Nairobi — Kenyan officials are once again giving mixed messages to the public after closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage released last week revealed images of uniformed soldiers allegedly looting goods in the midst of al-Shabaab's four-day siege of Westgate mall.
The footage, widely broadcast by local media, appeared to show uniformed officers carrying white plastic bags out of Nakumatt supermarket on the second day of the siege. Other footage showed jewellery cases, mobile phone display cases and safes that had been emptied of their contents.
Chief of Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) Julius Karangi told parliament October 22nd that troops only took drinks "to quench their thirst". Explaining the other goods taken, he called it "sanitisation to ensure their safety".
In response to media reports questioning the official denial of the looting, Kenyan Police Inspector General David Kimaiyo threatened journalists with arrest October 23rd, and then retracted the decision amid outrage from press rights groups and media organisations.
'This is shameful'
Nairobi residents who viewed footage from the mall are not buying the military's explanation and expressed outrage at what they saw.
"This is shameful. [To find out] that as we struggled to donate food stuffs to feed [officers] during the operation and donate to the victims, our soldiers were turning against us, and even stealing from the dead," said Sandeep Shah, a businessman who lives near Westgate.
"For us to be seen as an accountable society, we must see heads rolling at the KDF. We should see those who looted sacked," he told Sabahi. "The leaders at KDF should take responsibility and resign to pave way for investigations, rather than live in denial and keep cheating the public."
Paku Tsavani, owner of a bookshop on Westgate's second floor, said that when he returned to the mall after the siege, he found his cash safes had been ransacked and his laptop was missing.
"There were only two sets of people in the mall at the time of the operation: the forces and the terrorists, and there is no way the terrorists could have carried away the laptop or even stolen money," Tsavani told Sabahi. "All we are looking for are concrete answers."
For her part, Westgate jewellery shop owner Ann Njeri said her stock of high-end necklaces had gone missing as well.
Njeri returned to her shop October 17th after the government called on store owners to report to the mall. "[I am] still counting losses, but so far 6 million shillings [$71,000] worth of my necklaces have disappeared," she said.
Nakumatt Chief Executive Officer Atul Shah said it was difficult to tell what items, if any, were lost through looting because the supermarket burned down September 23rd, the third day of the siege.
"We are saddened, but all we are interested in at Nakumatt now is answers from those involved in the operation on how, why and who burnt down the supermarket," he told Sabahi.
Shah also cast doubt on the veracity of an official statement from the government claiming that the terrorists could have set mattresses in the supermarket on fire as a ploy to distract the security forces.
Government denies allegations:
Despite numerous complaints from shop owners whose businesses were ransacked, government officials have continued to absolve the army from any blame.
When the first allegations of looting came out October 4th, Defence Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo rejected them at a press briefing. She challenged anyone who had evidence to come forward.
Later, parliament's National Security Committee (NSC) also said they had reviewed all the CCTV footage but had found nothing with which to implicate Kenyan soldiers.
"I tell you again, never did the KDF participate in looting," NSC Chairman Asman Kamama told Sabahi.
Shop owners who were pressing the allegations of looting were doing so to seek money from insurance companies as compensation, Kamama said.
For the first time weighing in on the controversy at the weekend, President Uhuru Kenyatta warned against attempts to smear the security forces.
"We should not be too quick to vilify our security forces because they work hard for the country's safety, sometimes even endangering their lives," Kenyatta said Saturday (October 26th), according to AFP.
Addressing worshippers during mass at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi on Sunday, Kenyatta did not refer to the Westgate attack directly, but he urged Kenyans to be sensitive in their criticism of the security forces.
"No man is perfect or woman for that matter, but what is most important is what we do when we make mistakes," Kenyatta said. "There are those who will love to live and wallow in their mistakes and there are those who learn from their mistakes and change."
Nonetheless, the public's confidence in the armed forces will deteriorate if the government fails to follow through with a transparent probe into the allegations, said Peter Ambeche, a member Bunge la Mwananchi, a lobby group that advocates for government reform and encourages citizens to be engaged in the democratic process.
"These statements by the cabinet secretary and the committee chairman are lies, schemes to cover up all that happened, and we condemn [them] in totality," he told Sabahi.
Kenyans long had considered the KDF as the country's most professional security force but that could change as a result of the fallout from the Westgate looting allegations, Ambeche said.
Simiyu Werunga, a retired Kenyan army captain and director of the African Centre for Security and Strategic Studies, said the allegations have already tainted the reputation of Kenyan forces and would affect their international standing.
"But the best way out is not to cover up or deny it," Werunga told Sabahi. "They should seriously investigate the matter and prosecute those behind the looting to show to the world and Kenyans in general that the officers are not above the law."
Attempts by Sabahi to contact KDF officials directly to respond to the allegations were futile. KDF Spokesman Cyrus Oguna had scheduled a press briefing for October 23rd, but it was postponed to an unspecified date.