How Westgate attack changed President Uhuru


Leaders world over have been known to come out of a crisis more re-invigorated, more assertive. For retired President Daniel Moi, it took the August 1, 1982 coup attempt by the armed forces for him to change tack and be in full control of his government.

For Mwai Kibaki, the 2007/2008 post-election upheavals made him re-charge batteries and lead the country to a new constitutional dispensation, and a peaceful transition early this year. In early 1960s, youthful US President John F Kennedy used the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis to take full charge of his administration and ended up one of the greatest, though short-lived, occupants of the White House.

The 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis is the closest the world has come to a nuclear war after the 1945 atomic bombing in Japan. For President Uhuru Kenyatta, there are all indications that the Saturday terrorist attack may have as well been his baptism of fire after which we might witness a more hands-on, a more forceful president.

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That came out on the very day of the attack, when, after the first public appearance where the President appeared still in shock, the next television address hours later showed a commander who had already taken full charge of his troops and marching on to victory.

Through out the week, the President was on top of things, personally chairing all meetings by the National Security Council and receiving blow by blow accounts from the scene of attack. The culmination of the busy week for President Kenyatta was the re-organisation of his government on Thursday that saw the return of the powerful position of the Head of the Civil Service, now combined with yet another new powerful position of the State House Chief of Staff.

On the first public appearance within hours of the at- tack, it was understandable that the president appear somewhat distraught. For him, it was a double tragedy being the head of a state under attack, and also an attack at the personal level as his family members were victims in the terrorist attack. His nephew and his would- be-bride were killed in the melee.

Another nephew was critically injured, while his sister was among the lucky who were pulled out to safety unscathed. We have since learnt that on receiving the initial brief about the unfolding events at the Westgate Mall, the President hurriedly convened a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, where the bold decision to call in the army was reached.

It was the first time since 1982 attempted coup that armoured military vehicles rode on the streets of Nairobi for real combat. Multiple sources close to the operations say President Kenyatta convened his first “war council” after intelligence reports filtered that what first appeared an ordinary robbery was a full-scale terrorist raid.

It is after the President had been fully briefed on the enormity of the task at hand that he authorised involvement of the specialised military units from Eastleigh Air Base, Embakasi, and Gilgil army units. “The Commander-in-Chief was taking no chances and wanted us to put our best foot forward and neutralise the terrorists with speed,” says a source familiar with the Saturday operation. The elite forces from Embakasi arrived within minutes of the presidential instructions.

“The Commander-in-Chief ordered the Chief of General Staff General Julius Karangi to use all force to take control of the situation which was getting worse by the hour as news filtered from the venue,” say sources. Concerns were also raised at the NSC meeting in regard to the live broadcasts from the Westgate Mall with fears that such broadcasts were leaking information to the terrorist which could be used to strategise on counter-at- tack. It was feared, rightly so, that the attackers could use the live broadcasts to recallibrate.

We have learnt that it was at that juncture when the decision was made that all media channels be removed from he scene and that the cabinet secretary of Internal Security Joseph ole Lenku keep the news channels informed of the developments only on a need-to basis.

The arrival of the military units at about 2 pm briefly dislodged the police units that had been engaging the terrorist since the first shot rang at about 11 pm. The military Rapid Response Unit came from Gilgil for their first ever combat in a civilian setting within our borders.

On the first day of the crisis, President Kenyatta chaired two meetings of the NSC, we are informed. In the first meeting, the Director General of the National Security Intelligence (NSI), Michael Gichangi, gave a detailed account of the events on the ground. The meeting then explored the several options available and the likely scenarios in each option.

All along, say sources, the President asking searching questions and personally took notes. After a cause of action had been agreed upon, the President concluded the meeting but with instructions that another meeting be held at the same venue – State House, Nairobi – in three hours time. In the meantime, he wanted to be briefed on the developments at the scene of attack as it happened.

As for the Thursday appointment of Joseph Kinyua as the new head of the civil service, sources say the President was sending clear signals that he henceforth wants to be more hands-on involved in the running of his government than before. Kinyua will operate directly from State House next to the President’s office.

The powerful office of the head of the civil service appear to have been omitted in the new Constitution. The only office provided for is one of the Secretary to the Cabinet, a docket previously put together with that of the head of the civil service. The last holder of the position is Francis Kimemia, now the cabinet secretary.

Curiously, in the Thursday announcement, the President said that Kinyua will be the head of civil service as well Chief of Staff at State House, and also coordinator of cabinet affairs. With Kinyua coordinating cabinet affairs, observers have been left wondering what then will be Kimemia job as secretary to the cabinet.

The puzzle deepens considering that Kimemia office is at Harambee House, while the cabinet office is at State House where Kinyua will be positioned. It is apparent the pecking order, in the new scheme of things, is taking shape, fast. – By DEREK OTIENO

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