Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Ezekiel Mutua, Bloggers And The Dangers Of GoK's Single Story

Ezekiel Mutua undoubtedly has a knack for self-promotion. When I first met him as Secretary General of the Kenya Union of Journalists more than a decade ago, I could tell he was a man of no small ambition. Today, as head of the Kenya Film Classification Board, he has found a way to insert the previously obscure regulator into the limelight.

However, the way he has gone about it in complete disregard of what the law says about his organization’s mandate. The laws he claims give the KFCB powers to police what Kenya’s media broadcasters carry between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. (the so-called “watershed”) actually do nothing of the sort.

And this is not the first time the Kenyan Government has tried to use the organisation as a de-facto media regulator. In 2001, the then Minister of Information, Transport and Communications and now opposition luminary, Mr Musalia Mudavadi, published a notice in the Kenya Gazette which purported to place the media under the ambit of the KFCB, then more honestly known as the Kenya Film Censorship Board. This occasioned a six-year court battle with the Nation Media group which ended in a High Court judgement quashing the notice and describing it - and thus Mr Mutua’s current near identical power grab – as “not necessary or justifiable in a democratic society such as Kenya”.

Unfortunately for Kenya, Mr Mutua is more the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the Uhuru Kenyatta administration’s attitude towards the law. He is basically following a script that has been perfected by the Kenyan state which routinely exercises powers it does not have, ignores what the courts have to say when it deems it inconvenient, and appears to consider the constitution more as a set of guidelines rather than actual rules.

This attitude has been on display in the state’s reaction to the death of dozens of Kenyan soldiers in El Adde, Somalia when Al Shabaab militants overran their base two weeks ago. Under the guise of defending the national interest and stopping Al Shabaab propaganda, the government issued a warning against republishing or even retweeting gory images of dead soldiers which the terror group has uploaded online. This appears to have now mutated into a blanket ban on publishing any imagery (except its own) of the aftermath of the battle.

Pursuant to this, several people, including journalists and bloggers, have been arrested for questioning reportedly over images they shared via online platforms. The most prominent of these was Yassin Juma who spent the last weekend in a cell after being arrested for posting images of burning KDF vehicles, and Eddy Reuben Illah who has been arraigned in court for allegedly sharing pictures of dead soldiers with members of a WhatsApp group.

But is doing this actually illegal? Initially, media reports about the government’s warning cited the Penal Code Section 66A which appears to justify the government’s actions.  In fact, a widely circulated charge sheet indicated that Mr Illah would be charged under that law. What the media failed to highlight was that the section was part of the controversial Security Laws Amendment Act and had been struck off as unconstitutional by the courts.

In any event, Mr Illah was actually prosecuted for contravening Section 29 of the Kenya Information and Communications Act, a Nyayo-era law that criminalizes using “a licensed telecommunication system” to either send offensive, indecent, obscene and menacing messages; or to annoy, inconvenience and cause “needless anxiety” by means of a false message.

Needless to say, none of these terms are actually defined in the law, giving wide leeway for abuse by the authorities. Even more importantly, the courts, in their ruling throwing out the previously mentioned Section 66A of the Penal Code, already comprehensively dealt with the issue of images of terror attacks.

In court, the Attorney General had justified the introduction of the amendment by arguing that “freedom of expression has been abused by the media in publishing pictures of fatally injured people and of security operations, to the advantage of the publicity sought by terrorists.” However, in rejecting this the court declared:

“This new offence under the Penal Code that seeks to punish 'insulting, threatening, or inciting material or images of dead or injured persons which are likely to cause fear and alarm to the general public or disturb public peace' thus limits the freedom of expression to a level that the Constitution did not contemplate or permit, and in a manner that is so vague and imprecise that the citizen is likely to be in doubt as to what is prohibited.”

The parallels with the aforementioned KICA Section 29 are hard to ignore. Essentially, the government is doing an Ezekiel Mutua, claiming to exercise powers it does not have and ignoring court rulings that say it does not have them. Now, none of this is to say that publishing images of dead KDF soldier is a good idea. However, the government claims it is illegal, which it clearly isn’t and is using the law to intimidate those who present a different narrative from the one it is propagating.

An even more sinister reason is to be found in the words of one of the bloggers hauled in for questioning by the police. Cyprian Nyakundi, who spent two days in police custody before being freed on intervention of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution, said he was questioned on “the whereabouts of other wanted bloggers and why he was critical of government at large.”

Thus this is a thinly veiled attempt, not to preserve national security, but to stamp out dissent. It fits into a pattern of media intimidation which has seen journalists who did not toe the government line fired from mainstream newspapers reportedly at the behest of State House. That campaign has now reached the shores of Kenya’s vibrant social media scene.

Like Mr Mutua, the Uhuru government has nowadays developed a knack and taste for self-aggrandizement. But we should all be very concerned when it is willing to subvert the law to ensure that its story is the only one that can be told.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Why The KDF Lion Must Learn To Speak

Until the lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. The truth of this statement is today being demonstrated in the aftermath of the devastating attack by the Al Shabaab terror group on the AMISOM base at El Adde in southern Somalia.

With over Kenyan 100 troops feared dead, this is turning out to be not just a tactical victory, but a propaganda coup as well for the Al Qaeda linked militants. Panicked Generals in both AMISOM and the KDF have effectively shut down their public communications, effectively handing the airwaves to the enemy. And Al Shabaab has not been slow to exploit this opportunity. For nearly a week its tale of the hunt has been propagated around the world pretty much unchallenged.

