We caught up with Will Powell, our key man in Africa, to ask him for some perspective in the wake of the recent events in Nairobi. As it happens, Will was on the ground in Nairobi during the attacks and has been able to get some very local insight.
Q: What is the situation like right now in Nairobi?
A: Things are very tense. There is a lot of uncertainty, people are shocked and afraid, and the situation continues to evolve. At the same time, the city of Nairobi is home to 3.3 million people and life goes on.
Q: What is the news on the ground? What are people talking about in Nairobi?
A: In terms of security, there are two main concerns.
First, this isn’t over yet. While the situation at Westgate Mall will eventually stabilize – even at horrible costs of human life – we believe that there may well be further related incidents. There is a lot of discontent among certain groups, and security risks are endemic.
Second, this is allowing other risks to escalate.
Police and other local authorities are putting all of there focus on Westgate Mall and associated threats. This means certain people in Nairobi now feel that it is easier to get away with all kinds of things. Our local intelligence tells us that carjackings and other attacks are on the rise in Nairobi. Some of the bad guys apparently feel that while local and international focus is on Westgate, other crime is less likely to get caught. So all around Nairobi, we are advising clients, friends and family to be extra cautious in high-risk situations.
Q: How should expats and other foreigners travelling in Africa react to the recent attacks?
A: As always, we recommend a course of no panic. Be prepared, think ahead, relax.
Instead of panic, we are actively encouraging all of our clients – and anyone else we talk to – to follow some simple guidelines. We call these ASP – short for Awareness, Surroundings and Plan.
First, it’s very important to be extra AWARE and vigilant right now. Stay away from public areas unless you really need to be there. Be very alert. Know the risks and mitigate them however you can.
Second, know your SURROUNDINGS. Know where you are, where the exit is, where you parked the car and where to find cover if you need to.
Know where the unexpected might be most likely to occur. There’s no reason to be alarmist about this – or to scare the rest of the family – but in times like this it is worth your while to use some energy in getting to know your surroundings in a security sense. If you’ve had training for this kind of thing, now is the time to use it. If you have not had security training, then it’s always a good idea to consider doing this. It just makes life less stressful.
Third, have a PLAN. Go through predictable scenarios with children, spouses and staff, and have a plan ready that will help you respond. It’s things like staying in your hotel room instead of going out if there is trouble. It’s things like hiding rather than running in a lot of situations. And it’s things like knowing when to make a run for it when the opportunity presents itself. Again, training is a good idea. But common sense is always a good friend.
Q: How could such a large mall – and obvious target – be so vulnerable to such an attack?
A: Security in Kenya faces a lot of challenges.
The various layers of the system do not work together optimally. Guards at public venues are not always trained or armed. Things are not coordinated. Contingencies are not considered. Rather than a security check, we might sometimes refer to what happens at entrances to sensitive venues as “security ceremonies”.
For example, the Westgate Mall here in Nairobi has only three entrances, so you’d think it was relatively easy to protect. But the drive-in entrance, where 4-5 guards were on duty, does not check everything. Although they had under-car mirrors and looked through all cars, if there was something in the car they couldn’t actually open, the car would be sent to the roof parking rather than indoor parking. That’s it.
The other entrance is for pedestrians from the street level. Yes, there are guards with security wands, but there is not the kind of back up that you can see in other countries. If the security check is rushed by armed attackers, there is no fall-back system where the next layer of security kicks in to take over.
There are indications that this is what happened in Nairobi on Saturday: it seems that a number of armed terrorists rushed the pedestrian entrance from the street, and they were not stopped or slowed down. It’s also possible that the street-level attackers were able to join other attackers on the roof and pick up more arms, but none of this has been confirmed.
The third “entrance” to the Westgate Mall is actually a one-way exit. But this is also a possible security breach.
Q: In addition to clients in Nairobi, you also have family and friends who live and do business there. What is your advice to them right now?
A: My advice to clients is the same as my advice to my own family and friends. After all, it has to be that way!
What I recommend in the short term is to be extra vigilant, extra aware.
There is rarely any good reason to take unnecessary chances – whether it’s on a European highway or a back street in Nairobi. Now, there are a lot of extra reasons to reduce risk and eliminate situations that could lead to harm. Do it. Be extra careful, be extra vigilant.
At the same time, there are many reasons to carry on. If we all succumb to numbness every time al-Shabaab or other terrorist groups does something terrible, then we give them what they are looking for.
I was in another Nairobi shopping mall this morning to pick up a few things for my family – along with many others. Of course, I’m trained to deal with situations like this, but the mall was filled with people going about their business and I felt perfectly comfortable there.
Based on everything I know from my years in Africa, I firmly believe that Nairobi, Kenya and the rest of East Africa will carry on, and the fantastic development that also is a reality in Africa will continue.