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 carried out the November 22 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 environment of fear 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?” Or, as Bush 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 and, perhaps most pertinently, why security agencies are unable to respond to timely information 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 of the country’s security system. 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, nearly 60 percent of all crimes are not reported to the police, so their numbers probably severely understate the problem.
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 terrorism carpet.