There is a dreadful symmetry to the terrorist atrocity in Kenya. The outrage in Westgate shopping centre shows not only the enduring ability of al-Qaeda’s brethren to kill and maim in the teeth of the biggest counter‑terrorism campaign in history, it reminds us that Nairobi was the place where Osama bin Laden’s network first demonstrated its lethal potency.
Almost exactly 15 years ago, a truck bomb exploded two miles from the site of the Westgate mall. The heavily fortified US embassy was the nominal target, but a vulnerable nearby tower block bore the brunt of the blast. For a terrible instant, the sky above the crowded streets of central Nairobi rained shards of jagged glass, blinding scores of bystanders. I happened to visit Nairobi a week later and the gaping shell of the ruined tower block, devoid of a single intact window, marked the aftermath of a massacre that had claimed 212 lives.
So Kenya has already suffered one of the heaviest blows that terrorism can inflict – and achieved a recovery. Despite today’s agony, the country is strong enough to do so again.
Kenyans live under a terrible political system, riddled with tribalism and corruption, symbolised by the fact that their vice-president, William Ruto, is now standing trial at the Hague for alleged crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court has given him a week’s leave from the dock to fly home to deal with the current crisis. The unusual spectacle of the men who run Kenya flitting between the Hague and their offices in Nairobi may soon become familiar: President Uhuru Kenyatta will go on trial before the ICC in November, charged with the same offences.
But Kenya’s immense potential somehow manages to survive the plunder and misrule of its leaders – and it will similarly outlast the threat of terrorism. True, the country’s economy is dangerously dependent on the goodwill of outsiders, whether tourists or investors, and some people will understandably react to the scenes on their television screens by cancelling a holiday. Many others, however, will recognise that the Westgate attack is just the kind of incident that, frankly, could have happened in dozens of capitals across the world, including London.
If the past is any guide, Kenya’s vital tourist industry – the country’s biggest source of hard currency – will now suffer a temporary dip, before achieving a recovery. Al-Qaeda’s attack on Nairobi in 1998 was actually followed by a sustained boom in visitor numbers. In that year, Kenya recorded 900,000 tourist and business arrivals; by 2006, this total had risen by over 75 per cent to hit 1.6 million.
Since that peak, the number of visitors has fallen, dropping to 1 million in 2008, when weeks of violence after a disputed election claimed at least 1,300 lives. But even after that bloodshed, the number of arrivals rebounded, reaching 1.3 million in 2010 and staying at that level ever since. Look more closely and the visitor numbers confirm that Kenya is a special place in the eyes of many Britons. Come terrorist attack or post-election bloodbath, British citizens always comprise the biggest single group of visitors, usually by a wide margin. Of the 1.3 million foreigners who arrived in Kenya in 2011, more than 200,000 came from Britain, well ahead of the next biggest contingent, 120,000 Americans.
Why is this so? From the Rift Valley to the Maasai Mara, Kenya still has magnificent wilderness. But the country is tied to Britain by language, history and tradition; it is also a place where 20,000 Britons live. Many of those on the plane from Heathrow to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport will not be tourists but people who see themselves as going home.
Meanwhile, trade between Britain and Kenya totals at least £1 billion and about half of the companies listed on the Nairobi stock exchange are linked to the UK in some way. This year, the Department for International Development will also give the country £150 million of aid.
On a day like this, it may seem odd to point out the obvious: that all this represents a vote of confidence in Kenya. When al-Qaeda left its bloodstained calling card in 1998, it would have seemed far-fetched for Nairobi to have a world-class facility such as Westgate shopping mall. The fact that investors were willing to build one, despite the endemic problems posed by corruption and collapsing infrastructure, showed their belief that Kenya’s rapidly growing population of 40 million represented a neglected consumer market.
Since then, the country has achieved annual economic growth of 5 per cent – not enough to break out of poverty, but not bad either. That growth is based on a diverse economy, encompassing commercial agriculture and manufacturing as well as tourism.
By virtue of geography, Kenya serves as the commercial hub for East and Central Africa, providing the region’s biggest port at Mombasa and the key trade route for a string of landlocked countries, ranging from South Sudan to Burundi. China has now signed a £3.2 billion deal to rebuild Kenya’s transport links, including the British-built railways. And last year oil was discovered in the arid Turkana region, meaning that Kenya is set to join the world’s select club of crude exporters by 2016.
If Kenya’s national infrastructure gets a makeover courtesy of China, and the nation starts to export oil and make full use of its natural position as the key link for African trade, it has a real chance to break free from poverty. That was true before 15 fanatics began massacring innocents in Westgate mall on Saturday – and it remains true today.
But Kenya’s geography is also a curse: its largely unguarded 430-mile border with Somalia helps to explain Nairobi’s current ordeal. The greatest dangers to Kenya come not from international terrorism, however, but from within, notably from a corrupt political system that serves as tragic reflection of a society scarred by ethnic division.
“Under all the layers, at the base of the giant mound, lies the same solid bedrock: Kenyans’ dislocated notion of themselves,” writes Michela Wrong in It’s Our Turn to Eat. “The various forms of graft cannot be separated from the people’s vision of existence as a merciless conflict in which only ethnic preference offers hope of survival.”
Mr Kenyatta is an authentic product of the political system bequeathed by his father Jomo, the first president after independence in 1963. Like the Italians and the Lebanese, however, Kenyans have mastered the ability to prosper and succeed despite their politicians.
And Mr Kenyatta responded to the Westgate outrage with robust moral clarity of a kind that has fallen out of use in the West. “We shall not relent on the war on terror: we shall continue that fight and we urge all people of goodwill throughout the world to join us and to ensure that we uproot this evil,” he said.
In 2011, Kenya sent 5,000 troops into southern Somalia to secure the border area after a series of attacks. The Kenyan army has taken the offensive, recently capturing the vital port of Kismayo from al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate that claims responsibility for the Westgate attack. Under pressure in its homeland, al-Shabaab has threatened to retaliate against any country that sends troops into Somalia. Kenya’s military presence makes it an obvious target.
But Mr Kenyatta, who inherited the Somalia operation from his predecessor, had a defiant response: “If their thought is that this was to intimidate us, it has only increased our commitment to fight and win this war.”
The details and the pictures that will emerge from Nairobi in the next few days will be harrowing, but do not judge by appearances. Kenya’s story is one of resilience, not fragility: it has recovered from al-Qaeda’s ravages in the past and will do so again.
David Blair returned to the Daily Telegraph to become Chief Foreign Correspondent in November 2011. He previously worked for the paper as Diplomatic Editor, Africa Correspondent and Middle East Correspondent.