THOUSANDS of mourners gathered in Kenya’s capital Nairobi Sunday for emotional commemorations marking a year since Somali gunmen belonging to the Al Shabaab militant group attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall and massacred at least 67 people.
The country is on high alert for the anniversary, which comes just weeks after the feared Shabaab’s reclusive leader and the alleged mastermind of the Westgate attack, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a US air strike in southern Somalia.
In Nairobi’s Karura forest, close to 2,500 people—many of them survivors or bereaved families—held inter-faith prayers and a memorial procession. A plaque bearing the names of the victims was unveiled.
The Westgate terror attack changed Kenya in many ways, and revealed how much the world has changed in the last decade. These three are the most striking of the many:
Escape from cement, refugee in green
The first post-Westgate change is revealed by the venue - Karura Forest.
Karura Forestused to be mostly a shrine for Kenya’s environmentalists, and a trophy for the country’s pro-democracy movement of the 1990s. When the government secretly allocated a chunk of the forest to speculators and developers, a major campaign championed by Wangari Maathai, leader of the Green Belt Movement, was energised to save the forest. That campaign dovetailed into Kenya’s pro-democracy movement in which Maathai was a key figure.
Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She died in 2011.
Until September 2013, Karura Forest was mainly patronised by Kenya’s large expatriate and diplomatic community. After Westgate, that changed dramatically. Most of the city’s “mall refugees” flocked to Karura to seek safety in its open spaces. In Karura, you can more easily see a terrorist coming, and there are more opportunities for escape. After Westgate, Nairobi became a little bit more of an outdoors city. A sub-economy renting bikes, selling handicrafts, and snacks, is booming in Karura.
But perhaps nothing illustrates this shift than what has happened in Machakos County. Kenya’s new system of highly devolved counties came into effect after the March 2013 election. Flamboyant and progressive governor Alfred Mutua leads Machakos County.
One of his flagship projects, a green park called Machakos People’s Park, easily one of the best such facilities in the region, opened in February 2014 – five months after Westgate. The park was overrun, as thousands of people from Nairobi and Mombasa thronged Machakos for the event. The traffic jam of cars headed to Machakos was kilometres long. It is only anecdotal, but the thousands of new patrons at Karura and Machakos Park, could be a good measure of the extent of the flight from concrete malls to green spaces occasioned by the Westgate attack.
Social media has created a new consciousness
The first reports of the Westgate attack on September 21, broke on Twitter and Facebook. It took anything between four and six hours for mainstream media to marshal a response.
Though Westgate became one of the most covered Kenyan tragedies, inspired exhibitions, and an emotional commemoration, it was not the worst terrorist outrage the country has faced.
That honour belongs to the August 7, 1998 terrorist attack on the building housing the US embassy in downtown Nairobi.
On that day suicide bombers in trucks laden with explosives parked outside the embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, and simultaneously detonated them, killing 213 people and wounded 4,000 in the Nairobi blast; while 11 were killed and 85 wounded in Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam.
Clearly Westgate became a bigger event in the Kenyan consciousness because of social media, and round-the-clock independent TV and FM radio coverage – all of which didn’t exist in 1998. Westgate has also been told as a story of individuals; they have been interviewed, and their photos shown. By contrast, 1998 was mostly a story of faceless people.
Nothing reveals that change than what happened to Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper. It printed round-the-clock, selling about 1.2 million copies of the paper covering the first day of the attack. Fifteen years later, its sales were shy of 300,000 copies – at a time when the population of the country and Nairobi, and literacy rates, were much higher. Why? Most people were following the live coverage on TV and social media.
It is the same story in Africa, as indeed in the rest of the world. In 15 years, the world has changed almost beyond recognition in some respects because of the dramatic innovations in communication technology.
Africa is truly part of the global village
In the 1998 incident, of the 213 people killed in the US Nairobi embassy attack, 11 were Americans. Nearly all the rest, were Kenyans.
According to some of the reports that compiled a victim list on the basis of nationality immediately after the attack, in the Westgate mayhem, in addition to the Kenyans, at least three Britons were confirmed dead – that later rose to six; two Canadians; one Chinese; two French; one Ghanaian (poet and statesman Kofi Awoonor); two Indian nationals; one Dutch; one Australian; one South African, and people from many other nationalities, including at least five Americans, were injured.
That is 17 foreigners, or 25% of the dead. Compare that to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, that resulted in 2,996 immediate (attack time) deaths: 2,977 victims and the 19 hijackers. A total of 372 people with non-U.S. citizenship (excluding the 19 perpetrators) perished in the attacks, representing just over 12% of the total.
As a percentage, twice more foreigners died in Westgate than 9/11; remarkable considering that most of the deaths were in New York, easily the most cosmopolitan city in the world.
The victim profile suggests that Nairobi, much like other cities like Johannesburg, Lagos, Addis Ababa, Dakar, Accra, have become and will continue to be more cosmopolitan and global cities, attracting a wide spectrum of the people’s of the world.