Disaster? Cue the Looting, This is Kenya

When I saw images of Abdul Hajj, I automatically knew he was not a Kenyan cop. There was something about him that told of affluence, a man who gyms in a proper facility and eats well.

Later, I bounced on an image of the cop (the unlucky thief) currently being prosecuted for looting from the dead at Westgate. It is because we pay our police so badly, I thought to myself in a moment of temporary insanity. Then, when we all knew that KDF had almost exclusive access to the mall for days, stories of looting reappeared. This time, the possible looters were not poorly paid officers but elite forces that are among the best paid employees in the country. So I hang my head in shame and sighed. We are doomed.

It is not as much as what was stolen but by whom. The police, underpaid and neglected, have a ‘social license’ similar to that we give politicians who bribe us for our votes. We think it is an abhorrence, but we have learnt to live with it. If you commit a traffic offence, for example, and are arrested, anyone will tell you not to open your wallet in the arresting officer’s field of vision. One lady did exactly that and the officer snatched the bundle of brown notes, totaling 5,ooo bob, and let her free. And so it goes.

We have so institutionalized looting that we see nothing new about it. That’s why my sentiments on Westgate looting point towards the underlying and nagging idea that with exclusive access, the military officers might have hauled away luxury watches and other valuables. Our astute forces, well paid, and provided for as much as they would want, most of it untaxed and exclusive, might have conducted one of the most blatant thefts in the history of our society. It is too soon to claim the end of the AFCO tax breaks triggered the looting, so, why would those we pay well enough to do violence on our behalf steal from us like those from whom we expect similar services but pay poorly? Does it even have anything to do with the salary and allowances or is it deeper, engrained in our hastily clobbered national genotype?

In Its Our Turn to Eat, the case is made through the Anglo leasing story that being in a position of power in Kenya is chance to loot. If you don’t do it, someone else will, goes the story. We tend to associate politicians with five year mandates with this social license to raid public coffers and behave plainly like assholes in their interactions with us common folk. We allow that, because they are elected or nominated, and are thus in a God-given electorate-legitimized position to thief for themselves and their ilk. Maybe some crumbs will fall our way, we think.

It does little to our collective national psyche and legendary apathy, and will probably be forgotten in no time, but it raises questions of a deep moral angling. Is it that we have become so used to looting, whether as participants or victims, that we can only be shocked now if it is done by those we thought above such a trivial offence? Didn’t the crowd that had to be repulsed using teargas want to access the mall even before it was secured? They had an epiphany of what the disciplined forces, bar none, would do when left alone in a upper class mall where all hell had broken lose? It seems they did.

Almost all disasters are followed by looting of some degree, so much so that one academic called it the ‘cliché of disaster journalism.’ In most cases, it is simple citizens first looting for basic stuff such as food and water (before eventually hauling luxury items, going up the Maslow pyramid) but in Kenya, the protectors are quite adept at it. Instead of appearing as astute members of the disciplined forces, as perhaps we all think of military officers, policemen tend to appear as low socio-economic players.

It happened before at JKIA and has probably happened many times prior. It is just that now that we all have and want good stuff, we are talking about it. Living in a consumerist society, you want to know that at least your valuables will outlive you, and go into your estate should you die during a terrorist siege or a traffic accident. But that comfort, friend, is denied. We will loot. We will loot from you everything on your corpse before your soul reaches the roof. Hell, if you are not dead enough to let go of your iPhone, we will help you either journey yonder or wait like vultures, until your lungs heave that last one, and away we go with all your bling and cash. Maybe your family will get your wallet. Such is not assured.

What ails our national morality then? In the cliché mentioned prior, most cases tend to be instances of horrific disasters such as Hurricanes and earthquakes. There is a desperate need to get basic utilities and, for those whose inner animal has an automatic switch, acquire nice things. Yet there is hardly ever looting in Japan.

It became a phenomenon after the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear reactor aftermath. The Japanese do not loot, and if they do, not at the scale seen in other scenes globally, even in richer societies. In most discussions of this phenomenon, most contributors argue that the Japanese culture of shame, community, and respect, has something to do with it. The consumerist culture has not managed to kill of this national conscience, and the deep respect for one another stretches to a moment of desperation. Where other countries take years to recover from a disaster, Japan’s system is efficient because it is built on a system of restraint, if not trust.

One can imagine the temptation, the fact that you are standing in front of a shop with things you have only seen on displays. There is no one to catch you, or a bigger crime (than the one you are about to commit) is being committed. Who will worry about the dead man’s phone anyway? Or how much cash he had on his person when the hooded terrorist shot him point blank? The dead do not need the money, their dependents are probably rich enough to survive without it, you think. But you do. Who will ever catch you anyway? If the police do, you will only have to forfeit a portion of it and voila, the handcuffs of justice will magically disappear. Hell, you will even get an armed escort home that day. Such is. Such is.

Our culture of looting and plundering is not epitomized by Westgate but by our reaction to it. It is the deeper sense of apathy where we figure most of the shops were insured and thus, it does not matter that their valuables were lost in a crime scene. A crime scene with layer upon layer of cordons, and a retinue of our protectors. Our protectors got rich that day, maybe they will not be too hungry when they arrest us tomorrow.

But looting feeds avarice, another of our national treasures, which in turn breeds the kind of hunger that addicts of morphine get on subsequent doses. That is why majority of the onlookers at Kenyan crime scenes are there. It is not to ask after the dead and injured but to await the slightest opportunity to carry a trophy. Drive on any road and if you come upon an accident, study closely how first responders pocket valuables while pulling people from the wreckage. Such is.

