Editorial: Kenyatta’s Kenya

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

After four days of fighting in the upscale Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared Tuesday that his forces had “ashamed and defeated” the members of al-Qaida-linked militia al-Shabaab, who took hostages in the mall.

According to Kenyatta’s statement, more than 60 civilians, six security officers and five al-Shabaab fighters lay dead. Three floors of the mall have collapsed, and Kenyatta said more bodies are buried in the rubble. Eleven militia fighters are currently in custody.

Since the siege at Westgate began, world leaders and heads of international institutions have scrambled to express condolences to Kenyatta.

But it would be a disservice to Kenya’s 44 million citizens, many of whom would not make enough in a month to buy a single meal at Westgate’s food court, to ignore the conditions that make the country vulnerable to such attacks.

Western viewers tend to identify much more strongly with events like Westgate  or the destruction of the World Trade Center because they can remember them as self-contained horrors. But we can’t let these events overshadow the tragedies that take place in Kenya on a daily basis.

Political violence has hampered the country’s progress toward a democratic society, and the country’s leader, himself, has been implicated in the violence. 

Kenyatta, along with his Deputy President, William Ruto, and a radio talk-show host who supported them, are currently facing charges of crimes against humanity filed by the International Criminal Court. 

The ICC alleges that Kenyatta, who was then a member of a Kenyan opposition party, and his associates incited tribally motivated violence in the wake of Kenya’s 2007 presidential election.

Whether or not Kenyatta is responsible for the violence that broke out in 2007, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has estimated that the violence that followed that election killed at least 1,200 Kenyans and forced another 600,000 or so to flee their homes.

While Westgate can be explained as a case of bad guys with an ideological agenda taking responsibility for attacking civilians, the 2007 violence and other ethnic conflicts in the country contain mutual finger-pointing that goes back to before Kenya became a sovereign country. While world leaders express their sympathies to Kenyatta for the tragedy that has befallen his country, they ignore the greater injustice ordinary Kenyans face on a daily basis. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the country’s government is among the 40 most corrupt on Earth.

“Corruption will kill this country — nepotism, too,” Noor Ali, a Kenyan investigative journalist who works in the northern part of the country, wrote in a statement he sent via email.

If Kenya hopes to end tragedies like the bloody events at Westgate, its leaders will need more than simply to welcome statements of support from the international community. It will have to take a hard look at how petty corruption is fueling these terrors.

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