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Monday, December 15, 2014

The Government Knows Best

Barely four years after it was inaugurated with much pomp and ceremony, Kenya’s new constitution is being undone. The Security Amendment Bill introduced in Parliament last week portends the return of the all-powerful, unchecked executive and its intrusion into almost every facet of Kenyans’ lives.

Under the guise of giving the government the tools to fight insecurity, the proposed gives government wide and unchecked discretion in defining what constitutes a threat and taking measures to mitigate against it. It cuts a large swathe through constitutionally guaranteed rights to privacy, fair trial, assembly, information, expression and thought as well as freedoms from arbitrary detention and even torture, in a misguided attempt to respond to rising incidents of insecurity including terrorist attacks.

This atrocious piece of legislation is just the culmination of a long period of Kenyan elites undermining the foundations of liberal democracy in Kenya. The fact is, while the adoption of the new constitution should have heralded the democratisation of government, the logic of tyranny was largely left intact.

In Kenya, as elsewhere, the fight for freedom has primarily boiled down to a struggle against the notion that government and ruling elites know what’s best. From colonial times, the people in power have disguised their oppression under a proclaimed special knowledge and patronising parental concern for those they oppressed. The British claimed to govern in the interests of the native population, to be the altruistic purveyors of civilisation, even as they murdered, looted and repressed.

However, it is plain that many who led the struggle for freedom, did not themselves fundamentally reject this idea. Successive post-independence governments similarly claimed to be “baba na mama” to the Kenyans they were robbing blind and whose rights they were trampling underfoot. For them, it was not oppression that was the problem, but rather who it was doing the oppressing. Following their footsteps, in 2003 the late John Michuki, a former colonial enforcer reinvented as a minister in the government of Mwai Kibaki which ended four decades of despotic KANU rule, suggested that constitutional reforms were no longer necessary since the sole objective had been to unseat the dictator, Daniel arap Moi.

In fact, with Moi’s demise, the struggle ceased to be about principles and increasingly became about power, and between those who had it and those who wanted it. Many of the leading lights of civil society and the church marched straight into government and into the annals of corruption and kleptocracy. Not only was there a failed attempt to foist a bastardized version of a new constitution on Kenyans in 2005, but by 2007, the electoral arrangements that had been negotiated with Moi to ensure a credible poll in 2002, were being rolled back.

Following yet another round of election related blood-letting, a new constitution was inaugurated in 2010 which was meant to change the way our politics worked. But, as last week sadly showed, that is yet to take root. Too many ordinary Kenyans have been seduced into thinking that the government knows best, that it is actually the checks on the arbitrary exercise of power that are the problem, that instead of protecting constraining rogue government, the constitution is making us more vulnerable to terrorism. Despite the fact that it has largely failed to implement the security system as envisaged in our constitution and laws, the government has spun its own incompetence into a narrative of excessive constitutional restraints.

So once again we hear the refrain that “Uhuru Kenyatta is not Moi. You can trust him with power.” The false narrative is propagated that it was Moi, not the concentration of unchecked power in the Presidency, that led to the state-sponsored terror that killed many more Kenyans and destroyed many more Kenyan lives than its religiously and ideologically inspired cousin. We even hear talk that some oppression is actually fine, even desirable, and that Moi, who has today been rehabilitated from oppressive and kleptocratic tyrant to strong and wise leader and elderly statesman, was an effective bulwark against terrorism, even as he massacred and terrorized.

Kenya’s slide into the seductive embrace of authoritarianism has been aided by the silencing of alternative voices, the continuing demonization of civil society and the lobotomising of the news agenda. Its purpose is to keep the citizenry divided, blind and uninformed, only privy to the official truths of government spin-masters. The publication of government press releases as news by the insipid media, and the Church’s support for tyranny demonstrate just how successful the government has been.

The Security Amendment Bill is the fruit of these efforts and Parliament’s rush to adopt it is proof that the idea of the Assembly as a check on Executive excess and not a rubber stamp for its decisions, has also been abandoned.

In the end, it is the people who must do the work of protecting the country from its government, the labour of upholding the constitution. While some, under the banner of “civil society” or “opposition” can take the lead, it does not absolve the citizen from this duty. Just as it is the ordinary Kenyan who will suffer from the worst excesses of unaccountable government, it is we who must resist its re-emergence.

