The pandemonium, confusion and desperation resulting from the Westgate Mall massacre immediately rekindled memories of 9/11/2001. I had just walked into the John Templeton Foundation where I was working as an intern, a few miles from Philadelphia when two planes rammed through the twin towers in New York City.
A few minutes later a third plane hit the Pentagon and I immediately started screaming and calling out my big brother, Kirimi Kaberia's name! I was worried because my brother Kirimi lived barely four miles from the Pentagon. I could not reach him immediately but he finally called me hours later to say he was ok. 3,000 innocent lives were lost in the worst terrorist attack in America's history.
Whereas 9/11 was a very close call because of my brother's proximity to the Pentagon, the Westgate Mall terror attack is even closer. You may not have lost a family member but we are all affected in different ways. This attack is an affront on our way of life. Kenya was slowly but surely becoming the face of an open society in Sub Saharan Africa.
The democratic space may be taken for granted until tragedies like 'Westgate' hit. That there are people who loathe and hate the fact that Kenyans, like the rest of the world can live in harmony with each other, enjoy the same facilities enjoyed in the West and go about their business without fear that someone may want to maim and kill them in their numbers is no longer in doubt.
The Westgate massacre may have achieved the goals of the cowards. However, it must serve to bring Kenyans together to confront terror because what unites us is greater than that which divides us. The President did what Presidents do by calming the nerves of a bleeding nation and reassuring the citizenry. Opposition leader Raila Odinga struck a conciliatory note underscoring the need for Kenyans to come together as a nation.
This is not the time for finger pointing and the leaders know as much. Terror is indiscriminate and as we might have noticed it affected Jubilee and CORD supporters, Christians, Muslims and even atheists. Kenyans must therefore labor to understand the essence of terrorism and seek ways to deal with it. It is a test on Kenya's resilience.
It is easier to blame and condemn Al Shabab but remember that terrorist organizations have managed to radicalize our youth by filling the vacuum left by a society that has socialized its youth to believe that they are just goons for hire. They will undertake suicidal missions to wantonly destroy lives and property in a flash. The youth have been made to believe that theirs is a noble mission sanctioned by the almighty. But exactly how did our youth get so radicalized and what can we as a nation do about it?
I have studied conflict, violence and war. I know the challenges of fighting non state actors (NSA.) Non state actors largely thrive on ideology. They do not have standing armies and they depend on ragtag militias glued together by shared ideology. The Kenyan military may have pushed Al Shabab from its borders but left the problem intact.
Recent history has shown that ideologies cannot be fought militarily. Guns will not do it. Kenya must device a method to win back the minds and hearts of those young men who have already been radicalized in schools, churches, mosques and more importantly in the neighborhoods. It should be presented as a case of good versus evil. To fight an ideology one must understand why it appeals to a certain demographic.
Senator Mike Sonko seems to have figured it out by rewarding criminals who surrender their arms. Like him or not, Sonko may be the humming bird in Kenya's effort to de-radicalize the youth. He understands they turn to crime to earn a living. Perhaps the government could take Sonko's plan a notch higher and institutionalize his amnesty project.
Second, the Kenyan youth have become so radicalized because they cannot trust their leaders. Unlike past administrations the Jubilee administration seems to enjoy some level of trust by the youth and should take full advantage of this goodwill. Being digitally visible alone is not enough. The government, with the support of others must fulfill its promises to the youth because failure to do so creates an opportunity for Al Shabab to offer an "alternative." Kenyan youth must not be left to believe that they are only appreciated when they are used to unleash terror on opponents. Real jobs for them will discourage terrorism as a potential career path.
Finally, without singling out any particular religion, religious leaders must now stand up to be counted. If one wing of a religion advocates terror and brainwashes youth to believe that theirs is a holy war, the mainstream wing of that and other religions has a duty to go all out and de-radicalize, decriminalize and decolonize the minds of young men and women in their flock.
Timothy Kaberia is a consultant on African politics/culture and former VOA broadcaster based in Washington DC.