Lenku: My 4 days of ‘Westgate’ hell

Joseph Ole Lenku

Kajiado Governor Joseph Ole Lenku gestures during an interview with the Nation on September 9, 2023. The interview was on the 10th anniversary of the Westgate Mall attack.

Photo credit: Joan Pereruan | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • When the attack happened on that fateful Saturday, Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku was in a meeting.
  • Governor Lenku recalls how he became the subject of national ridicule after the ‘burning mattresses’ remark, and how many labelled him a good man in the wrong job.

In an interview with Nation’s JUSTUS WANGA and BRIAN OBUYA, Kajiado Governor Joseph Ole Lenku opens up about the Westgate ordeal 10 years ago, which he says was not only a baptism of fire, but also had a profound impact on his public life and influenced his decision to run for the Kajiado seat. He recalls how he became the subject of national ridicule after the ‘burning mattresses’ remark, and how many labelled him a good man in the wrong job for what they saw as his mishandling of the terrorist attack, to the point of being called a mpishi (a cook) who was unable to lead the country out of the terrorist mess and had to be sacked for it.

It has been 10 years since that September 21 Saturday when Al-Shabaab terrorists stormed Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate Mall, unleashing violence against shoppers and laying a four-day siege that left 67 dead.  

Joseph Ole Lenku, the Cabinet Secretary for Interior, was at the centre of the operation to bring order.

But he had been caught flat-footed. First was a call from General Julius Karangi, the military chief, at around midday. 

He thought it was a routine hello from his counterpart at the Department of Defence.

“Lenku, what’s going on at Westgate?” the defence chief asked. 

The minister requested to call him back in five minutes, with a proper brief. But these minutes had barely lapsed when another call came in.

Unlike the other 10 or so missed calls — including one from Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo, which he intended to return after the security meeting he was chairing at the Office of the President (OP) — this one couldn’t wait. 

It was President Uhuru Kenyatta. 

When Al Shabaab terrorists stormed Westgate Mall

“I could tell by the tone of his voice that all was not well. I had to drop everything and hurry to State House. The unthinkable had happened,” he recalls, admitting that he was still at a loss. 

President Kenyatta had full knowledge of what was happening at the mall and only needed to check with his right-hand man. He was not amused, recalls Mr Lenku, who is now a second-term governor of Kajiado County. 

He was in the dark, and apparently other security agencies had briefed Mr Kenyatta on what was to become a national crisis for the next few days.

For many, it was a bank robbery or something of the sort, given the number of financial institutions at the mall. 

Here are excerpts of Mr Lenku’s reflections on what that operation to end the siege looked like.

Where were you when you got the first call that something was amiss at the Westgate Mall?

It was a Saturday morning and I was chairing a security meeting at Harambee House. Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo, was also leading another meeting.

How did the President get to know of the attack ahead of you yet you were supposed to be at the helm of Internal security, wasn’t that a case of incompetence?

The President gets a lot of information from all manner of sources. It could have been me, the military chief, the ministers, principal secretaries or even civilians who have direct access to the president. Therefore, it is not a misnomer that sometimes, the President is ahead of his men. Do not forget the National Intelligence Service (NIS) who deal directly with President. Of course, it must be the endeavour of the Interior Minister to be ahead of the boss, but at times, you find the boss ahead of you.

Abdul Haji

Mr Abdul Haji rescuing a child at Westgate Mall in Nairobi during the terror attack of September 21, 2013.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Some observers have talked of a supremacy tussle between the police and military that they say undermined the response time. Was there tension between the two?

It was a spur-of-the-moment event and everybody was trying to do something. The President convened a national security taskforce and after that, he gave directions on how we were going to brief the country after it became clear that it was a terrorist attack. 

How about claims that the security officers took advantage of the situation to loot the mall?

No, no, there was nothing of the sort. 

From where did you get the idea that the attackers had set the mattresses on fire?

There was a lot of fire at the mall, you know that. They may have done so in a desperate bid to escape.

Westgate attack

Armed officers inside Westgate mall in Nairobi during the terror attack of September 21, 2013. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

There are also those who say you were not competent for the job. Was yours a case of a good man in the wrong job?

The question of my competence was rife at the time. First of all, the position of ministers often has an element of regional balance. What the public does not know is individuals appointed to those offices are not appointed anyhow, there is a lot of background research, intelligence and a lot of things that happen before one is appointed. Some were even calling me a chef. I was once in Utalii College and this came in handy in my later life when I went to Kajiado to look for votes and was talking to women who were impressed that I was a cook. 

So who was in charge of the national response, was it you or the military?

An attack of that nature falls on Internal security and naturally I took charge of the operation. 