We must not be suckered by the false notion that the government knows best. It doesn’t. And even when we might be inclined to believe its good intentions, history shows, it doesn’t stay that way for long. Those you think are on your side today may very well turn out to be your oppressors tomorrow and the laws being cheered on today will be the yoke of tomorrow’s subjugation. That is the reality that Kenyans will sooner or later have to wake up to. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Kenya's War On Terror Is No Solution To Insecurity

The past two weeks have been pretty horrid for President Uhuru Kenyatta. His decision, after Al Shabaab terrorists last weekend massacred 28 Kenyans in the north-eastern town of Mandera, not to cut short his official visit to the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, backfired terribly. And when he did eventually return to face criticism for his administration’s seeming disregard for national security issues, his speech blaming the public for rising insecurity (and a mother for the rape of her baby) did not go down well.

Then on Tuesday morning, despite his deputy’s assurances that nearly 100 terrorists, including those who committed the bus attack, had been killed and their camp just across the border destroyed, Kenyans woke up to news of yet another massacre in the same area. This time, the victims were 36 quarry workers, killed in remarkably similar circumstances.

With public outrage and calls for heads, including his, to roll, reaching a crescendo, President Kenyatta finally decided to sacrifice the two people who, more than any other, were considered responsible for the security debacle. He prevailed upon the Inspector General of Police, David Kimaiyo, to resign and effectively fired his Interior Cabinet Secretary, Joseph ole Lenku.

For the moment, this seems to have sated the anger. However, there are more battles on the horizon and it is important that Kenyans do not lose focus.

In the Barry Levinson movie, Wag the Dog, a top-notch spin doctor, is brought in to take the public's attention away from a potentially disastrous presidential sex scandal just days to the election This is achieved by hiring a Hollywood film producer to construct a fake war with Albania. However, the fiction can only last for so long and, to keep the public eye focused away from scandal, has to be continually embellished till the election is won.

Over the last two years, Kenyatta has implemented his own version of this script. In the run up to the 2013 election, with an unsavoury charge of abetting and financing the mass murder of their countrymen hanging over his and his running mate’s heads, his hired guns manufactured a war. They latched on ill-advised warnings about the advisability of electing politicians indicted by the International Criminal Court, accusing the West of trying to dictate the outcome of the election. The duo rode the subsequent wave of faux-patriotism all the way into power (aided by suspiciously incompetent electoral commission and Supreme Court).

Once ensconced in State House, the duo have continued to embellish the tale, mixing both real and imagined fears -from the ICC to Western imperialism to Al Shabaab-  to create an cocktail of fear and an environment where questioning their motives or peering too closely is seen as a veritable act of treason.

On Tuesday, the President came out once again to remind us that Kenya is at war with terror. In a speech reminiscent of George Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress following the 9/11 attacks, Kenyatta declared that “a time has come for each and every one of us to decide and choose. Are you on the side of an open, free, democratic Kenya which respects the rule of law, sanctity of life and freedom of worship, or do you stand with repressive, intolerant and murderous extremists?” Bush had put it more succinctly, “either you are with us or with the terrorists.”

Now, it is understandable why the Global War on Terror trope is so appealing to an administration trying to rescue its flagging legitimacy in the face of constant reminders of its inability to protect its citizenry. It is also, however, deeply misleading.

The President appears to conflate the twin evils of ideologically driven terrorism and violent crime and to view both through the prism of the former. “Terrorism and violent crime are grave threats to our nation,” he avers and then goes on to declare that “we are in a war against terrorists in and outside our country.”

But terrorism does not explain why our women are afraid to walk the streets or ride in public transports for fear of being stripped and sexually assaulted by mobs of men. Or why the poachers exterminating the country’s wildlife are accorded government protection. It does not tell us why Kenya is rapidly becoming a hub for illicit money and illegal drugs, why inter-communal violence rages across the land and, perhaps most pertinently, why security agencies are unable to respond to timely intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks.

The fact is, his declaration of the War on Terror disguises and distracts from a broader and far more consequential breakdown in the country’s security system. It is this breakdown, not our democratic space as some have suggested, that the terrorists are exploiting. According to 2013 police statistics, the same ones the government uses to insist that crime rates have dropped by 8 percent, violent crime, including robberies, rapes and homicides, is actually significantly higher. 

However, the real story is the one that the statistics don’t tell. According to one survey, over 60 percent of crimes are not reported to the police, so their numbers probably severely understate the problem. Worse, police officers and security agents are regularly implicated in these crimes. Who can forget the scenes of looting at the Westgate Mall or the vandalised ATM's at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport following the fire?

