished and is once again a site of bustling commerce.

There is little there to remind the many shoppers of what happened, except perhaps the increased security and improved access design. The only public memorial to the incident was built using private donations a year later nearly 7km away in a secluded section of the Karura Forest. The mall itself stands today as a monument to national amnesia, to forgetting and moving on.

Kenya has never been particularly good at remembering the past, especially when that past has the potential to embarrass and implicate the people in power. This is a legacy of its colonial upbringing. At independence in 1963, the British burned and looted official documents in a largely successful attempt to erase the systematic theft and sadistic brutality and violence that accompanied their “civilising mission”.

The political class that inherited the colonial state used it in much the same way the Brits had – to enrich themselves and brutalise the natives. They too have little interest in a truthful account of the past. Since 2013, they have conspired to bury the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission which was established in the aftermath of the 2007 post-election carnage to look into gross violations of human rights and historical injustices that had occurred in Kenya in the first 45 years of independence.

This enforced forgetting continues to be a bane of Kenyan governance and democracy. Less than a year from now, the country is scheduled to hold a general election. History has shown that the greatest national security challenge the country faces is not from “terrorists”, but from a bungled or stolen poll.

Following the 2007 violence, in which at least 1,400 people died and many more were raped and displaced, a commission was set up to recommend changes to the electoral system. To date, many of its recommendations are yet to be implemented and those that have been, continue to be undermined by a political class more interested in elections it can manipulate rather than free and fair ones.

A decade later, violence over yet another disputed presidential election claimed more than 100 lives. In a historic first, the Supreme Court annulled the election citing numerous irregularities which shattered public faith in the impartiality of the electoral commission.

Yet there is very little talk today about the need to fix the system. The last four years have been wasted battling an ill-intended government effort to change the constitution that only paid lip service to the need for electoral reform.

“The real question here is: ‘how much do we want to forget and how much do we recognize pasts that are really painful?’,” wrote Dick Omondi, a Kenyan marketer, four years ago, advocating for a memorial at Westgate. Much of Kenya’s past is indeed filled with pain. But the effort to forget rather than learn from it only ensures that the pain will be carried into the future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.