Why Pro-American Kenya Doesn't Hail US Airstrikes

The hope in Nairobi is to get US aid but stay neutral in eyes of fundamentalist Islam.

Two sentiments toward the US are emerging among Kenyans as they try to shake the shell-shock of the Aug. 7 US Embassy bombing that killed 257 people, 95 percent of them Kenyans.

* They want the US to foot the bill - forced by lawsuit if necessary - for damages and costs of dealing with the emergency, already estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.

* They harbor far more mixed feelings about Washington's decision to strike back at terrorists with cruise- missile attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan. A central fear is that Kenyan civilians could again be caught in the crossfire of what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls "the war of the future" - especially if they are seen as sitting too squarely in America's corner.

This fear of "guilt by association" is a theme that could surface again and again if, as the US steps up this war on terrorism, citizens of other countries continue to become casualties on a largely borderless war front.

Many countries such as Kenya, which has been overwhelmingly pro-American, want to position themselves as neutral bystanders in a dispute between America and the world of fundamentalist Islam.

While many Kenyan individuals applauded the attacks, there was no official comment on the retaliatory move. President Daniel arap Moi and other government spokesmen remained conspicuously silent even as other US allies expressed support for Washington's decision to hit facilities linked to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born financier of Islamic militants who the US says is responsible for the embassy bombings.

"We are living in fear now," says George Mzeiko, doing a brisk business selling newspapers with tabloid headlines on the US airstrikes. Standing just down the street from the cordoned-off site of the US Embassy and the ruins of the five-story Ufundi building, which absorbed the worst of the blast, Mr. Mzeiko said he worried Kenya could be attacked again because it was holding one or more of the suspects in custody, raising Kenya's level of vulnerability.

"We are targets, especially for an Arab country whose suspects are here. We do not want to be the battleground when the target is the US," he says. He was especially doubtful, as were others here, about the the attack on a Sudanese chemical factory, which the US says was producing a substance used in the manufacture of deadly VX nerve gas.

Mzeiko's partner at the newsstand, however, disagrees. "The Americans know who the bombers are," says Francis Maina. "If someone hits you, you have to hit back. There's no need to wait until they can organize a case to prove it."

Apparently the White House is acting on the same basis, highlighting the gap between what US officials say they know and what they can prove in court. As FBI Director Louis Freeh prepared to leave East Africa after a fact-finding trip last week, he said thateven speculation about where a "hypothetical prosecution" would take place - here or in the US - was "premature."

"We are at a preliminary stage of the investigation," Mr. Freeh told reporters as the engine of his plane hummed in the background at Nairobi's main airport. The first step in a trial "would be the ability to bring sufficient evidence for...a criminal case, and we're not at that point yet."

But some Africans go so far as to say that the US. shouldn't have waited to attack terrorists until the point at which its embassies were being blown apart. The rebel army in southern Sudan - an alliance of Christian and animist groups who are fighting the Islamic fundamentalist government in the north - welcomed the US blow against Khartoum as one that was long overdue.

The rebels and many aid agencies blame the government of President Omar al-Bashir for the famine devastating the south. Many of Sudan's neighbors see the Islamic regime as a regional troublemaker, but people here are particularly sympathetic to the rebel movement because of Kenya's large Christian population.

If Kenya has avoided giving any official nod of approval to the US airstrikes, analysts say, it is most likely because Kenyans are still bristling at American behavior in the wake of the embassy bombing. As Kenyans see it, the US and its Marines appeared more absorbed in the 12 US casualties and in assessing their own damages than in saving Kenyans trapped in the rubble.

The US has spent at least $5 million already on disaster aid here, and Ms. Albright told Kenyans last week that she would ask Congress for funds to compensate victims' families. But many Kenyans say that such vague statements fall short.

"Morally, the US should help,"says Mutahi Kagwe, a political analyst and publisher. "But people need to keep in mind that the US didn't bomb Nairobi. Bin Laden did, and he should have to compensate for it."

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