Kenya’s respected military is facing a crisis of confidence following claims that soldiers may have looted property and cash as they battled terrorists at the Westgate mall two weeks ago.
It is particularly tough for the military that has long been held in high regard by Kenyans as compared to the police force, which always takes a beating in opinion polls over corruption.
Respect for the Kenya Defence Forces went a notch higher after a well-planned onslaught against al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, which started in October 2011 and culminated in the seizure of the all-important port of Kismayu last year.
A report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia estimates al-Shabaab generated up to Sh774 million ($9 million) annually from trade in charcoal and sugar through Kismayu.
But in the aftermath of the Westgate mall attack that has left at least 67 people dead, respect for KDF seems to have gone downward a few notches, given the sentiments expressed on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook in the last few days.
At least 21 of the 85 entrepreneurs who own shops in Westgate have filed reports with the police saying their property had been looted. Most say their items were intact when they visited their shops on Tuesday, just after the siege ended.
The missing items included expensive jewellery, cash and electronics. A video of Art Caffe restaurant posted on YouTube showed dozens of empty beer bottles.
Questions have arisen over what could have happened to the property and fingers pointed at KDF personnel who were in the building for three of the four days the mall was under siege.
Filing a report of the same, Citizen TV headlined their story as the “Looters Army” while NTV dubbed it the “Looters Brigade”.
KDF soldiers were fingered as the prime suspects because they took over operations inside the mall from the Recce Squad of the General Service Unit in the early hours into the attack.
The military has protested its innocence and said anybody with missing property should file a report with the police promising stern action against errant soldiers.
“KDF’s conduct inside the mall was guided by international standard operating procedures that govern such missions,” said Defence Secretary Raychelle Omamo.
“The allegations, therefore, came to us with consternation and we as a ministry are committed to get to the bottom of it.”
Military spokesman Maj Emmanuel Chirchir appeared to be fighting a losing battle on social media as he tried to contain vitriol from Kenyans.
“It was sad to be labelled LOOTERS ARMY; it was saddening to be labelled LOOTERS BRIGADE,” tweeted Maj Chirchir.
He announced that more than Sh300 million was “repatriated” (transferring cash to safer outlets) from the banks, Forex bureaus and casinos at Westgate.
“KDF did a fantastic job, we know our enemies who have decided to use propaganda to undermine our public good will,” said Maj Chirchir.
But Lieutenant-General (rtd) Humphrey Njoroge, once Commandant of Kenya’s National Defence College, criticised the military as having “lost the plot at Westgate”.
Furious Twitter users were unconvinced by Maj Chirchir’s explanations.
Kenyans have also questioned the rollover of command from the elite Recce squad to KDF’s Special Forces and whether crucial time and tactical advantage was lost to the terrorists.
Flow of information during and after the siege has been in a disarray, fuelling the criticism.
While Ms Omamo and Maj Chirchir have maintained that no money was lost, Col Cyrus Oguna, another military spokesman, had told the Sunday Nation last week that a bank and casino lost Sh2.9 million to looters in the wake of the attack.Col Oguna said that Barclays Bank lost Sh1.9 million while the Millionaires Casino said it lost Sh1 million.
The new criticism comes hot on the heels of a damning report by UN monitors who accused Kenyan soldiers in the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia of facilitating illegal charcoal exports from the port city of Kismayu.