Kenya’s worst terrorist attack could have been averted and the aftermath handled better, a former US ambassador to the county has revealed in a new book.
According to Ms Prudence Bushnell, as early as November 1997, the US embassy in Nairobi had been warned about an impending truck bomb attack.
“A man walked into the Nairobi embassy with information about a possible attack,” says Ms Bushnell, who served as US ambassador from 1996 to 1998.
“The information was sent to Washington, shopped around to other intelligence services, and declared faulty. The guy was a flake, I was told,” Ms Bushnell writes in her book, Terrorism, Betrayal and Resilience: My story of the 1998 US Embassy Bombings.
When the man visited the embassy, Ms Bushnell was attending a conference in Washington.
‘NAGGING ABOUT SECURITY’
“During my Washington consultations, I was lectured by the African Bureau executive director that senior people in management and administration were getting irritated by my ‘nagging’ about embassy security and vulnerability.”
That meant the Washington administration under President Bill Clinton was treating her as the problem.
“I was advised to stop sending cables regarding security concerns,” she says in the book published in the US last year by Potomac Books.
In her 17 years as a diplomat, Ms Bushnell was always asked to fill in a section on the needs of her station. But in 1997, for the first time, she was denied that opportunity. Instead, she was accused of “overloading the diplomatic circuits”.
This was a polite way of telling her to stop “making noise” about security vulnerabilities at the Nairobi embassy. But this did not stop her.
“I decided to write a personal note to Secretary of State [Madeleine] Albright,” she says.
When she gave the letter to a senior government official to hand-deliver to Ms Albright, the official said Addis Ababa and Pretoria also faced security threats and told her not to become “obsessed” with such threats.
Meanwhile, officials in Washington reminded her that the building was sound enough to withstand a blast, and that the only violence they could expect in Nairobi was political. This thinking was not difficult to understand.
Kenya had held a general election and the opposition had contested President Daniel arap Moi ‘s victory in the presidential poll. So Washington was monitoring Nairobi for political violence, not a terrorist attack. The heated exchanges were followed by a brief lull.
Then, on the morning of August 7, 1998, the US embassy on Haile Selassie Avenue, Nairobi was bombed. More than 200 people were killed and over 5,000 injured.
“An explosion from the street below drew us to the window,” Ms Bushnell writes. “I was the last to get up, and I had moved only a few feet from the couch I was sharing with Commerce Minister Joseph Kamotho when a loud wave of freight-train force hurled me back across the room. Everything dimmed.”
Even after the attack, Ms Bushnell faced other political and diplomatic hurdles. For starters, President Daniel Moi was not keen on working with her. According to her, he was unhappy that the US had picked her to succeed yet another woman, Ms Aurelia Brazeal.
This strained relationship was complicated by the fact that Washington did not believe that anything meaningful could be achieved with President Moi at the helm.
Worse still, when she arrived in Kenya in 1996, Ms Bushnell had made fighting corruption and ensuring free elections would define her leadership agenda.
As a result, President Moi took three months before granting her a private audience.”It took longer to build a relationhip, she reveals.
After the 1998 terrorist attack, President Moi summoned all ambassadors and high commissioners to State House, Nairobi. Ms Bushnell was torn between attending the meeting and visiting injured embassy staff in various hospitals. She chose the latter and sent a representative to State House.
Just days after the attack, Ms Albright made a whistle-stop tour of Nairobi. She did not appear overly concerned about what needed to be done, and, according to Ms Bushnell, made promises without any concrete offers, including for compensating the victims and survivors.
The only thing she appeared keen to know was where Ms Bushnell wanted to be posted.
“Guatemala,” Ms Bushnell said.
The following year, President Bill Clinton nominated her ambassador to Guatemala.