On a recent visit to Nairobi, I along with my wife visited Westgate, an upscale mall thronged by scores of shoppers, most of them foreign tourists. The visit was provoked by an attractive full page advertisement in the in-flight magazine, The Traveller Msafiri, distributed by Kenya Airways. The full-page advertisement described the mall as a ”world class shopping destination” and boasted that it is open seven days a week with ample parking and 24-hour security.
The mall has over 80 stores of some of the best known brands. As we entered the mall, I took out my camera to take a few snaps of the exquisite interiors when suddenly a security guard sprang up and prevented me from taking pictures. Although, disappointed a bit, I was happy that the security of the mall was alert. The mall does not have armed pickets. Shoppers were coming in droves.
Westgate is surrounded by a number of eateries which serve Kenyan, Indian, Chinese and Lebanese food. This place is full of students and Indians. With an attack on Westgate, a number of Nakumatt chain of malls owned and managed by the Indian expatriate Atul Shah stand exposed to terror attacks, unless timely protection is provided to them.
That Somalia’s Al Shabab militia has owned up responsibility for the attack indicates what is in store for the newly elected government of President Ohuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto. Both continue to face criminal charges in the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague for fomenting violence in general elections held in 2007. Uhuru Kenyatta has rejected the jurisdiction of the court and refused to appear before it. What can be termed as an expression of tacit support, the African Union has expressed the view that they could be tried within the country.
As we landed in Nairobi, the only road connecting the airport with the capital was jam packed, as a result of which the journey to our hotel which should have taken merely 45 minutes took three hours. On way, one could see, hundreds of young people wandering aimlessly or chatting at various corners. A source in Nairobi told us that hundreds of Somali youth sneak in to Kenya daily in search of jobs, many of whom later join Al Shabaab. A number of cells of this organization work secretly in Kenya and get funds from unknown sources. This poses a duel challenge for President Kenyatta’s government. First, the challenge of providing jobs to the burgeoning young population and second, to protect the country from terrorist attacks which can bring economic activity to a halt.
In an article titled ”The time bomb that is millions of jobless youth”, published in a popular tabloid of Nairobi, The Standard of June, 8, 2013, Moses Michira said: ”Kenyan youths are now facing a serious unemployment time bomb. The country’s number of jobless youth stands at 2.3 million. Church leaders have warned this ‘demographic trap’ could see more crime, militant gangs, terrorism, labor unrest and political violence. “
He said that social scientists have warned that the “youth bulge”, the large number of people nearing adulthood notable in demographic charts, presents the biggest hurdle in tackling violent crimes. According to UNDP, ”Every year, another 500,000 young Kenyans enter job markets from schools, colleges and universities. ”
Thus the challenge on this front remains formidable for President Kenyatta. Come night, and you are warned not to venture alone on the streets of Nairobi, lest you may become victim of soaring crime.
With the increase in terrorist activities, Kenya’s major foreign exchange earner, tourism, might face an enormous challenge. As for most of the international tourists, the first leg of journey begins with Nairobi, then to the Great Rift Valley, to Amboseli and Naivasha. It ends with a visit to the world famous game park, Maasai Mara. This traffic may shift to neighboring Tanzania, which has breathtaking sights, such as Mount Kilimanjaro and the equally famous Serengeti National Park.
Borders of Kenya have become vulnerable to constant attacks by Al Shabaab militia since 2011. An article in the Daily Nation of Nairobi, by a columnist Muchemi Wachira, notes that before the outbreak of the attacks, Al Shabaab had vowed to take revenge against the “occupation” of their country by the Kenyan military, which has so far managed to take over Kismayu (a port town in Somalia). They had sworn that, once the port, which served as the main outlet for their smuggled goods from Middle East and Asia, is taken over by the KDF (Kenyan Defence Forces), they (Al Shabaab) would turn Kenya into a lawless state – starting with the border town of Garissa in north western Kenya.”
Due to persistent attacks by the Al Shabaab militia, Garissa has since become a ghost town, as most of the population has deserted it. Kenya shares a 700 km border with Somalia, which has become quite porous, although there are only three designated entry points at Liboi, Wajir and Mandera. The question that Wachira has posed is, as to why the Kenyan security forces have failed to contain Al Shabaab. Or are they losing the war to the terrorists? This needs an answer after the ghastly attack on Westgate.
(Vijay Naik is a senior Indian journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)