There is an impression that the country was caught flat-footed on this day, was there prior intelligence that may have been ignored?

Rescued hostages are escorted by police to safety on September 21, 2013 at Westgate Mall in Nairobi which was under attack by terrorists. 

We were comparing intelligence with the US, the Israelis, the security system of East Africa so the matter of being caught flat-footed does not arise. We had some prior intelligence that some malls were under threat.

Now that you mentioned it, there was talk that the Israelis were heavily involved in neutralising the terrorists. Were they?

The focal point was myself, but as I said earlier, our National Security Council, chaired by the President, convened immediately and was also involved. There were also global players, including Israel and the US who complemented our efforts.

In terms of the impact, how did the attack change the management of the country’s security?

The Westgate attack paved way for new laws and legal framework to secure the country. We used the tragedy to better our situation. We had to modernise our security system in terms of better equipment, enhanced budget and creation of multi-agency teams and approach to countering insecurity. Even for Parliament, it was a moment of patriotism, when we went there to tighten our laws, they cooperated. 

Where do you draw the line when it comes to security surveillance and privacy of individuals?

When we had the terrorist attack is when we began thinking of command centres, the use of technology and so forth. We alerted the country there would be a few sacrifices to be made in terms of individual privacy being checked by government vis-à-vis enjoyment of the privacy rights for the sake of the country. When people enjoy their freedom, the country must know that there must be efforts to safeguard the country and it takes every individual’s efforts. 

Westgate attack

Kenyan soldiers take cover after heavy gunfire near Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 23, 2013. 

Photo credit: File | AFP

Can we say the Westgate attack catapulted your political career to be who you are today?

I come from a very political background. My father was a paramount chief in the old Kenyatta regime. I had actually ran for MP in 2003. I have always been part of politics in Kajiado. My background contributed, my previous experiences contributed, my position as a minister also contributed to my being elected.

How close did you know President Kenyatta before your appointment to the Cabinet?

I had interacted with President Kenyatta before on the political platform. When I vied for MP and lost the party nominations, there was an imminent fallout. Uhuru was not president, but a key player in that administration and came to put out the fire. In 2012, Uhuru came to Loitoktok and we had the new Constitution then. It was known that a person elected MP would not be minister. At that time, the person elected as our MP was current state house comptroller Katoo Ole Metito. So Uhuru came to tell our people that this docket (Interior ministry) will remain with us. I had gone for interviews for PS and my name was among those forwarded to State House. Uhuru had promised my people he would give them that position. 

How was the transition from being a civilian in your days in Utalii to the helm of the country’s security apparatus and now into politics?

I have always had a spate of drama wherever I go. When I joined Serena Hotel from Utalii College, I had some divine providence, a very fast rise in the Serena Hotel and there was a feeling I was being favoured. I left Serena and went into politics in 2003 and vied for MP and lost. I then went back to Utalii college as a manager and in a short four years, I was at the helm. When I was appointed Minister of Interior, the commotion came, I was a good guy in the wrong place particularly with my exit. Then I vied for governor and there was a lot of hullabaloo again, with people saying I am a cook with no political background. The last election was even more dramatic, there was a switch in presidency and a fallout in Jubilee, our party. The current President Ruto, was the Deputy President. At the tail end of party nominations, I was kicked out of Jubilee. President Uhuru and Ruto both had their candidates and there was publicity that my political chicken was cooked. The people of Kajiado re-elected me under impossible circumstances. 

Westgate attack

Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) arrive on September 22, 2013 at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. 

Photo credit: File | AFP

Do you have any advice for Prof Kithure Kindiki, the Interior CS?

No, but an appeal to Kenyans that the people taking care of their security, be it Kindiki or (Aden) Duale (Defence CS), need our support. They also need the support of both houses of Parliament. They sacrifice a lot of time, they are barely with their families. In my opinion, they are on the right trajectory. 

Before the Westgate attack, we had sent our troops to Somalia under Operation Linda Nchi.  Now there is talk to withdraw our soldiers. Do you think if we never went to Somalia in the first place, we would never have had the Westgate tragedy? What are your thoughts on the planned withdrawal?

Our going to Somalia was necessitated by a series of terror attacks and it was decided as a deterrent measure. The decision to go to Somalia or not, started with the Security Council chaired by President Kibaki then. Security matters have a global and regional impact and these considerations proved necessary for Kenya to be involved. I am not there anymore, but I know there are measures being considered and frameworks being put in place to ensure the best for Somalia will be done and I trust their decision on the matter.

How would you, after Westgate, term Kenya’s war against terrorism, are we winning or losing?

We are winning. But terrorism is changing face, too. But I have every confidence in our security apparatus, on our officers in our military.