In the aftermath of the
Westgate Mall attack there is a second story that is brewing. Did certain members of the Kenyan military devolve into marauding bands of brothers as they looted the retail spaces and stripped the corpses of anything of real value? Damn yes! Is military corruption tied into operational response time? In the case of the Westgate Mall attack, an affirmative seems possible. Surely, the operational tempo is linked to the sideshow being orchestrated by the troops.
Members of the armed forces smashed jewelry cases, carted out shopping bags stuffed with money, took the time to undress the mannequins and carried out rack after rack of expensive suits. They took wallets from the dead and filched the watches off the wrists of the deceased. According to one eyewitness, a member of the armed forces took a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of a dead man. Could any decent man bear to place even one such cigarette between his own lips? This is callous indifference and lack of respect.
I once joked with a fellow officer that I would not take valuables off a corpse in a war zone, but I would carry off the package of jalapeno nacho cheese and crackers from a field-stripped MRE (Meals Ready to Eat, a food staple in the combat zone). It was said in complete jest. Individuals who die in violent manner deserve complete dignity and respect from the rest of us. Their remains must be handled with care. All belongings must be returned to the family. Even a pack of cigarettes can link to a memory bank shared between two living and loving human beings.
Across Kenya and the world there are families who are burying the victims. Many caskets are undoubtedly sealed due to the condition of the corpses. But also across Kenya today, a few military wives are wearing expensive necklaces. Their sons have new suits and watches. A favourite uncle has received a fistful of cash. And granny has a new dress and she is wearing it with pride.
Forensic teams are working in a meticulous manner to remove small pieces of tissue off the mall floors and walls to identify the deceased. Kenyan military families are flashing their ill-gotten gain. Clean up crews are scrubbing blood off tiles and removing debris from shops. But somewhere in Nairobi there is a home that sports a huge, new flat screen television. How many men in uniform did it take to remove the flat screen from the wall, load it on a waiting truck, and send it off to a new destination? This reads like a joke in need of a punch line. Instead, it is a story confirmed by eyewitnesses and retail shopkeepers returning to the Westgate Mall.
What should have been deployed like rapidly moving thunderheads toward the action apparently stalled like a squall for the opportunity to loot. This is not the look of a professional military. This is the reflection of a military that lacks good order and discipline.
Kenya has military corruption. It is on full display in the aftermath of the Nairobi attack. A top-down review is in order. The immediate responsibility resides with the thieving troops. The ultimate responsibility is shouldered by the command staff. This is not the time for ankle-biting snaps at the heels of senior officers. It is a time for a few officers to find themselves stripped of command in the same manner that those under their locus of control stripped the dead. It is a time for a review of how lax military standards opened the door to the unprofessional conduct of the arriving security force. Looting a commercial retail facility, while citizens and foreign nationals are being tortured and killed there, is a gross dereliction of duty.
It is a sad state of affairs when the uniform is scorned by the local population. But it is completely shameful when the international community is now acquainted with the tale of a complete breakdown of good order and discipline amongst men who have had an oath pass their lips to protect and defend. Precious time was lost as military men foraged through the stores. A lack of focus on mission accomplishment seems apparent. Were hostages being tortured whilst troops were busy smashing glass jewelry cases and sizing up the mother lode of timepieces? Time was certainly ticking for the hostages.
Inebriation while on duty seems to have also been an issue. When soldiers allowed a cleaning crew into a restaurant, the cadre of staff was greeted by hundreds of empty bottles of gin, brandy, rum, vodka and beer sitting on the bar. It is doubtful the attackers spent their time drinking. They were otherwise engaged with their hooks and pliers. So did the soldiers consume the alcohol during the operation? Or did they consume the beverages in celebratory manner after the operation was complete? Regardless, the men were in uniform and on duty. There is really nothing to celebrate at this point. The ‘rescue’ was a total disaster from a military standpoint.
To wear the uniform of a nation is to come under the burden of what it means to be a servant of the state. Our lives are not our own. We belong to the state and do the bidding of the state. We no longer choose the course of our lives. The state apparatus makes these choices for us in ways that are both imperceptibly small but also glaringly stark. The decisions of the state affect our immediate family. They are impacted by our choice after the oath passes our lips. We and our families are forever changed when we wear the cloth of our nation.
The garment is a sacred cloth. It is woven with the threads of memory from the many generations of military men and women who have blazed the trail before us. We must wear the cloth with professionalism. Or we must hang it up and walk away.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org