Criticism of the Kenyan authorities’ slow response to the Garissa massacre has reached new heights after a police chief admitted that a plane meant to transport commandos to the scene was instead being used to fly his family back from holiday on the coast.
The revelation on Tuesday fed growing fury at the government’s failure to intervene during the day-long slaughter at Garissa University by al-Shabaab militants on 2 April, which cost 148 lives.
Some of the victims had initially managed to hide from the killers after the assault began at dawn, but were discovered and murdered in the afternoon, many hours later. The police commandos only arrived seven hours after the attack started, finally breaking the siege in the evening.
The plane at the centre of the controversy is a Cessna 208B aircraft, which eventually flew the police commando unit to Garissa. Following press reports that it was being used for private purposes on 2 April, the police air-wing chief, Rogers Mbithi, said the plane had been dispatched to the coast on a training mission but admitted that on its return, it had stopped to pick up his relatives in the coastal resort of Mombasa and take them to Nairobi.
“There is nothing to hide. It came back with [my daughter-in-law] and two small children. I took full responsibility and explained that,” Mbithi told the Daily Nation.
The Cessna only returned to Nairobi from Mombasa at 11.30am on 2 April, four hours after the al-Shabaab raiders had shot their way into student hostels at Garissa. It left Nairobi with the police squad at 12.30pm, landing in Garissa, 90 miles from the Somali border, at 1.56pm, according to police records.
After a briefing and a road trip to the university, the commandos stormed the hostels at 5pm and killed all four attackers shortly afterwards.
The al-Shabaab gunmen went from cubicle to cubicle, herding cowering students before dividing them by religion and shooting the Christians at close range. The attackers apparently had so much time that they made calls to several of the victims’ parents before shooting the students in the head.
The revelations add to the growing number of questions facing President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration, which had promised to take lessons from the four-day siege of Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September 2013.
In his interview, Mbithi said the delay in deploying commandos was not attributable to the fact the plane was off on what appeared to be a jaunt but on the late decision to send the elite unit.
The explanation was greeted with derision by Kenyans on Twitter. Many described it as another example of the dysfunction within the security services that has left Kenya, a country once known as an island of stability in a turbulent region, vulnerable to repeated terror atrocities.
The outcry grew after pictures of two girls apparently enjoying a previous holiday trip to Mombasa on the same plane surfaced on Instagram. The identity of the girls has not been confirmed and the Instagram account was locked and its name changed on Tuesday. According to comments alongside the photos, the girls were on a trip to celebrate a birthday. The pictures show them posing in sunglasses on the steps of the plane.
The attack by al-Shabaab was the worst terrorist atrocity on Kenyan soil since the bombing of the US embassy in 1998, which cost more than 200 lives. Repeated attacks by the Somali-based Islamist militants have triggered such alarm in Kenya that an exploding transformer in the early hours of Sunday saw one student killed and dozens injured after they jumped from their rooms at Nairobi University halls of residence, thinking al-Shabaab had attacked.
Much of the anger in Kenya has focused on the widely reported fact that many of the Garissa victims hid for hours, texting their parents and praying that their lives would be saved before they were eventually discovered and killed.
The story of Lydia Akoth Obondi attracted particular attention. The second-year student first texted her mother, Christine, at 6.45am informing her of the attack. At 1.30pm her dad, James, called her line and she said: “Dad, our lives are at the mercy of al-Shabaab. Don’t call me again. Bye.”
The phone was soon snatched from her and a militant who spoke in a mix of Somali and Kiswahili accused Lydia’s parents of being unbelievers and shot the 21-year old in the head.