August 7, 1998, was, for me, a time of trauma beyond the terror attack. That week someone had come to my house and stolen my car. It was my first-ever car. I had gone to Dubai and personally scoured the backstreets of Sharjah for it.
I fell in love the moment I saw it on that dusty, hot sidestreet. It was a Toyota Corolla AE 92, pearl white, spotless inside and outside, with conspicuous Volkswagen eight spoke alloys and large Panasonic speakers. I remember sitting in the maroon interior, the AC ice-cold and marvelling at what a lucky man I was to find this beauty.
When it got to Mombasa, rather than paying someone to drive it up (Mombasa then was an 11-hour journey of the worst pothole horror) a friend and I flew there on rebated Kenya Airways tickets to get it. My friend’s job was to drive, mine was to supervise how he was taking the potholes.
Three weeks later, I woke up in the morning, and the car was not there. The day of the bomb blast I was coming from another shouting match with police during which they were extremely rude: they could not understand why I did not want to claim insurance; I wanted them to do their bloody job and go get my car back. They told me to take my ujuaji and go to hell.
I was already heartbroken and seething with fury when the bomb went off. I remember standing at the Haile Selassie-Uhuru Highway roundabout and looking up and, more than the smoke, what stuck in my mind was a column of paper, records from the Teachers Service Commission going up many kilometres, the lives of Kenyans literary going up in smoke.
Later at the bomb site, I saw things that made a very strong impression on me. The Americans were very organised; they had their soldiers and the exclusive help of the British Army. We were on our own, with nothing but the bleeding bare hands with which regular people were digging in the rubble to reach those trapped.
I saw what was left of one Kenyan, just a headless torso, swinging in the ruins. It is an image burned in full horror in my brain: the bone, the blood, the veins, the indecent helplessness of a clueless victim killed by a fanatic.
Standing there, I was a man with his back to the wall. My house was no longer safe, but at least I could, and did, move. But not so my country, from which there was no moving. When I was a boy we used to sing a silly song about Kenya being our rock and refuge from the white man.
The rock had been blown to pieces, and we are just there in the open, staring at a headless body. There is nowhere to run. So we fight these ‘‘tu-guys’’ who want to come here and blow up our things and kill our children. Who do they think they are?
Here is my blow for the cause. First, I think we need to stop being stupid and write appropriate anti-terrorism laws. We need to make terror a crime as bad as treason; we need to read how terror works and criminalise the activities that produce and support it.
We need to go after those who radicalise others, those who offer logistical support and who, in any way, aid terrorists. An anti-terrorism law has always been opposed by Muslims who feel it might be used to criminalise their religion or that the law might be imposed by America. To me, that’s not a problem.
There are Muslim MPs, many of them pretty good lawyers. Let them write a law that they feel protects both Islam and the country. The rest of us will support them. Secondly, this country needs to get organised. Fighting terrorism is no longer just a policing issue; it is war.
I know the military, the civilian intelligence services and the police like to think that security is the special preserve of a chosen few patriots, and that the rest of Kenyans are idiots who must have nothing to do with their own security. This attitude is often used to hide incompetence and corruption.
To invite institutions to evaluate their own work is to invite sessions of navel-gazing, the result of which will likely be the covering up of weaknesses and the exaggeration of competences. What we need is a thorough, hardnosed audit of the anti-terror infrastructure to find out: are these institutions, including the lead agency, the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, working as advertised?
The National Security Intelligence Service Act was written nearly 10 years ago; the National Counterterrorism Centre was established seven years ago. Are the law and operational mechanisms up to scratch, or are we, in this highly politicised environment, trying to dig with a broken panga? Complacency and an aversion to self-examination are lethal, not just for companies but for all institutions.
Thirdly, you and I need to realise that terrorism is no longer a foreign problem. It is not something that happens in Somalia and is exported to our country. There are Kenyans trained in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia who have domesticated terrorism. Ali Saleh Nabhan, the leader of al-Qaeda in Somalia, is as Kenyan as nyama choma.
There is a serious security problem in Eastleigh. I suspect it is a nexus of terror, a place where terrorists are hidden and their money laundered. It is a problem that must be resolutely confronted with all the might of the State.
The temptation to do nothing so as not to upset community leaders and human rights NGOs, to hope we are doing enough to contain the problem without fixing it completely is, in my view, delusional. Religious and community leaders must be placed at the front of cleaning up the terror problems in Eastleigh.
Let’s also not forget that terrorism, if we do nothing, can become good business with those aiding terrorism making a pile at the expense of lives and property. Let’s get a move on.