Westgate Mall siege the first test of Uhuru Kenyatta’s mettle as Kenya’s new president


UPDATE:  Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has made a statement about today’s assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, which has killed 39 people.  Declaring terrorism a ‘philosophy of cowards,’ and declaring Kenya will respond in a manner ‘as brave and invincible as the lions on our coats of arms,’ Kenyatta responded with grace, strength and compassion, rallying the unity of the Kenyan people.

The despicable perpetrators of this cowardly act hoped to intimidate, divide and cause despondency among Kenyans.  They would like us to retreat into a closed, fearful and fractured society where trust, unity and enterprise are difficult to muster.  An open and united country is a threat to evildoers everywhere.

It’s worth watching in full:

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Today’s attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall — perhaps the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 assault on the US embassy in Nairobi — is the first crisis of the nascent presidency of Uhuru Kenyatta.Jubaland_flagsomaliakenya

Al-Shabab, the Somali militant group, has taken responsibility for the attack.  The assailants, who attacked the mall with a combination of machine guns and grenades, may have killed over 30 people and injured many more.  It’s not the first time the radical Somali group has threatened Kenya — and it follows an al-Shabab attack in July 2010 in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 74 people within a peaceful crowd that had gathered to watch the 2010 World Cup finals.

Al-Shabab’s rationale lies in the Kenyan invasion of Jubaland, the semi-autonomous tract of southern Somalia, in October 2011 and its subsequent role as part of an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.  But the sudden attack on a shopping mall full of civilians — including expatriates, women and children — is a senseless and asymmetrical act of terrorism.

Even as we remember the victims of today’s tragedy and even as our thoughts remain with Nairobi police, Kenya Defense Force officials and hospital and health care workers carrying out rescue and recovery efforts, Kenyan policymakers face some weighty and difficult days ahead.

Kenyatta (pictured above, left) wasn’t president at the time of Kenya’s initial invasion, and he didn’t ask for this conflict when he was elected in March 2013 as Kenya’s fourth post-independence president.

But the challenge is his first serious crisis as president.  That’s not to say that the challenges of boosting Kenya’s economy or maintaining the calm and orderly process of sorting out land reform in Kenya.  But Kenyatta’s response to the Westgate killings places the Somali question at the heart of his administration, even amid signs that Somalia’s central government based in Mogadishu, with strong support from the African Union and Western governments, is making tentative strides (at least compared to more than two decades of civil war and state failure following the fall of strongman Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991).

It’s not an enviable position for Kenyatta.

If Kenyatta withdraws into what has been the traditional comfort zone of Kenya’s military and civilian leadership, it will mean that the most powerful (and still, even after today, by far the most stable) east African country is backing away from its vital role in solving east Africa’s most pressing regional security challenge.  But if Kenyatta launches a hasty, retributive wave into southern Somalia in the weeks or months ahead, he could also risk drawing Kenyans further into a quagmire — with the possibility of future al-Shabab terrorist attacks within Kenya.  Striking the right balance will be crucial.


Kenya’s decision to invade Somalia in September 2011 has been described as an overhasty gamble, and it followed a troubled Ethiopian effort to attach al-Shabab between 2006 and 2008 further to the north of Somalia.  But the growing radicalism of Shabab-controlled Jubaland at the time was becoming a security challenge for Kenya.  With nearly one million ethnic Somalis in the northeastern part of Kenya, the country was wary of a dangerous mix of anarchy and radical Islam in Somalia and in particular, Jubaland.  The original invasion pushed al-Shabab out of control in the port city of Kismayo, and it paved the way for the creation of a semi-autonomous Jubaland last year.  It was far from a perfect invasion, given that an early Kenyan bombardment killed Somali refugees, which is one of the events that al-Shabab is citing today for the attack on the Nairobi mall.

To make matters more complicated, Kenya spent much of last year in a tussle not only with Somalia’s central government, but the African Union.  While the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia (AMISOM) force was designed to support the presidency of Hasan Sheikh Mahmoud, Kenya has long preferred the establishment of a more autonomous Jubaland as a buffer zone along Kenya’s eastern border.  That has put Kenya offsides with the African Union, even though its troops are now ostensibly part of the AMISOM mission.  A settlement between Jubaland and Somalia’s central government in August have somewhat eased those tensions, leaving Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Madobe as the recognized leader of the Jubaland administration.  But that represents just one more step toward a permanently fragmented Somalia — the northern Somaliland and Puntland have also essentially become autonomous zones, leaving the troubled south-central core of Somalia an isolated and unviable Pandora’s box of problems.

But that’s not the only complication.  Kenyatta’s election as president is proving a special challenge for Western governments, given the showdown that it has provoked between Kenya and the International Criminal Court.  Kenya’s National Assembly earlier this month overwhelmingly voted to withdraw the country from the ICC over the court’s stubborn push to continue its prosecutions against Kenyatta and vice president William Ruto in relation to charges stemming from the 2007-08 post-election violence in Kenya.  The evidence against Kenyatta and Ruto (who were rivals during the 2007 election campaign) has always been less than robust, and their subsequent election as president and vice president earlier this year demonstrates that a majority of Kenyans believe that, at a minimum, the case against Kenyatta and Ruto should be handled in Nairobi — not in The Hague.

I don’t mean to downplay the victims of Kenya’s 2007-08 violence.  But whatever the crimes of Kenyatta and Ruto, most impartial observers would agree that they don’t rise to the level of other ICC indictees like former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo or Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.  Increasingly, the Kenya prosecutions are causing many other African nations to accuse the ICC of a neo-colonialist agenda, given that all of its cases so far come from African countries.

As Kenyatta now considers how to respond to today’s tragedy, the ICC controversy is a sideshow that risks complicating the kind of cooperation that Kenya needs now — more than ever — with the United States, the European Union and the African Union.

None of the innocent civilians deserved to die today in Westgate.  But it’s a grim reminder that Kenya, the African Union and the international community must now work together to prevent backsliding in the most challenging of east Africa’s regional hotspots.

Map credit to The Economist.

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