15 years after Nairobi bombing; how we all became ‘children’ of terrorism

Wednesday August 7 2013

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO [email protected]

On Wednesday, part of the arrivals terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was gutted by fire. Many TV presenters and voices on social media noted that the day was also the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Nairobi suffered the most casualties, with 212 people killed and an estimated 4,000 wounded. In Dar es Salaam 11 people were killed and about 85 wounded.

It is therefore a good time to examine how the fight against “international terrorism”, which broke out in earnest after those August 7, 1998 bombings, has impacted our societies and politics.

As always, there were winners and losers. One big winner was the government. Unlike today, by the end of the 1990s human rights activism was the biggest thing and many African governments with dodgy records were finding themselves diplomatically isolated.

The fight against international terrorism changed all thought. All of a sudden red carpets were being rolled out in Western capitals for African leaders with the worst governance record, as long they had become “partners” in the anti-terrorism fight.

Governments started working on anti-terror laws that were also targeted to muzzle the internal opposition. So after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda on the US in New York and Washington, the momentum swung in favour of governments. In Uganda and Tanzania, draconian anti-terrorism legislation easily sailed through the Parliament.

Rickety African states institutions also got a new lease of life. The anti-terror war led to extensive security sector reforms. Younger educated computer savvy operatives were hired, and counter-terrorism units where the officers were spirited off to leading security institutions all over the world, were formed.

It is easy to forget, but before the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam attacks, and especially 9/11 in the USA, immigration desks at most African airports didn’t have computers and a majority of security checkpoints didn’t have scanners. Things were uncomplicated. The immigration officers tended to be older because they had a “wiser and more experienced eye”.

The introduction of computers and deployment of electronic fingerprinting led to the retraining of immigration officers, and the recruitment of the younger officers you see today.

All these various initiatives meant that African governments that were besieged by popular protests and democracy movements renewed their technical and intelligence capacities to push back.

I think, for example, if Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt hadn’t emerged a leading anti-terrorism state, and the country was imprisoning and torturing terrorist suspects the West was too embarrassed to handle, the regime would have fallen five to 10 years earlier than it did.

Also, the international value of military-party led states like Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda, Paul Kagame’s Rwanda and (then) Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopia that had arisen from victorious rebel armies taking power, increased. These states had a more activist security policy, and thus considered better partners in the fight against terrorism. Until then, the favoured countries in Africa were those seen as a “model of democracy”.

This led to the further relegation of fairly successful democratic nations like Botswana, and also meant that while South Africa was richer than the rest of Africa combined, because it was not an activist security state, it had less influence on geopolitical issues on the continent than poor Ethiopia.

For us ordinary folks, the fear of terrorism forced us to add another layer of hypocrisy to our lives.

I have a friend who is otherwise a committed human rights activist, and was saying that people like US President George Bush at the time were tarring all Muslims unfairly with the terrorism brush. Shortly after 9/11 she was returning to Entebbe on a South African Airways flight. “There was this guy, he had a long beard, was wearing a fez, a robe, and was pacing up and down the aisle suspiciously”, she said.

Progressive as she was, she said she was so scared, she drew the attention of a steward to the man’s “strange” behaviour. The steward told her that another passenger had already complained to her about it!

I asked her if she still believed it was wrong to profile people as “looking like terrorists”.

“Officially, yes,” she said.

Privately, I guess it was another matter. She is not alone. She represented the duplicity on terrorism that most of us live with.

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