Every Death Should Matter

Guest Writer
30 September ,2014

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

by Morris Kiruga

In the dead of the night, two groups methodically approached the small serene police station. The outer wall of the station had seen better, cleaner days. Its dark blue and white paint had been peeling for years, and the little of the police crest that was left was now indiscernible. Tonight, it would get a shade of red.

The leading group wielded traditional weapons such as knives, and bows and arrows. It was both the decoy and assault group and it would, by the end of this first attack, have traded its rudimentary weapons for something with a greater punch. The second group kept a distance, with each of its members carrying a gun to cover the first group’s activities. As the first group entered the open police station door, the police officer on duty yawned, groggily registering the ragtag militia of young men coming his way. They must be bringing in a thief or something, he thought. It had been a quiet year. The last time anything big had ever happened was five years prior, and the local police station had remained untouched. To the young officer at the Occurrence Book (OB) desk, this was just as any other night.

Only that it wasn’t. The small group of visitors suddenly turned vicious, attacking the police officer and his two colleagues. They approached the armoury, their main object of interest, while the second group outside returned fire to a few officers who responded to the call for help.

For neighbours of the police station, what was weird about that dark night in Likoni was the fire that engulfed their beacon of hope. The Kenyan Police Service, albeit notoriously lax and underfunded, is still better than nothing. They provide some semblance of order when they want to, and when they can (although they are more likely to come in the morning to collect your corpse than to come in the dead of the night to rescue you). But tonight, the protector was burning, and all hope was lost.

As if cloned, a similar group of attackers, organized in the same way, was attacking a small police post at the ferry. At the same time. It was a night to be remembered, and for the young Digo men who formed this two cadres, it was the first of many nights of war and blood. As the police station and post fell, and screams filled the night, the attackers filled their own armoury and grew in strength and firepower.

Before long, they turned their sights on their primary targets, the civilian population. They had a specific profile for their victims, and they knew who they wanted to slaughter to terrorize those who were lucky enough to survive. For those victims, even police presence would have done little to save them but their absence, with six casualties by midnight of that night, made the already grim situation much worse. It was a bloody night in as the attackers ran rampage, killing hundreds in their eight-hour spree. They faced little resistance, except from the few brave men and women who lifted a panga or a rock to defend their families. Or the few young men who tried to save their own lives. Those died the most brutal deaths. By first light they had disappeared.

This cold night marked the first of many in that cold August. It was the beginning of the slaughter of ‘outside’ tribes in areas around Likoni, and it spread faster than anyone wanted to mount a response. Those who died became numbers on a Red Cross list, at least those who had relatives and friends who cared to look for them. Others were lost forever in the melee of the massacres and murders that would define the next three months.

The events of the night of 13th August 1997 seem eerily similar to those of the Mpeketoni attacks in 2014. The same ethnic profiling defined the victimology, and it was clear that the attackers were not just random spontaneous assailants. They had been funded, trained and fed by someone, or a group of people, and went on to fulfil their part of the bargain. Such planning always leaves a trail that should be easy to follow, as was the case in 1997 when an unassuming diary of the planning stages was found. Its contents bore details that revealed just how organized the group was, as has been almost every other group of attackers before and after that.

As has become common in the days since the first six people, all officers, died in Likoni in that election year, thugs and assassins have become more and more daring. The firepower is also getting better as terror organisations connect with home-grown terrorists, making the situation even worse.

The problem with Likoni is that it shows the lack of proper response services in the country. One might justify the fact that the police response was slowed down by just how quick and brutally efficient, and strategically genius, the first attacks were. There was no time to make radio calls, and hence, the world remained in the dark for eight hours as civilians and police officers died. But Westgate and Mpeketoni tell a different story.

In one of the security camera clippings featured in a recent HBO documentary on the Westgate attack, the four attackers seemed lost on what else to do. It takes a keen eye to notice the immediate lack of direction before they go back to their spree. In launching such a blatant attack in an opulent urban area, they had anticipated a full attack within the first few hours. It is likely that all they needed was an hour to do their damage but in the structural failures that would follow, they got at least two days. They had not surprised the security forces as the Kaya Bombo raiders did in 1997, yet for the first two and a half hours they experienced little resistance from the few officers and armed civilians who jumped into the melee on their own accord.

In Mpeketoni, news leaked out that the intelligence services had warned the security services days prior to the massacres. The police seemed not only complacent but also part conspiratory as they redirected traffic and went missing as the attackers turned the settlements into killing fields. They did the same thing the next day, as happened on the night of 14th August 1997 in Kaya Bombo, and then spread out their attacks into other smaller ones. Terror, it seems, has been winning all this time.

