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February 17, 2019

Security Matters Crucial For Economic Growth

Kenya Army officers heading to the Somali to fight the Alshabaab.
Kenya Army officers heading to the Somali to fight the Alshabaab.

When the last explosions happened in Nairobi, my mum and my aunt checked in to see if I was ok, and I very nearly said that statistically I was probably still at a much greater risk of getting mugged and shot at my gate – but did not, because I somehow suspected that it would not really reassure them (If they read this column, my cover is blown. I will be careful, Mami!).

Terrorism is, as President Kenyatta rightly said, not exclusive to Kenya. But the fact that people regularly worry about getting mugged violently at their gate (or maybe just getting held up at gunpoint by guys on motorbikes when walking down the road) cannot be separated from the terrorism issue.

Yes, crime happens everywhere, but to differing degrees – and in Kenya, the police typically do little to improve security, and often a lot to improve insecurity. The factors for this are as well known as they are difficult to reverse. The police force are under-trained, underpaid, and notoriously corrupt. This is bad in itself, and it is bad, too, if you are concerned about a terrorist threat. Addressing this requires specialised intelligence work, but the regular police, if reasonably competent, would be the first line of defense.

All of this of course has an impact on the economy. Regular crime drives up operating costs across the board. Bigger firms pay for insurance and security services, small traders just lose money, assets, sometimes their health or their lives. This has pretty much been a constant factor for ages. Recently, add to this the impact of terrorism, especially on tourism (well, add it again, since it has been a factor since 1998).

It is difficult to overstate the role that tourism plays in Kenya. It is not just the hotels, but just as importantly the tendrils that grow through the rest of the economy, all the way down to the informal sector: farmers, food producers and manufacturers, drivers, hawkers, providers of massage and ‘massage’ services, and so on. One tour operator once told me that the turnover of Farmer’s Choice is a good indicator for how the tourism sector is doing.

So travel advisories are a concern. And at the same time, ranting about them is pretty pointless. Foreign governments will always be conservative in those because they are basically covering their own behinds (incidentally, I had a look around on the internet to find out where the Kenyan government publishes its travel advisories and have not found anything yet. But maybe I just did not look properly, so if anyone finds the link, please mail it over). And Kenya is without a doubt a stunning, stunning country – but it’s by far not the only stunning country in the world. If you save up for a holiday for a whole year (or longer), then you probably do not want to worry about small explosions when you have a great number of other amazing countries to choose from.

I understand that this is a challenging situation for the government since insecurity – of Westgate/Al Shabaab type, of the smaller explosions, of general thuggery – is something that is complex, deeply entrenched, and has been handed over from the previous administration(s). None of it is quick or easy to fix. And I can understand that when people are worried about being injured or killed on their daily commute (well, being injured or killed not just by the usual thugs, but by grenade-throwing ones), that the government would like to be seen doing something to reassure people. Except that superficial measures will not be enough, and can even be counterproductive. The round up of Somalis was probably the single most effective recruitment drive for Al Shabaab and similar organisations: Sh5,000 seems to be the going rate to be let off, irrespective of whether you are plotting bombs or have legitimate documents.

The measures that the president announced in support of the tourism sector were a mixed bag, I thought. Working with VAT exemptions, park rates etc may provide some temporary relief. Asking employers to pay for employees to go on holidays: unlikely to happen. Holding more government events outside of government facilities: odd decision when there has been so much concern about the wage bill and general government spending (never mind that most of those events already seem to take place off site).

None of these addresses the structural insecurity issues. In fact, most recent security measures do not address the structural insecurity issues either: the silly dispute over tinted windows, the harambee for the police (aka the Somali round up), the Nyumba Kumi initiative fobbing off responsibility for what should be police work (paid for by taxes) back to tax-paying citizens.

The economic implications of not making real changes to Kenya’s security will be far-reaching, I suspect, especially because unemployment and youth unemployment are already a security risk, and the fallout from the downturn in the tourism sector will further worsen this.

PS: Maybe a mere nuance: Several people argued on social media that the concern about tourists was commendable, especially given the role that they played collectively in Kenya’s economy. But shouldn’t the primary concern be about the health and safety of Kenyan citizens?

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