How not to handle a hostage situation

As I watched Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta give a televised news conference about the horrific attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, I thought the hostages had been freed and the attackers, reportedly part of Somalia’s al Shabaab group, captured. I allowed myself a sigh of relief. As someone who once worked at the US Embassy in neighboring Tanzania that was destroyed by al Qaeda in 1998, I know that terrorism in East Africa is real and not to be underestimated.

But as Kenyatta continued, I realized that he was holding a media briefing while armed attackers were still holding hostages and the Westgate Shopping Mall. Worse, Kenyatta was giving the hostage takers information about people hiding undetected in the mall and security forces strategy. Most troubling, Kenyatta used his bully pulpit to threaten retaliation against the masterminds behind the attack. That’s not likely to hasten peaceful resolution of the situation.

I can’t imagine how Kenyatta thought taking center stage would help get the hostages free, unless it was clever camouflage for a raid (which it wasn’t). I also am stunned that he couldn’t think of anything more useful to do in the midst of a crisis. But then I remembered that Kenyatta and his deputy president William Ruto, face charges from the International Criminal Court for coordinating violence by their supporters after Kenya’s 2007 election. Kenyatta was following form by making the wrong call in a crisis.

His performance brought to mind another presidential offspring who followed in his father’s footsteps, George W Bush. In the wake of 9/11, which like the Westgate attack reflected an extraordinarily failure of his administration’s national security team, Bush first looked like a deer in the headlights, then mouthed off – “You’re either with us or against us” – then used the tragedy to push forward an unrelated, ill-considered and criminally mismanaged war in Iraq.

With accusations of crimes against humanity already under his belt, Kenyatta seems well ahead of Bush’s pace. Beware of what he’ll do once the crisis really is over.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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