There is an actual criteria for when looting is morally permissible. In such cases as where there is actual desperation. The argument there is that in an interdependent society such as ours, everybody plays a part, however minute, to the production in and progress of society. This position thus means that in case a fair exchange of goods is not possible because of the circumstances, such as breakdown of social order after a disaster, then one is in his human right to seek basic needs from those who have. It would be, another argues, selfish of us as human beings to judge those desperately seeking to survive. Our very existence as a species would be at risk.

But there was no breakdown of social order per se at Westgate or JKIA. There was perhaps, too much order. Normal ad hoc looters do not come carrying grenades and other explosives to open safes and access ATMs. Neither do they, at least the first wave, go after the cash registers and other movable currencies. Yet that is exactly what happened at Westgate, and before at JKIA (there were no explosives here though). Systematically, responders took time off their busy schedule of protecting us to help themselves to items on the aisles and the mannequins. The clinical organization meant that even shop owners who had luckily managed to lock up their shops still suffered the same fate as those who left them wide open.

Those looting were not poor and desperate, as we would be if, say, a Hurricane were to miraculously hit Nairobi. They were in no danger of imminent hunger if they did not wear the gold chains and watches from the shops. In fact, brave Kenyans filled their cars and set camp to feed responders. There was more food where that came from, that’s for sure. All, except maybe the community policing units, receive a constant monthly salary and allowances that was still assured when and if they survived their mission there. There was no social order to warrant breaking into ATMs, or even justify it. Yet the hapless gaffe-prone Interior Cabinet Secretary will proudly downplay the significance of the crime by saying only ‘two or three shops were looted.’

In this god forsaken land we were born in, numbers shock us but hardly ever enough to make an actual difference. 1, 100 people died during the 2007/8 massacres. 40 officers died in Baragoi. Over 100 civilians died in Tana River. Another 40 died in a single bus accident. More die each day. The death toll in the Northern Frontier is so high that it does not make headline news anymore. Wajir was bombed the day after Westgate was (sic!) retaken (and bombed, for some reason). Isn’t it ironical that we should derive a lesson as ‘the death of one is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic’ from a diabolical dictator who massacred his people with the gun and famine? Shouldn’t it embarrass our very core as an ‘inter-religious’ but constitutionally secular (ignore the allusions of faith) in the Preamble country?

A US official recently told Museveni that his military officers are ‘good soldiers but thieves.’ Then reports appeared pointing towards Kenya’s complicity in the charcoal trade in Kismayu, the very jewel we won from its murderous rulers just last year. Do you know what that would mean if it is true that our military has been facilitating illegal business in Somalia? That we actually funded the Westgate 5 (or 15 or 20, no one seems to know how many hostiles held us in panic for over 72 hours) and all that they did. We rubber-stamped our own death by spreading the tentacles of our selfish ambition to enrich ourselves at whatever cost. Sealed our fate so our wallets could be heavier. The children will never know their education was funded with blood money. The wives will never know the red on the flower petals is blood from victims of our greed. Even if they do, they will not care much. It was not anyone they knew, they will argue, and if we had not done it, the next person would have. So why not us? Also, we prayed for forgiveness and filled the offertory.

Some might argue that from a Hobbesian perspective, looting is a way through which those who-have-not seek to bridge the class gap with those who have-yachts. But the injured driver who loses his valuables to his helpers is a man hustling as any other. Start a fire in a slum and see whether the looting of other residents has anything to do with class warfare. It is pure human greed, nothing else.

The ethics of looting depend on the facts of the subject. After 9/11, for example, firemen took water from nearby stores to rinse their eyes. When a hungry man steals from a store, then there is a moral case to let that man eat; and to make sure that he has a living so he does not have to break social norms again. In the Argentina food riots of 1989, poor women walked into stores and stole food and other basic supplies. There were no cases of looting of non-essentials and the cash registers until later when other mobs followed. But Kenya’s two recent cases are interesting and disturbing.

The looters are not desperate hungry mobs, at least not in an ad hoc sense of the word. They are organized units with a clear mandate and training to handle emergencies. Their very job description is built on the fact that their role in society is sacred. The salaries are low, the hours depressing, the populace thankless (unless it is in one of those rare occasions of national reflection), and all but hope is lost. That is still no defense for such an abhorring crime as grave robbing.

So, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Since it is their work to do that to us, to hurl us in jail if we (are caught) loot, to protect us from external threats by doing violence on our behalf, who will do it to them? In the next disaster, as one surely will come, are we to helplessly stand by as our businesses are ransacked simply because these are ‘the untouchables.’ One of the victims succinctly saidThis is Kenya. Let’s just face it, what’s lost is lost.”

It is plunder, mate, and these are times of war and uncertainty. Accept and move on. In fact, grab something from that glass window or aisle and move on with it. 

Edit, 2nd October 2013 1710hrs

Prompted by panoramicdon’s comment below, I remembered that indeed the TJRC report is teeming with testimonies of looting by our ‘esteemed’ forces. A cursory reading of the relevant volumes points towards a tradition of looting as a military strategy, a strategy of yore, the medieval days of pirates and plunder. Even sadder, looting is connected to other crimes such as rape and murder. But no commissions, if any, have ever been formed to investigate the suffering the NEP and Mt. Elgon residents went through. We are an unequal society, dear reader, and you are not invited to the looting.

 

  • The Pied Piper

    Kenia is a tough place. Ask Scotland Yard, and more recently Madam B’Souda. It’s a rigmarole.

  • That the terror attack took place in Nairobi exposed all the shame of our so called soldiers. Residents of the Northern frontier have always been complaining how soldiers loot and steal livestock, money and jewellery from them whenever there’s an ‘operation’. It’s even better in Nairobi since no rape cases were reported.

    Ours is a cutthroat form of capitalism that sees people do anything to get their hands on material stuff. No wonder the Tanzanians are so suspicious of us.