30 May 2014

US Embassy Town Hall Meeting

Q. "Should we still have friends and family visit us in Kenya?"
A. "The reality is that there’s no guarantee of safety anywhere in this world. But let me say this: if your friends and family members come to visit you, they will enjoy their time in Kenya and will have an adventure! Yes, Americans should continue to come to Kenya and when they get here, they’ll experience the beauty of this country and her people. My wife and I have relatives arriving for a visit in a few weeks and I personally know folks that are coming soon for work. 
 "The travel warnings issued by the US Embassy in Kenya are so you can have accurate and up-to-date information and so you can make your own decisions. Read them… but have your people come! Indeed, be cautious, but do not be overly afraid."

Robert F. Godec, US Ambassador to Kenya, taking a question from an American citizen

The Q&A interaction quoted above was from a town hall meeting yesterday, hosted by the US Ambassador, Robert Godec and his wife, Lori. I’ve attended several of these in the 12 years I’ve lived in Kenya and find them to be quite informative. It’s also fun to see a crowd of 400 Americans all gathered in one place and to chat with a few of them.

Godec: “Thank you for coming today. Please help yourselves to the snacks and beverages. The purpose of inviting you today is to have an ‘open conversation’ regarding recent events - to answer your questions and to dispel rumors that are currently floating about in the local media."

Sampling of the delicious (!) snacks

Ambassador Godec: “In spite of recent events, let me assure you that the US Embassy in Kenya is going nowhere and will not be closed. Our relationship with the government of Kenya is broad, resilient, and has a solid foundation of many decades. There are challenges, of course, but it is a strong relationship. Chief among the U.S. Embassy's goals are fostering the development of a sound Kenyan economy, strengthening the institutions of Kenyan democracy, helping to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and promoting US/Kenyan business ties.

“We are obligated to share personally and directly with you, like this forum today. Terrorism is a real threat around the world, not only in Kenya.  We are in daily – and sometimes hourly – communication with the Kenyan government regarding insecurity concerns. We work closely with them and, along with other international partners, provide a wide and robust range of support and security collaboration – such as sharing information, providing equipment, and training. The FBI, US Department of Defense, and several private security firms are also involved here in Kenya."

Ambassador Godec addressing the crowd
Ambassador Godec: “The US government has recently increased security at the US embassy and the Kenya government has done the same for us and other foreign embassies here. The US embassy in Nairobi is one of the largest in the world. Our commitment here is unchanged and unwavering.

“Kenya has challenges just as other parts of the world do. We at the US embassy will do whatever we can to keep you informed. We are here to help and support you. Please take advantage of what we offer by enrolling in STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program). This way you’ll receive our text messages and emails. Also friend us on our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter.”

The Godec's backyard was a lovely venue.

Comments by Marion Cotter, the Regional Security Officer at the US Embassy in Kenya:

“The current trajectory of the terror threat and security environment in Kenya is increasing. Over the past six months, we’ve seen the capability, complexity, sophistication, tactics, and types of targets intensify. For instance, in August 2012 Kenya experienced its first explosion from an IED (improvised explosive device). Shortly after that, remote-controlled IEDs were being used. Then car bombs (one of which the FBI dismantled), suicide bombers, and then multiple bombs within a span of minutes. The cumulative effect of all this is concerning and we have therefore issued more travel warnings. As we work with the government of Kenya, a few terror attacks have been thwarted, including one at Parliament.

“Each of us must determine what our individual level of risk-tolerance is, as we live and work in such an environment. At the end of the day, it’s a personal decision. The US embassies around the world use three levels of threat in various countries where we’re located – low, medium, and critical. Kenya has been at the critical level for some time now regarding crime and insecurity, plus terrorism."

Marion also listed a few suggestions for maintaining a low profile and maximizing our personal safety.

Mia Arnold, Consular General at the US Embassy in Kenya, 
gave advice on how to develop a personal contingency plan for emergencies

During the Q&A session, which was quite good and also lengthy, one gal shared that she’s lived in Kenya for 34 years and loves it. Her grandson, who was sitting beside her, is currently here for a visit. This was part of what she had to say:
“I’m so proud of the US involvement in Kenya and I am not afraid to live here!”

A question was raised concerning the fact that no one has taken credit for some of the recent terrorist incidents. Godec’s answer was that al-Shabaab (an affiliate of al-Qaeda) often makes very explicit threats for Kenya. “Bear in mind, there are numerous wanna-be affiliates of al-Shabaab and it could be any of them. But ultimately, if a bomb goes off, it’s really not so important who did it.”

A few other issues were addressed -

Westgate shopping mall terrorist attack and siege in October 2013:
  • lack of coordinated response from the local police and military
  • Kenya’s capacity, in general, to respond to such incidents
  • no proper investigation or subsequent prosecution of this incident

And finally, a few other issues:
  • general concerns regarding the Kenya police force (corruption, inadequacy, abuse of office, harassment)
  • the granting of work permits by the Kenya Immigration Department
  • a recent (but quickly contained) polio outbreak

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In a statement to The Associated Press after the town hall meeting, Godec said the embassy is continually evaluating its security posture and updating security based on threat information analysis.

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Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta in a speech on Wednesday, June 4 said his government is committed to protecting the country. The military is planning to station troops on roads potentially used by al-Shabaab to enter Kenya. "Serious tests lie before us," said Kenyatta.

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