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November 16, 2018

Impunity kills troops, citizens

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In the second half of January, Kenya marked the anniversaries of two tragedies our soldiers have suffered in Somalia. On the 15th we marked two years since al Shabaab sacked an African Union Mission in Somalia military camp in the town of El Adde.

The camp was manned by Kenya Defence Forces troops, at least 173 of whom were killed, with many others either injured, captured or missing. The real number of casualties is unknown as neither Amisom, the KDF or the Kenyan government have seen fit to release the information.

On the 29th it was the first anniversary of a similar attack on the KDF camp in Kulbiyow in which another 67 or more soldiers died, with again unknown numbers of injured. The KDF and government initially claimed that only nine had died but then went silent when some media reports suggested a much higher toll.

The paucity of publicly available information surrounding these two attacks should give us all pause for thought. It continues a sad tradition of official silence whenever Kenyans are killed in large numbers in terrorist attacks that dates back to the massacre of at least 68 people at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi’s upmarket Westlands area in September 2013.

It is a silence that has been enabled, and even actively supported, by Kenya’s media establishment which many times have been only too content to either reflect it or to regurgitate official statements rather than ask uncomfortable questions.

Should Kenyans care about this? Indubitably. A free and inquisitive press is a sine qua non if an informed public is to hold its government and institutions to account. The media is part of an unspoken pact between the Kenyan citizenry and the thousands of young men and women sent into harm’s way on our behalf.

These troops are expected to follow orders and it is our job to ensure that those issuing them are doing everything possible to minimise the harm the soldiers are exposed, that they are not treated as disposable fire-and-forget weapons.

For us to do this, we need access to information that the military and government, the very generals and politicians we want to hold to account, have a great interest in keeping hidden. By consistently asking uncomfortable questions and via its independent investigations, the media can help bring this to light, as has been the case in many other countries.

Now, it is true that the government and military can have a legitimate need to keep certain information secret for the safety of troops and effectiveness of operations. However, again as happens in countries across the world, such will be extended to cover up negligence and incompetence and the consequences thereof.

This is what is happening today. Operational security and troop morale are being presented as the reasons why we should not peer too deeply into the tragedies at El Adde, Kulbiyow and Westgate.

The folly of accepting this is reflected in the similarities between the attacks on Kulbiyow and the one in El Adde a year before as well as between that on Westgate and the one on Garissa University — where again four terrorists killed dozens of people while soldiers and police stood by outside the facility. These incidents demonstrate that, as a senior police officer told the Nation in July 2015, the state “has basically learnt nothing from Westgate, Garissa, Mpeketoni and others”.

A big reason why these incidents keep recurring is that no one is held to account. This is more the case in Somalia where, according to Nation journalist Nyambega Gisesa, “no single commander has ever been suspended or fired.” This impunity is what is killing our troops and our civilians and the best way to stop it is to remove the shro

Where the government argues that the media should not report certain information for the sake of troops or continuing operations, it should make that argument to news editors who should weigh whatever danger is claimed against the public interest and right to information. The blanket non-reporting will not do.

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