Kenyan officials admitted Thursday that they made mistakes in their handling of last week’s terror attack on Garissa University College, but one senior police official seemed to put the onus on the victims, saying people should fight back and "don't just be killed like cockroaches."
At least 148 people died in the attack, including at least 142 students. Accounts from survivors suggest that most of those who got out alive did so either by running away, hiding or playing dead among the bodies of the slain, not by fighting back against the heavily armed gunmen. Somali-based Shabab militants claimed responsibility for the massacre.
Students have told how one gunman ran into an early morning Christian prayer meeting and sprayed gunfire at praying students, shooting some in the face and others in the chest before kicking the bodies to ensure they were dead. Of 29 in the meeting, only seven survived.
The senior police official, Pius Masai Mwachi told journalists at a Nairobi morgue that when terrorists attack, the best thing to do is to fight back, the Associated Press reported.
Mwachi tweeted similar comments, saying, “If you are in the hands of terrorists, free yourselves as soon as possible (fight out).” He said Kenyans must “never accept to be divided along ethnic and religious lines,” a reference to the fact that the Garissa killers allowed some Muslim students on the predominantly Christian campus, 90 miles from the Somali border, to walk free.
Mwachi’s comments, implying that students could have avoided being killed “like cockroaches,” were made at the morgue where families were collecting their dead, and came in the wake of an attack that critics say was badly mishandled by the government and security agencies.
Kenyan authorities have been under fire over the late arrival of the nation’s special anti-terror police, who did not launch a counter-attack on the campus until about 4:30 p.m., 11 hours after the Islamist militants assaulted the campus last on April 2.
Heartbroken parents wondered why the government took so long to respond, amid survivors’ accounts of the Shabab gunmen taunting students and killing at leisure as the siege dragged on. There have also been questions about why security was not boosted at the school after intelligence reports indicated that a campus would be attacked.
Presidential spokesman Manoah Esipisu admitted for the first time Thursday that mistakes were made, but said they were inevitable. He said the objective was always to save as many student lives as possible.
“Did we do something wrong in Garissa? Yes, of course. It is always a learning curve. The only person with all cards is a terrorist. He knows where and when, what time. You react. In reacting, there are always time lapses. You have to react and plan,” he said in comments to newspaper editors in Nairobi, according to local media.
“You have to prepare for that ground. It is not as if you are dealing with known variables. You are dealing with a terrorist scenario. This is not a joke at all,” he said.
Another government official expressed irritation that Kenya’s media were “negative” in their accounts of the handling of the attack.
Information, Communication and Technology Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i said Kenya’s media should be more “patriotic.”
“We expect the media to work with the government instead of focusing on the negative alone. The media [are] part of ... Kenyan society and we have to work together for the common good,” he said, according to local media reports.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has been criticized in Kenya’s media for failing to meet with grieving parents or surviving students in the wake of the attack.
An editorial in the Standard newspaper Wednesday said the public was impatient for answers about why the anti-terror police took so long to arrive and whether more lives could have been saved had they arrived hours earlier.
“It is therefore morally irresponsible for the government’s PR machine to go into overdrive after what everyone acknowledges was a lamentable response. In the end, the unabashed defense of the operations does more harm to the grief-stricken families of the dead and mocks the public. Instead of trying to justify its failure, the government should instead admit it did not measure up to expectations and endeavor to remedy things,” the editorial said.
Much of the criticism focused on the failure to learn the lessons from a 2013 attack by Shabab militants on the Westgate shopping mall, in which 67 people died.
“If Westgate was a disaster, what do you call Garissa?” ran the headline on Wednesday’s editorial in the Daily Nation, criticizing Kenyatta for failing to meet the parents of the dead.
“In Kenya, your child, your only hope in whom you have invested the family fortune, is slaughtered. But a little time can’t be found in busy diaries for the leader you elected to come and look you in your teary eyes and assure you that he did his best, that the death of your son or daughter has not been in vain, that he feels your pain and is doing his best to bring to justice those who did it.”
The newspaper said the students had been let down by security officials.
“The country is vulnerable, not just because it has enemies, but because its systems of security are corrupt and incompetent," it said. "There were intelligence reports that a university was to be attacked, and that Garissa and Mandera were at risk. Why weren’t adequate measures taken to protect the university?”
Given Shabab’s history of killing rather than taking hostages, the newspaper said, it was crucial to respond swiftly, adding that the belated arrival of the special police forces “takes bungling to a new level.”
Kenyan police Wednesday froze the accounts of 85 people and businesses alleged to have terror links. They included 13 Somali remittance companies and bus transport companies operating routes in northeastern Kenya. The closure of the remittance firms follows moves in February by U.S. banks to shut down remittances to Somalia because of concerns some of the cash may be going to Shabab.
Somalia has virtually no working banking system, and Somalis rely on relatives in the diaspora to transfer cash remittances. About $1.3 billion in remittances flows into Somalia each year.
Merchants Bank of California, which handled most remittances, closed down services in February.
Follow @RobynDixon_LAT for news from Africa