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February 18, 2019

It's Time We Took Our Security Seriously

Security officers at work. Photo/FILE
Security officers at work. Photo/FILE

Security is now firmly back on the agenda in Kenya. The news media is today awash with coverage of the response to the weekend attacks on police and military installations at the coast and the murder of 24 policemen in the marginalized and restive North East. TV and radio talk shows, as well as newspaper column inches are devoted to a discuss ion of the possible reasons for the security failures and with questions over the future employment of the officials in charge of the security system. 

 Curiously missing from this explosion of opinion is any reference to an address to “a high level seminar on national security strategy” given by President Uhuru Kenyatta on Friday, just hours before the Kapedo attack. In the speech, the President laid out his analysis of the security threats that the country is facing and the priorities that should occupy his government in defending against them.

Granted the speech is not his best effort. It is convoluted, rambling and seems to be more about being seen to say something clever than actually providing clear and succinct analysis and articulation of strategic priorities. Filled with fluff rather than serious policy choices, it is a major speech to senior security officials that reads like a first year undergraduate paper.

 So perhaps it is no surprise that no one is seemingly interested in what he had to say. However, given that this was a speech meant “to begin a critical conversation on the identification, articulation and pursuit of Kenya’s national security interests,” it deserves more than just the cursory attention it has received in the press.

 Here’s a brief synopsis of what he had to say. He first lays out a shaky case for the historical underpinnings of national security which he appears to understand narrowly as the struggle to resist foreign domination (not surprising given his troubles at the International Criminal Court). The threats to this, he avers, stem from the troubled neighbourhood we live in, the need to manage the youthful exuberance of many of our citizens, the poverty and inequality that is characteristic of our economy, the politicisation of national security, threats posed by global state and non-state actors and the weakness of our own state. The President sees the latter as “the leading cause of insecurity of all forms” and thus his preferred solution is to “build a strong state whose actions will be guided and constrained by the spirit and letter of our democratic constitution.”

 But how do we actually build this “strong state”? He does not say. His much-touted 10-point plan turns out to be not much of a plan at all but rather a characterisation of what he thinks “strong state” should be able to do. What is the role of other actors in the security ecosystem such as the armed private citizens we saw at Westgate and that are prevalent across the northern frontier and private security companies? That national security is not just a matter for the state but involves all of society appears to elude him as does the multifaceted nature of the subject.

 In fact he appears unaware that many times the state’s demonstration of its strength has many times been a main driver of insecurity. Also the fact, as Jeffrey Isima of Cranfield University notes, that “in many countries of Africa [including Kenya], the provision of security has long been private in the sense that it was provided as a private good for the protection of particular groups, such as the ruling elite, to the exclusion of or against others, rather than as a public good.”

 Further, his specious prescriptions that the state should “delineate the rights and duties of citizens,” or treat threats against “a single ruler or the democratic multitude” as the same, or treat citizen groups as “actors that may be drivers for other agenda” betray his own personalising and politicising of the security agenda, just as we saw in the aftermath of the Mpeketoni attacks.

 Security analyst, Andrew Franklin, says “the President failed to recognise our refusal to implement the four security related acts even while spending in excess of Sh140 billion.” These include the National Police Service Act, which is meant to create a consolidated police service. Franklin also faults the President for claiming that there is no "elite consensus” on national security aims and objectives. “This is false. There may be differences of opinion regarding tactics, short term strategies, methods and means but ultimate objectives – peace and security – are not seriously questioned,” he declares. Here, President Uhuru’s speechwriters, in their hurry to take a dig at the opposition and civil society, seem to have confused disagreement over tactics with a row over strategic aims.

 This pedestrian and cavalier approach of the President to the weighty challenges posed by insecurity demonstrates that his administration has primarily approached them as public relations issues. However, those in the opposition and many of us in the rest of society have not behaved any better. Mr Franklin notes that “to date the opposition offers only platitudes, clever comments and sarcasm. Nobody wants to express definite opinions about anything either because taking responsibility and perhaps being wrong are not characteristics of our collective leadership. Or they are simply uninformed and ignorant but too insecure to admit to any lack of knowledge.” 

  We seem to have forsaken our thinking caps and are only interested in simplistic “action” such as the resignation of officials or a withdrawal from Somalia. We have failed to create –and more importantly, are not seeking to create- an overarching analytical framework within which to understand the systemic and systematic failures in the security system, how they came about and how they can be fixed.

 Thus there is little demand for the government to live up to its promise to establish a public inquiry into the Westgate mall attack or to publish the report of the probe into the fire that almost razed the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport; little interest in understanding the roots of radicalisation and disaffection in the historically marginalized communities of the coast and the north; little thought given to the organisation of our security forces or the proper role of the Kenya Defence Forces and the dangers, wisdom and legality of its extended and indefinite deployment within our borders. Even where we have investigated what went wrong, reports such as that published by the Independent Policing Oversight Authority detailing the police failures during the Mpeketoni attacks, do not prompt change.

 It is time we took our security seriously. Many of the problems we face have deep roots that will not be resolved by playing dress up or bullying communities as the state is trying to do or simply getting rid of one or two officials. We must go back and examine when the rain started to beat us, which as Deputy President William Ruto has acknowledged, is many years and many regimes ago. We must strive to understand the causes of and reasons for our vulnerabilities, and ruminate over possible solutions. We must invite and consider the opinion and advice of experts both local and international.

 In short, on all sides, we must treat the national security problem as a national security problem, not an opportunity to score a few points politically and publicly. So let’s have a proper and well informed debate and, importantly, a comprehensive and public inquiry into our national security system with a view to correcting the problems, identifying and, where necessary, re-orienting priorities. Above all, let us all put on our thinking caps and figure out how we go about the business of making every Kenyan safe. It’s about time the adults came to the table

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