This week, Kenyan police made a remarkable find. With the help of the public and after combing an overgrown compound in the Rift Valley town of Burnt Forest for three hours, they discovered an aluminium container buried under the ground. Inside were six AK-47 assault rifles and more than 700 bullets.
While the circumstances surrounding the discovery were themselves little short of astounding, a little noted feature of the story was the use of so-called 'gun detectors' alongside police dogs. Media footage appears to show police meticulously using the devices to scan the search area for weapons. On closer examination, however, the devices resemble the fake bomb detectors sold to authorities around the world by convicted fraudster James McCormick.
Kenya was one of the first countries to purchase the devices in 2004, and even after they were shown in a UK court to be “completely ineffectual as a piece of detection equipment” and contained no working electronics, our police have kept faith in them. “They are in operation and they work,” declared Nairobi police chief Benson Kibue, just last year.
The use of equipment that has been shown to be useless is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise that has infected the government’s approach to insecurity, and indeed to many of the problems bedevilling Kenya. Over the past year, it has kept repeating the same actions over and over, and hoping for different results.
Thus the so-called war on terror revolves around the familiar tropes of criminalising entire communities and violation of civil liberties that have previously failed to stop attacks. Instead of rethinking its strategy and adopting new, effective and comprehensive tactics to tackle the security meltdown that terrorists have been taking advantage of, the government has continued to bang our collective heads against a brick wall. It has even sought to give its failing methods the force of law through the recently passed Security Laws Amendment Act.
And when confronted with criticism, its preferred response is to shoot the messenger, not pay heed to the message. So when Al Jazeera aired its expose about extrajudicial executions of terror suspects, the government’s reaction was to ignore the substance of the allegations and to threaten the media house and its journalists. The new laws target the dissemination of news about terror incidents, essentially requiring police approval of any reports. It is hard to imagine that exposes of state incompetence, such as the KTN investigation into the response to the Westgate attack, which provided the now familiar footage of soldiers looting the mall while pretending to fight terrorists, will henceforth be allowed on air. It is worth noting that at the time, the Inspector General of Police was not keen on reporting that embarrassed the government and actually ordered the arrest of the journalists involved.
In other areas too, the government has continued to plough ahead with measures that bring little relief to the common citizen while providing huge opportunities for rents for the elite. Following his predecessor’s lead, massive infrastructure projects, featuring either single sourcing or dubiously awarded contracts, have become the order of the day. Corruption and impunity reign supreme as elites graduate from chai to chicken. Meantime, Kenyans are saddled with poverty, disease and ever higher levels of debt and living costs.
As in Burnt Forest, where no journalists seemed to question the use of the 'gun detecting equipment', the government’s incompetence has been abetted by that of the country’s media houses. What Israeli politician, diplomat and author Abba Eban said of the Arabs is true of our press: they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Over the past year, the government has rarely been called to account by the press or even had its narrative questioned. It is almost never asked to substantiate its claims of having prevented many terror attacks, of falling crime rates or significantly reduced energy costs. From superficial reporting on the challenges facing the country to the limited coverage of the opposition’s Saba Saba rally, to the parroting of government narratives on various issues, the media has distinguished itself by its insipidness. Coverage, though somewhat improved compared to 2013, continued to be episodic and devoid of context.
Therefore, as we ring in the New Year, I continue to hope that as a society, we will begin to demand better. That we will tire of the mediocrity and mendacity that has become a mainstay of the government’s policy pronouncements and insist on well thought out and well-articulated strategies that actually address our real problems. For example, that we finally decide to address the many weaknesses with the electoral system that were revealed by the last election cycle, keeping in mind that bungled elections have proven to be the greatest threat to our national security. Or that we will question the reality of government pronouncements of a 'transformed' education system and insist on more than just superficial actions like the provision of laptops or abolishing of the school ranking system.
In all, I hope that we will go beyond a reflexive shouts about institutionalism and towards a candid examination of the nature of our institutions, the system they engender and the fruits they produce. That we will continue the effort to reimagine and recreate Kenya as a country that works, not just for a few, but for all her citizens. And finally, that the media will find the courage to lead the nation in this endeavor. I will try to play my part and pray others will as well.
Let this be our common resolve, our resolution for 2015.
Happy New Year!