The Costs of Terrorism

Sleepless Nights in Kenya

Saleh Nabhan
According to the Kenyan police, Saleh Nabhan bought the car used to blow up a Mombasa hotel on Nov. 28, 2002. Ten Kenyans, three Israelis, and three bombers were killed in the attack (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

As George Bush and Tony Blair were celebrating their crushing of Saddam Hussein’s regime, people in Kenya and across East Africa were spending many sleepless nights. They knew only too well that terrorists were not going to take such a humiliating defeat lying down.

The word terrorism sends a cold chill down the spine of every Kenyan. We have been victims of terror twice—in 1998 when 213 people perished in the bombing of our U.S. Embassy and again in November last year when 16 people were killed by suicide bombers. “In the two occasions, Kenya paid dearly for finding itself in the crossfire between Britain, the U.S., and Israel on the one hand, and Iraq, Palestine, and other Arab states on the other,” wrote the Daily Nation on March 15. Of the 213 who died in 1998, only 12 were Am-ericans. By contrast, hundreds of Kenyans lost their lives and millions of shillings’ worth of property went up in smoke.

Kenya pursues a policy of friendship to all with the aim of attracting investment from the East and the West. The countries that invest in Kenya are expected to do everything possible to enable the country to develop the economic capacity to protect their property.

It therefore came as a complete surprise when, on March 14, London sent out an advisory telling all Britons to avoid visiting Kenya because, it said, the country was likely to be hit by terrorists. The advisory warned that extremist terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda could launch attacks, particularly on East African seaports such as Mombasa, at any time.

Needless to say, the first sector to feel the effect of this announcement was tourism. Kenya receives more than 500,000 tourists every year. The tourism sector generates Shs 24 billion (US$330 million), which is 8 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product and 15 percent of the country’s foreign-exchange earnings. About 1 million tourists were expected this year. This will obviously not be realized. The travel warnings led hundreds of tourists to change their destinations from Kenya to other countries.

The Kenyan government, hoteliers, travel agents, tour firms, and the hundreds of thousands who depend on tourism reacted angrily. Although the minister in charge of Kenya’s internal security, Chris Murungaru, issued a statement telling prospective visitors that the government had “taken the necessary security steps to forestall any terrorist acts,” the damage had already been done.

The British government made things worse when, on May 16, it banned all flights to Kenya. It was quickly followed by the Israeli government, which prohibited its national carrier, El Al, from visiting Kenya and the entire East African region. The German government, too, urged its citizens not to visit the region and singled out Mombasa as an area of concern.

According to the statement issued by the British government, intelligence reports indicated that a terrorist attack in Kenya was imminent. Britons were also advised to avoid Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda. Apart from warning their citizens against visiting Kenya, the U.S. State Department authorized the voluntary departure of embassy personnel stationed in the country.

According to the minister for tourism, Raphael Tuju, “Losses have been incurred through reduced cash flow to hotels, which has in turn adversely affected employees’ wages. If the situation continues, many hotel workers will lose their jobs.” The minister, however, quickly added: “I would rather all flights were canceled, than lose lives to terrorists.”

Several international conferences due to be held in Nairobi were canceled. The largest was the International Press Institute’s 52nd annual congress, which would have been held June 1-4. The loss occasioned by cancellation of hotel bookings and other expenses runs into the billions of shillings.

A number of investors who had shown interest in Kenya as a result of the favorable environment created by the new government have suddenly developed cold feet as well.

The question on the minds of Kenyans is whether the moves by the British to ban flights and the United States to warn its citizens not to visit Kenya advance the war against terrorism—whether it creates a spirit of confidence and partnership. The general consensus is that the British and U.S. governments are keen only on the safety of their citizens and that the damage their actions may cause to Kenya is a matter that they do not regard as of any importance. Sunday Nation’s Mutuma Mathew summed it up: “We are pawns in a war which we are too weak to fight, powerless to battle the marshaled evil forces of Al-Qaeda, too feeble to chuck the embrace of the Americans and the West in general, whose vassals the fanatics consider us to be.”

The American government seems willing to help Kenya, offering to train a special anti-terrorist police unit of 500 officers and providing surveillance equipment at major airports. But Kenyans feel solving the current predicament will require changing policies in the Middle East. Until then, many innocent people may lose their lives for a cause that is not theirs.