Two weeks ago, a team of security officers was ambushed while responding to reports of armed al Shabaab militants sighted in Yumbis village. The officers apparently escaped without injury, leaving the militants to terrorise residents, hoisting their black flags and forcing them to listen to their sermons, for up to seven hours.
Later that night, the government issued a terse statement claiming security forces had “repulsed” the attack after “engaging the militants in a gun battle”. The statement urged “Kenyans to continue collaborating with security agents to ensure members of this group who might have taken refuge among innocent locals are flushed out”.
Four days later, Kenyans woke up to reports that another al Shabaab ambush in the same area may have killed up to two dozen officers. The officers were responding to an earlier incident in which a police vehicle had encountered a landmine, slightly wounding the officers on board, all but one of whom had been discharged from hospital. This time, the government, after telling journalists up to 30 officers were missing and condoling with relatives of slain officers, reversed and declared that no one had been killed, then declared one death.
Even allowing for the inevitable fog that accompanies reports on events in such remote areas, the confused and confusing accounts are depressingly familiar. The media comes in for a bit of stick for rushing for the sensational headline without clarifying either sources or what information they had been able to independently verify. The government has already expressed its displeasure, with Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery telling journalists he was disappointed in their performance.
However, the government would do well to first attend to the log in its own eye. For as we have seen, a major reason for the confused reporting is a lack of reliable, accurate and timely official information. The communication efforts of the self-described “digital” administration have not exactly inspired faith in official narratives.
On the contrary, many Kenyans have learnt to take its official pronouncements with a heap of salt. Its tales regarding terrorist attacks have invariably involved understating casualties and problems while obfuscating detail and exaggerating the effectiveness of its responses.
This was as true during the four-day siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi 20 months ago as it was in Yumbis.President Uhuru Kenyatta has dealt with insecurity primarily as a public relations challenge, and sought to address it using token measures as opposed to fundamental reform of the security services.
The most obvious and startling example of this came on the eve of the Garissa University College attack when the President pooh-poohed warnings of an imminent attack. This was in itself reminiscent of his shallow and poorly reasoned speech on the causes of insecurity last November, delivered just hours before 24 police officers were murdered by bandits in Kapedo.
Further, as the attack in Yumbis was unfolding, his director of Digital Communications was busy on Twitter berating Norway’s government for allegedly “supporting terror” by continuing to fund a Muslim human rights group that the Kenya government has blacklisted.
Whoever one chooses to believe, it is increasingly clear that al Shabaab is able to operate in Northeastern with relative impunity, despite government assurances to the contrary. It is clear that, without a significant overhaul, the security apparatus is unlikely to significantly disrupt and deter similar attacks. After the campus attack, Nkaissery admitted to Parliament that the Kenya Defence Forces could not contain four al Shabaab gunmen.
In fact, as I write this, there are reports that a group of al Shabaab militants have camped near Warankara village in Mandera county unchallenged for a week, causing residents to flee their homes. They have apparently been forcing those who remain to listen to their sermons.
Yet in his Madaraka Day speech, President Kenyatta could only promise “a major anti-radicalisation strategy” had been prepared and would be rolled out “soon”. Of course, details on the strategy were conspicuously absent as was discussion on whether counter-radicalisation is the same as counter-terrorism.
This is not new. Many academics and security experts have echoed the maxim that Kenya lacks both the policy and security posture to successfully address the challenges posed by al Shabaab. More importantly, a ravenous political elite, more interested in protecting its opportunities to “eat”, lacks the will to address the systemic problems its greed has caused.
There is therefore reason to imagine that the government will do everything it can to forestall such an eventuality. And in the process, its self-indulgence may afford its long-suffering people a fleeting reprieve from the depredations of al Shabaab.
Patrick Gathara is a communications consultant, writer and political cartoonist.