Restoring the integrity of the security system is the most important challenge facing Kenyans and this will not be achieved by bombing Al Shabaab to smithereens. Neither is the departure of ole Lenku and Kimaiyo, while welcome, a panacea for endemic problems. In fact, it has proven that the Jubilee administration is amenable to public pressure and this must be kept up to ensure that comprehensive reform of the security sector is not swept under the War on Terror carpet.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why We Should Give Kimaiyo The Benefit Of Law

“The easiest way to gain control of a population is to carry out acts of terror. The public will clamour for such laws if their personal security is threatened.” This quote, regularly attributed to the Russian tyrant and mass murderer, Josef Stalin, should give Kenyans pause as we demand that the government take action to address the massive failure in security that the country is experiencing.

That there has been a near complete breakdown in the security system is beyond doubt. Citizens are being murdered with relative impunity along our borders and at the coast, and the resource-related ethnic violence raging unabated across the north has not spared even security officers. In the capital, women are afraid to walk the streets or take public transport for fear of assault by mobs of men and in Baringo, girls are openly subjected to illegal Female Genital Mutilation. Our wildlife sanctuaries have been turned into killing fields and despite the government knowing the people responsible for poaching, it continues unabated. In fact, according to one investigative report aired on KTN earlier this year, the poaching kingpins are being actively protected by the state.

Our security system is failing, and it is failing comprehensively. But in government circles, there seems to be a real reluctance to admit this. The standard response has been to claim that the security forces are actually doing a great job, that they have prevented numerous attacks (no details provided, of course), that the terrorists have been defeated (whatever that means) and clich├ęd promises of “beefing up security.”

It is clear that these excuses are wearing thin and the public can now see through them. The transparent attempts to pass off public relations spiel as serious security policy no longer works. Across the country, citizens are scared and are demanding that the government get its act together and protect them as it is sworn to do. However, recognising there is a problem is the easy part. Diagnosing what is causing that problem and coming up with a remedy that will not turn out to be worse than the disease is more difficult. The hardest part of all will be getting the patient to actually take the medicine.

Let’s take an example from our past. In the years and decades following the initial euphoria of independence, many Kenyans came to the realization that the state had turned rogue. It had not changed the colonial ethos and remained a parasitic entity, benefitting a few at the expense of the many. Its security forces, while nominally meant to protect the citizenry, in reality continued their colonial function of policing them. The security agencies were implicated in many abuses, including extra-judicial killings and assassinations, torture and disappearances.

As a result, when, following decades of agitation and resistance, the opportunity to negotiate a new social contract was achieved, one of the paramount objectives was to create a system that would make the security organs serve the interests of the people rather than those of the people in power. Thus the new constitution required that the National Police service be independent and gave its head, the Inspector General of Police, security of tenure. The President cannot fire him on a whim. Neither can he direct the IGP in how to enforce the law or tell him whom to arrest and whom not to.

In return, it was hoped the police service would exercise its mandate without fear or favour. In practice this has not turned out to be the case. The patient has refused to take the medicine. Police reforms have stalled and where we have laws, such as the National Police Service Act, they have failed to be properly and fully implemented. Similarly, laws requiring that Parliament authorize any deployment of the Kenya Defense Sources within the nation’s borders, which were designed to avoid the sorts of abuses recorded in the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, have been regularly circumvented.

Thus, it is clear that we have a security crisis and that part of the problem stems from the unwillingness to implement the laws that sit in the books. However, we will need to do some more digging and thinking if we are to understand the scale of the problem we face and to come up with workable solutions. This is why it is imperative that we support the demand made the Occupy Harambee Avenue protesters on Tuesday, that the President fulfil his promise to institute a public commission of inquiry into the security failures. Such an inquiry should take a holistic look at the entire security architecture in the light of the threats and challenges that confront us and make recommendations.

In the desire for results, we must avoid being stampeded back into the era of dictatorship. Some have suggested changing the law to make it easier to fire the IGP, David Kimaiyo. Such a proposal has been made in the National Assembly by the Jubilee Chief Whip, Katoo ole Metito and by the Chair of the Departmental Committee on Administration and National Security Committee, Asman Kamama.

Whatever one may think of Mr Kimaiyo’s performance, we must guard against attempts to reintroduce the imperial presidency. It is better that we insist of the procedure to remove him, which involves petitioning Parliament and the formation of a tribunal, and more important to figure out why the IGP has not taken advantage of the independence afforded to his office to streamline the force and make it more responsive to citizen concerns.

I will end with an excerpt of a dialogue between Sir Thomas More and his daughter's suitor, William Roper, as set forth in Robert Bolt's two-act play, A Man For All Seasons, which I think illustrates the folly of chopping down the laws that protect us in an attempt to get at both the terrorists and the incompetent and negligent officials who enable them.


Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.