During summer 2009, I watched the latest Harry Potter film in a cushy cinema in one of Nairobi’s shopping complexes, at the end of a trip around Kenya with a group from school. This experience sticks in my memory as a reminder of how connected Kenya’s capital can be with the West. Thus it was little surprise to me that David Cameron immediately returned to London to call a COBRA meeting upon hearing of the recent attack upon the Westgate centre, a decision which would not have been deemed necessary for sudden conflict in many other African countries. Britain has a long history of involvement in Kenya, from the era of colonialism to modern economic ties, with British army troops being trained near Nairobi in order to prepare them for the kind of climate they might experience in combat areas such as Afghanistan.
It is easy for anyone who has only visited Nairobi, and not the rest of Kenya, to believe that the kind of attack which was carried out upon the Westgate centre could have happened in any other shopping mall in the West. The photos which emerged looked strikingly like any complex we know in every city in the UK or America, and photos of Samantha Lewthwaite (the ‘White Widow’) are supposed to make us shocked that white people can be terrorists too. This prompted hysterical reports that Al-Shabab is a serious threat to our national security and we should be looking over our shoulders every time we go to buy a new top. What should be remembered, however, is that the UK does not border one of the most violently unstable countries in the world: Somalia. Nor is the UK home to the same kind of poverty and corruption that Kenya still suffers, having recently elected an ICC-indicted war criminal as president.
The attack upon Nairobi’s symbol of glorious middle-class consumption was a direct retaliation by Al-Shabab for Kenya’s role in crushing their control of Somalia. In recent years, Kenyan and African Union forces have weakened Al-Shabab’s strong-holds in Somalia and severely damaged the movement’s nationalist ambitions. This is therefore a more localized conflict than it is being portrayed. Although this kind of organised attack does suggest that Al-Shabab are taking tips from Al-Qaeda, and could in the future plan an attack upon the West if they set their ambitions wider than Somalian control, that is not to say that such an attack could be possible.
First of all, the Somali terrorists would have to find access into the UK, including funding transport, obtaining visas and passing immigration checks, which is much more difficult than crossing the border into neighbouring Kenya. Secondly, the militants would not have been able to rent a shop in a mall using fake IDs obtained from corrupt government officials. That kind of corruption just does not exist in the UK in the kind of way that it still permeates Kenyan politics (money in return for polticians’ favours is the norm in most African administrations). Next, if someone was stockpiling huge loads of firearms into a shopping mall in the UK using service-lifts (allowing the militants to rearm quickly when confronted by police) somebody would most likely have noticed and raised the alarm. Finally, we have a much more efficient police network to pick up on each of these stages, which (hopefully) would not take bribes to turn a blind eye. We would also have a coordinated response team to tackle the problem quickly and reduce the number of casualties. Therefore, although possible, it is incredibly misleading to suggest that this kind of planned, coordinated attack could have been carried out in the UK.
What struck me the most about Nairobi when I first visited was its extreme juxtaposition with the rest of the country. I arrived by bus, accompanied by the Maasai tribesmen who had been hosting us in the desert for the past week, still living in huts and cooking on open fires. The enormous billboards advertising mobile phone contracts appeared on the horizon like futuristic warning signs. It was one of the Maasai men’s first visit to Nairobi and I heard him gasp as he nudged me and pointed at the buildings like an excited child approaching Disneyland, not someone who has lived a couple of hours’ away all his life. On our way out of Nairobi a few days later, we watched slums flash past our train carriage and hid our eyes from the poverty of outer-city slums. The Westgate centre is merely a monument to Western capitalism in a country afflicted by the same problems as its less glamorous neighbours: these issues of poverty, corruption and conflict are what should be discussed and addressed in this case, not our own national security.