21st September, 2013 will forever be etched in the history of Kenya. That was the day that shoppers at Westgate Mall were mercilessly attacked by gunmen in broad daylight. We lost 72 of our loved ones, some of them children and it hurts us very deeply. Some 61 people are still reported missing and over 180 people were injured. We have been a nation in mourning this week, trying to make sense of what happened to unarmed civilians.
As the events of that Saturday morning unfolded, what initially appeared to be a robbery gone wrong slowly turned out to be a siege that would last four days. During those first hours of confusion, it is understandable that information was scarce and unreliable. But as the media houses rapidly shut down on communicating anything to the public as they waited for “official truth” from the responding government agents, the real machinery of terror reared its ugly head.
In the subsequent lull driven by a media campaign dubbed #WeAreOne, the gunmen identified themselves as Al-Shabaab on twitter. While the Kenyan media completely shut down on giving any information other than “official truth”, Al-Shabaab agents through their twitter accounts and through their representatives fed social media and the international press a consistent barrage of threats and intimidating rants aimed at driving fear among the masses.
This is where we were failed. While Kenyans were told over and over that “now is not the time to question” the international press had broadcasted the threats and intentions of a terrorist organization to the whole world. In that time, when we were grieving, and still trying to come to terms with the events, the terrorist had taken center stage and were literally bragging off their success in the Mall attack and our government was still not communicating.
It soon became clear that government was reluctant to give consistent and honest updates in a timely fashion. We have a situation where the Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs confidently tells the international media that there was a woman among the attackers, of whom some were believed to be citizens from nations other than Somalia or Kenya, and then the Cabinet Secretary For Internal Security denies repeatedly that there were any women among the attackers. While all this was happening, a blog mysteriously turns up on social media, which informed that Samantha Lethwaithe AKA the “White Widow” was the woman leading the attack inside the mall.
When it came to the propaganda that followed the Westgate Attack, the Al-Shabaab was way ahead of government. While the Kenyan officials waited several hours to address the public, the Al-Shabaab leadership had a representative named Abu Mansur in direct contact with the international media and giving several interviews on why they attacked the Mall and what their future intentions and demands were. They disputed the figures released by the government of those who had died, they disputed the information released that the mall was secure, they disputed that there were no hostages inside the mall by Sunday night.
Al-Shabaab’s strategy to drive terror through information worked very well because of our government’s response. While the government kept insisting that the situation was in control and would end very soon, it dragged on for 4 days. While the government claimed that “most” hostages were released, there were no images of any released hostages after Saturday. While the government said that the situation was coming to a final push on Sunday night, we heard gun fire and explosions on Tuesday morning.
The lack of consistency in informing the public was epitomized in Joesph Ole Lenku, who announced that the dark plumes of smoke rising out of the building were “burning mattresses.” Hours later, the “mattresses” were still burning and the roof of the parking area had caved in.
When Kenya invaded Somalia in October 2011, operation Linda Nchi was a push to end the menace of Al-Shabaab and to secure our borders, and our government was very cocky and self assured. KDF forces were consistently giving updates to the press through regular briefings and the media was allowed to be embedded with the forces on the ground. The campaign was run very smoothly according to our officials, “the official truth” was that KDF had captured, killed or subdued Al-Shabaab fighters in each and every town they controlled up to Kismayu. We were told confidently that the Al-Shabaab threat had been contained and that KDF forces were now ‘re-hating’ under AMISOM.
Two years later, the same government of Kenya is caught unprepared and seemingly unaware. The previously effective and efficient KDF takes 4 days to secure a Mall from attackers said to be only 10-15. The information given out by officials is inconsistent and unclear, allowing for wide confusion as to what was really going on. Instead of reassuring us that KDF indeed had the situation under control, the misinformation by the government affirmed the frightening announcements by Al-Shabaab that they had the upper hand.
“The Official Truth” is a cringe worthy phrase. It is a statement that should make the hackles rise on any journalist and immediately raise suspicion. When the entire nation is told repeatedly that “now is not the time to question” you have to wonder why we should not question what we are not being told. In a war, there is always propaganda; it is extremely distressing that in this particular event we got more mind numbing propaganda from our own government than our enemy. “The official Truth” is an approach that actually fuels the fire of terror, and one has to question WHY the government would do that.