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Kenya: The Westgate Squeeze

Kenya: The Westgate Squeeze
  • PublishedDecember 19, 2013

Kenya: The Westgate Squeeze. As Kenyans enter the New Year, the effects of the deadly siege on Westgate goes far beyond the extensively damaged shopping centre. David Meffe reports from Nairobi on how, despite the return of uneasy calm, there is a tight squeeze on the pockets of many ordinary people including craft vendors  who rely on tourists for daily business survival  and basic needs.

It’s a cloudy day in Nairobi’s upper-class Westlands district as cars zoom unapologetically through red lights, and motorcycle taxis swerve through uninterested pedestrian traffic, some carrying briefcases, others oversized sacks of beans or mango baskets.

A few streets over, the city’s once booming Westgate Mall is a hollow ruin of the ritzy expat shopping complex it used to be. All stores are closed indefinitely and the trendy Artcaffe terrace, once booming with life and enthusiastic shoppers, is instead barren and boarded-up behind a makeshift barrier of shiny aluminium. A few guards sit lazily near the only remaining gate, but the place is a far cry from the urban warzone, crawling with cameras and Kenyan Security Forces, that it was just a few months earlier.

A few hundred metres away, local shop owner Titus Kangethe shakes his head as he gestures towards piles of neatly arranged handcrafted jewellery, wood carvings and colourful East African knickknacks.

Kangethe is just one of the many shop owners who has capitalised on the popularity of various “uniquely African” trinkets bought by foreigners looking for coffee table conversation starters to bring back home.

“My business is going down, down, down. All the hotels nearby are empty, there are no tourists. Only local people pass by here, but they don’t want to buy this stuff,” he says. “I need tourists.”

Titus says that before the deadly terrorist attack in September that killed 72 people and left over 200 injured, the majority of his business consisted of tourist foot traffic, the bulk of which was generated and supported by Westgate’s myriad of trendy boutiques and expat hangouts.

“I haven’t had a single customer all day. I don’t know what I’m going to do if business doesn’t pick up.”Indeed, the effects of that Saturday, 21 September, when gunmen stormed the Westgate complex in the early afternoon, opening firing indiscriminately on everyone inside, still reverberate uncomfortably.

Al-Shabaab, a Somali Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organisation, which took responsibility for the attack via their Twitter account, called it direct retaliation for Kenya’s continued presence alongside the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces. They promised “dark days” ahead for Kenya, alluding to more violence in the future. For four days, the heavily armed gang not only killed and maimed people, they also held scores hostages, until Kenyan forces were able to retake the mall. But for many, it was too late to survive.

A powerhouse in the East African Community, Kenya’s economy is dominated by a careful balance of agriculture, shipping, trade and tourism. In 2013, for example, almost a million industrial cargo containers went through the port of Mombasa alone.

In the days that followed the attack, a host of countries in Europe and the US issued travel warnings for Kenya. Although most have since been revoked, there’s still hostility from the international community towards Kenya and the East African region.

Uganda was also a target of an Al-Shabaab attack in 2010 when two suicide bombers killed 74 people who were watching a screening of the FIFA World Cup Final game in the capital city of Kampala.

If it wasn’t bad enough that a terminal in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a major East African transit hub, went up in flames in August, Kenya’s tourism industry is taking a heavy hit from the Westgate attack. A study released by Visa in November states that East Africa had fallen off the global tourism radar in favour of other African destinations like South Africa, Mauritius and the Seychelles. It cited regional insecurity fears and poor marketing as major factors in the industry’s recent plunge. The World Economic Forum also cited, among other, insecurity, as further drawbacks to Kenyan tourism.

Data released by the Kenya Tourism Board shows that arrivals in the country had already been in continual decline since January 2013, though Kenyan authorities are still projecting roughly 2 million tourist arrivals for 2014.

According to the US credit rating agency Moody’s, the Westgate attack could cost Kenya anywhere between $200m to $250m in tourism revenue, in addition to lowering the country’s GDP by 0.5 per cent.

“We expect this high-profile attack to be credit-negative and [that it] will adversely affect Kenya’s growth and fiscal revenues, most directly through its effect on tourism, which accounts for 12.5 per cent of GDP, 7.4 per cent of investment and 11 per cent of total employment,” according to Moody’s said.London resident Victoria Ann Desmond was planning a trip to Nairobi over the holidays, followed by a visit to Kenya’s famed island of Lamu, a popular tropical tourist destination that boasts sandy beaches and some of the oldest examples of Swahili culture and architecture in East Africa.

Despite being regarded as one of Africa’s most beautiful island destinations, Lamu is also less than 70 km south of the porous Somali border, through which Al-Shabaab militants have routinely crossed to attack and raid small Kenyan towns in the past.

On 25 September, one person was killed and five others injured in Wajir County when a gang of armed men hurled a grenade at a local market before opening fire on members of the public.

Echoing sentiments expressed by many other tourists and locals, Desmonds says: “I kind of felt that after something like [Westgate] there would be such heightened security it would probably be safer to avoid the country for a while.”

Indeed, this is a call to the Kenyan government to look more into the issue of security following Westgate if it is to save its dwindling tourists numbers.

Other reports indicate that, in November 2014, Tanzania’s tourism industry overtook that of Kenya for the first time.

Rajay Thethy is the marketing director for Safari Trails, a destination management company that organises tours in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and other Indian Ocean islands.

He says, even just a few months after the attack, he is still feeling the squeeze. “Not only has Westgate deterred people from coming, many countries have issued travel advisories that have also affected us. This season has been tough.” he says.  

Thethy says that Safari Trails generally deals with two types of markets: the traditional market that includes western nations like Britain and America, and a second that includes emerging tourism markets like India, China, Russia and Brazil.

“A lot of people from the traditional market will book their holidays a year in advance, and when they hear about terrorism or Al Qaeda, suddenly Kenya is no longer an option,” he says.

“There is a great fear among people that there will be more attacks.”

But Kenya is no stranger to this kind of temporary international shyness; similar effects were felt after the twin American Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that killed 224 people in 1998.

Members of Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack and Kenya’s economy took a sharp downturn in the months that followed, with tea production taking the lead over tourism as the largest constituent of GDP, mainly due to several travel advisories from the West.

Although it took sometime for the Kenyan economy to fully recover from the attacks in 1998, the African Development Bank (AfDB) is projecting a 4.5 per cent and 5.2 per cent annual growth for Kenya in 2013 and 2014, respectively, in the face of  Westgate.

Back near what is left of Westgate, Titus and fellow merchant James Ndungu stand patiently around their shopfronts, politely catcalling passers-by and trying to flag down anyone they think might be a tourist interested in their wares.

Titus says he’s considered relocating, but hopes that this is all a temporary setback, although it’s still unclear whether what is left of the mall will be rebooted in the future or torn down entirely to make way for a memorial.

“People need to know that this could happen anywhere, not just in Kenya,” Ndungu says, emphatically adding: “This is a global problem.”

Written By
David Meffe

David is a Canadian freelance journalist, photographer and blogger from Montreal – his work focuses on human rights, development and music in Africa. He is currently based in Aarhus, Denmark, completing a master’s degree in war & conflict reporting.

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