In Summary
  • Many mistakes were made in fightback
  • Mr Mwaniki has since gone to court challenging his dismissal. A ruling is scheduled for October 8.

James Mwaniki, then a senior assistant commissioner of police, was among the first top officers to respond to the Westgate attack, leading a crack GSU unit that took on the terrorists before differences with the military caused confusion in the operation.

He would remain outside the mall for the next six days. What he did not know was that he had been sacked weeks earlier even as he put his life on the line fighting the Al-Shabaab. This is his account of the deadly siege as narrated to Walter Menya

I was in my house in Nairobi’s Utawala estate at midday on September 21 last year when a TV news flash caught my attention. Reports indicated there was shooting at Westgate Mall in Westlands — possibly a robbery — but I had a nagging feeling there was more to the incident.

My boss, then General Service Unit (GSU) Commandant William Sayia, was on leave so I called Deputy Commandant Boniface Maingi to find out what was going on. 

Unfortunately, I could not reach Mr Maingi on the phone. I called the Staff Officer (Operations) Anthony Kamito who dismissed the reports as an ordinary robbery. But I was still not convinced. I called my driver and asked him to take me to Westgate.

I reasoned that if it was a robbery, the general duty officers (regular police) would be handling the situation. But if it was a bigger security threat, the GSU would be involved.

On our way, I received a call from police headquarters. The superintendent on the line informed me that there was a suspected terrorist attack at the mall.

He asked me to call the GSU Recce Company (an elite unit) to rush to the scene. I immediately called Mr Josephat Kirimi, the officer in charge of the Recce Squad based in Ruiru, who told me his officers were on standby and ready to leave for Westgate.

I was among the first senior officers to get to the scene at around 2 p.m. It was my first time to go to Westgate and when I got there, I learned that Inspector-General of Police David Kimaiyo had ordered the Recce Squad into the mall to combat the terrorists.

I went into the building with the team in a single file. I was at the back. When we got in, at around 2.30 p.m., the ground floor resembled a slaughterhouse. The floor was covered in blood which made the surface slippery. There were many bloodied bodies on the floor. Some of the people had been shot multiple times. These were unarmed civilians whose only “mistake” was being at the mall on that day. It was horrifying.

After a while, we attempted to go upstairs using escalators. That very moment some people started firing at us. And it was not light gunfire!

I saw some people in combat fatigues. The only other group who would have that kind of uniform are the GSU or Anti-Stock Theft Unit. But there was no way GSU personnel would have gone in without my knowledge.

I realised these were Kenya Defence Forces soldiers. I knew that police officers, including the Flying Squad, were at the scene, but we had not been told that the military was also there. Before then, I had never seen KDF at such an operation.

GIVEN THE GO-AHEAD

I called Mr Philip Ndolo of Operations at police headquarters to confirm the identity of the men in fatigues, but I was told moments later that Mr Kimaiyo was angry at what he thought was the questioning of his orders. Mr Ndolo relayed the message back to me that we should go ahead with our mission. 

The GSU officers at the front of the file were shouting “Afande tunapigwa na wale wanatupiga tunaona kama ni askari.” (Sir, we are being shot at by people who appear to be officers).

I told them to shout that we were police officers. But my voice was drowned in the sound of heightened gunfire. The next thing I heard was: “Afande nimepigwa mguu” (I have been shot in the leg).

It was then that I ordered the team to retreat.  When we got outside, I discovered that three officers had been shot and seriously wounded. The situation was chaotic with blaring ambulance sirens, people shouting and journalists all over the place.

At around 5 p.m., my officers went back inside the mall until at around 7 p.m. when a special unit of the military under the command of a major arrived. I had remained outside, and we started planning how to go in as a team. Even though we belonged to different agencies, in terms of seniority I assumed that my rank (assistant commissioner of police) was higher than the major. My boss, Mr Maingi, had also arrived. But the Major wanted to be in charge. I asked him to talk to my boss, but he would not listen.

Page 1 of 2