The problem is part police and part societal. The Kenyan way of handling everything, including insecurity at such a grim level, is to make do where the government fails. The answer to rampant insecurity is not demands for heightened police presence, for example, but the coming together of neighbours to hire security companies and Maasai guards. The private sector, both formal and informal, thus thrives in the government’s ineptitude, yet the masses for whom public services are meant cannot afford the comfort of making such decisions.

On the part of the police, the problem is multifaceted. While the organisation problems such as low pay and bad working conditions are common knowledge, there is a general institutional lethargy that bedevils the entire Kenyan public security system. Mix this up with organisational rivalry that exists between its different wings and you have a recipe for chaos, where the bullets of terrorists will continue mowing down Kenyans as security bosses decide who has the mandate to shoot back.

Consider Westgate, one of the most recent examples, where the media frenzy around the four-day attack allowed the country to see its police and army soldiers jostling for control and jurisdiction. That rivalry cost at least three lives, one of a General Service Unit (GSU) commander, and at least two soldiers who were shot in retaliation. It should have been a revelation that the rivalry was not a mere joke anymore but one that had gone to the extent of an internal war.

What it showed was a Mafia-like unspoken rivalry between the forces meant to protect Kenyans, both from themselves and from outsiders. Within the typical Mafia organisation, a murder must be avenged for there to be any forgiveness. Every cartel has its own territory, and breaching such territory is a declaration of war for which assassins will get paid to clean out the competition. Such competition exists in all spheres of life, although not all of them are marked with bullets and combat gear. They are what we have come to expect of drug gangs and Mafia organisations but not from security organisations.

The question of who should protect the country should be a fairly easy question to answer. It is not one that a civilian should even be expected to contemplate as terrorists aim to maim him or her. As a law-abiding, tax-paying, peaceable civilian, one’s right to life should be more than guaranteed. The social contract that drives this relationship demands that the civilian population only cede its rights to the government on the primary promise of security. If that promise is breached due to one reason or the other, such as foolhardy competition or incompetence, the contract should be assessed. But the Kenyan civilian population has grown numb to pain.

When the bullets rang in the air and the machetes were sharpened in Tana River, over 100,000 people had to flee their homes to survive. The terror that spread as each night approached meant that little or no work got done and the local economy suffered. In what often seems like a peaceful country, 0.25 percent of the population could not sleep at night for fear of attacks. The rest of the country, numbed by decades of rampant attacks, discussed the issue for a few days and then moved on to the next big issue.

Such has become the only way the national psyche can handle death and drama. Our legendary amnesia has moved from being a behavioural reaction to being ingrained in our social DNA. Within it has emerged a disconnect from the subject, and an acceptance for the government’s ineptitude as its unchangeable character.

As part of society, the ability to forget even the greatest of pain is actually derived from the pre-colonial era, although it is during the colonial era that people learnt to flinch when the needle pricked but say nothing about the jab in the days to come. It was necessary to forget. To accept and move on.

With Kaya Bombo in 1997, a flurry of calls to bring the obvious political influences to book followed. Investigations included a commission of inquiry which, spurred on by international organisations and other pressures, was one of the most efficient in the country. Of course few, if any, of the actionable points in the report were ever read even a second time. With Westgate, an attack on the higher income classes mostly, a new sort of silence followed. One year after the attacks, no such inquiry has ever been done, and the event seems to have been accepted as a disaster. Not a disaster that could have been prevented, or even stopped in its tracks within hours, but one that happened. The numbness to traumatic acts of public murder that now defines our social nature is frightening.

For societies to grow and develop, history shows, they have to be highly efficient and forward-looking. One of the ways to do this is to redefine the security parameters in such a way as to ensure that the farmers beyond the castle walls have access to the castle walls. Without them, the country burns and the Lord of the castle will starve and die with his nobles. Since an economy is essentially an ecosystem, each limb and organ must do its part for the entire system to be complete. Numbness denotes lethargy first, but the apathy of Kenyans towards their own security is not only a death warrant, but a shaky hand on the crystal ball.

The Russian mass murderer, Josef Stalin, once quipped that the death of one is a tragedy, and the death of a million is merely a statistic. He had a point, that until the death of each human being is considered a tragedy, it is impossible for mass murder to ever be anything more than a statistic.

In Kenya, at a different time and place, the likelihood that the next answer to a knock on the door may be your last is the harrowing possibility you have to live with. Even worse, that once the obituary page has yellowed and the mound of soil on your grave has flattened, and the flowers withered as the termites gnaw away the cross, your death will have taught us nothing, and will have meant nothing.

Morris Kiruga is a writer, blogger and researcher.

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

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