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A few things caught my eye during the recent terror attack in Nairobi. In my mind, these are incontestable facts that have come out in every disaster this country has faced from the time I was able to read and write, and if we want to move forward as a country we must speak out and demand action.
First, we MUST reform our intelligence and police forces, together with the entire judicial process. It’s imperative, and until we do so we shall always be reactive rather than proactive. My first tweet about the Westgate Mall incident was rather simple actually. “Cordon off and secure the area, establish contact, attempt negotiation, if all fails breach.” However diverse and unique any hostage incident is, there has to be a standardized way of dealing with it because ultimately we are dealing with human beings, and at the end of it all, it’s a tactical war. The media were running up and down reporting that police had cordoned off the area, yet they were reporting from the walls of the mall itself. I would hardly call that cordoning. Lurking in a thousand media personalities could be one, just one, informer for the militants. So let’s teach our boys in blue the real meaning of cordoning off a crime scene.
However well trained terrorists are, anyone is liable to mental fatigue. That’s why negotiation (or attempts at it) is necessary. Nobody starts a negotiation with terrorists with the intent of letting them get away. It is attempted to try and mentally wear them out while planning how to end the deadlock with as little casualties as possible. Am pretty sure that those twenty something year old kids, after the first 24 hours in the mall, simply did not want to die. But nobody was talking to them! We were waiting for them to make demands! They had the hostages for the sake of reason, someone could even have tried with a megaphone, calling all the lines in the building, do something! We waited. Establish contact! Attempt negotiation!
Since clearly all negotiations failed (if they were attempted), the army and a collection of other agencies decided to breach. I cannot comment about that because I was not there, but it brings me to my next issue; information.
There are two simple rules about the flow of information in an emergency situation. It should be factual and timely. Factual, so you don’t have to bite your tongue after giving people false hope (or bad news), and timely, so that there are no grounds for speculation. On those two fronts we failed miserably. There were no scheduled news conferences, and people were left to watch live shots on their televisions (at one point all journalists were either too tired or asleep) without even as much as commentary. Ministries contradicted themselves on social media, and there was simply no central command. This is national security for God’s sake. The interior, the police, state house, everyone was saying their own thing. If the Government has “bloggers” in their ranks then they would have earned their bread simply asking the Government to set up one twitter account and one facebook account specifically for that disaster. Information is power, control it and you are halfway there.
To add salt to injury, in many instances, especially the last stages of the saga, the information was not factual. We all understand that some details of security operations have to be kept confidential, but there are details which instill fear if not clearly communicated. At the end of any security incident people need to know just three things, without any contradiction; the death toll, the injured and the fate of the aggressors. Don’t tell us what flavour of teargas you used, or how many mattresses were burnt beyond recognition. Tell us, with absolutely no contradiction, the above named items and leave the rest to us to speculate. Has this been achieved close to a week after the disaster?
Information and the media are intertwined, and call me a leftist or whatever you want; the media failed Kenyans terribly in this incident. At approximately two in the afternoon on Saturday, many media outlets were reporting that “the Inspector general of police was on site and everything was under control”. I left Nairobi on Monday and things were still far from being under control. They went further to label the terrorists “robbers”. The media turned into patriotic mouthpieces without the need to establish fact, a word found in many of their logos and emblems and visions and missions. The mere euphoria of both the in-studio and field reporters showed people lacking in calm during emergencies, and in the first two days they simply displayed recklessness that may have gotten people killed.
By the time the media got its feet back, it was too late, and the only way to redeem itself was to rump up patriotism, again in total disregard of facts. Two occasions have earned Kenyan media the tag of “responsible media”; the 2013 general elections and the Westgate incident. And in both instances, there was focus on avoiding trouble rather than reporting the truth. The international media, always on the receiving end from “patriotic” Kenyans, brought in experts on hostage situations, political analysts, and medics. They gave context to the whole incident. We armed our poorly exposed reporters with microphones and had faith they would critically dissect an incident of international proportions.
My one paragraph take on the Westgate terror attack? Our police and intelligence services need more brain, not brawn. We need to embrace technology even if it means firing the entire force. Without that we will remain a banana republic. Information needs to be viewed as a right, not a privilege. Our media need to start moving in the general direction of their peers all over the world. Their management needs to look beyond their bottom-line. Create reliable brands, have qualified professionals (in this incident at least networks learnt that having a pretty anchor meant squat!). Perhaps most important for the entire nation, pray and thank God that the Kenya Red Cross exists. Pray and thank God.