The modern media operation is a 24-hour beast that needs to be fed round the clock. National and international mass media is the most important disseminator of news for the vast majority of people and what it carries shapes opinions and influences decisions. It is for this reason that terrorists make every effort to maximize coverage of their attacks.

And perceptions do matter. Especially in war, which the great Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz described as “the continuation of politics by other means.” Politics, as is readily apparent, is a game of perceptions and opinions. To a great extent, wars are too. They end when the losing side acknowledges it cannot win (except on the rare occasion when it is entirely eliminated).

So war itself can be seen a great communications effort, albeit one where the message is transmitted via bombs and bullets. Sun Tzu’s advice that “victorious warriors win first and then go to war” can be paraphrased thus: “Win first, then go tell your opponent about it.”

In today’s world, the fight against the terrorists is not only waged on the ground, but on newspaper pages, TV and radio broadcasts and on internet as well. This is especially true of the struggle against Al Shabaab.

Most Kenyans tend to mistakenly think of the group as a rag-tag militia with little in the way of effective organisation. In reality, Al Shabaab is well organized and resourced, and what it lacks in tanks and armour it makes up in communications capabilities.  It has established a media department which is adept at producing slick propaganda videos and churning out pictures and footage to feed the media beast with its version of events.

Now, it is true that wars are not won by press releases. But it would be a great mistake to conclude that effective communications don’t matter. In its first three years, AMISOM struggled to find its voice. Its tale was told by others, including by its enemies and detractors. As a result, it struggled to convince Somalians of its intentions, to get countries to deploy troops and to articulate its need for more and better equipment. By 2010, there was talk of “constructive disengagement” and winding up the “failing mission”.

It was in recognition of this, and at the request of the AU, that in 2009 the UN provided AMISOM with a team of civilian communications consultants as part of a wider logistical support package. I was a part of this team, which is based in Mogadishu, for nearly four years and witnessed fist-hand how well-executed communications strategies made AMISOM more effective on the ground.

From countering Al Shabaab propaganda to explaining its mandate and operations to a sceptical international audience to communicating successes on the ground, AMISOM became more adept at influencing local and international perceptions and managed to turn its reputation around. By the end of 2012 this effort- combined with the success its troops delivered on the ground- had countries competing to contribute troops and the UN Security Council voting to beef up its support for the Mission.

One of the many important lessons I learnt is that to compete effectively in the media arena, one has to be fast, first and provide accurate facts. Even, and perhaps especially, when it was bad news, you would rather the public heard it from you and not from the other side. It is a race to get your side of the story out first and to control the narrative. Another lesson was the critical need always to preserve your credibility by never putting out information that one knows to false.

On both these counts, the Kenyan Government has performed poorly. AMISOM has a long standing policy of letting its troop contributing countries speak on casualties and so its silence is somewhat understandable. The Kenyan state and its defence forces, on the other hand, has worked to prevent any details on the operation leaking out, including by prosecuting people who forwarded purported pictures of the dead Kenyan soldiers issued by Al Shabaab. It has also now provided a provisional version of events via the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Samson Mwathethe, elements of which not only contradict its earlier statements, but also fly in the face of the few facts that have already been established.

This sadly fits into pattern that the Government has followed whenever confronted with failure. It has done little to shore up its credibility in speaking on matters security since the Westgate disaster. It has tried to impose its “Official Truth” and refused to address any holes in yarn that it has spun. More than two years later, there has been no credible official account of what happened inside that mall for four days. It is a curious position for a government famous for its formidable public relations machine to be in.

Regardless, it is clear that we can ill afford to cede the media space to Al Shabaab without a fight. Our lion must learn to speak.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

El Adde Shows How Not To Fight Al Shabaab

In the wake of the Al Shabaab attack on a base manned by the Kenyan contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in the south Somalia town of El Adde, many of our returning soldiers, as well as the many who died, are being hailed as heroes. On social and mainstream media it has become de rigueur to declare love for the Kenya Defence Forces, to hail their bravery and martyrdom. Questioning the details of the incident only invites appeals to national mourning or accusations of spitting on their sacrifice.

Yet the questions must be asked. If, as seems likely, reports of tens, perhaps over a hundred killed turn out to be true, it would be the highest one-day toll both the KDF and AMISOM have suffered in their history. It would also demonstrate that reports of Al Shabaab’s imminent demise may be greatly exaggerated. The immediate as well as wider reasons for both the catastrophe and for Al Shabaab’s ability to inflict such pain must be explored if we wish to prevent similar disasters in the future.

The facts of what happened at El Adde should give us all pause for thought. Newly deployed and inexperienced troops came under attack, their camp was overrun, their commander captured and the soldiers scattered to the wind in disarray. Many died, others fled to the bush or requested shelter from local civilians, from where we are now trying to recover them. This is not how we should be fighting our wars.

Especially worrisome is the fact this attack did not come out of the blue.
The troops in El Adde had only been there for two weeks, many coming fresh from their base in Eldoret. Al Shabaab have been known to attack AMISOM positions immediately after troop rotations, knowing that AMISOM’s practice of replacing units of experienced soldiers with entirely fresh soldiers guarantees they would face inexperienced opposition.

Further, despite losing much of the territory it once controlled across Southern Somalia, the Al Qaeda-affiliated terror group has shown time and again that it remains capable of mounting devastating attacks across the country.  Of late, the group has developed an appetite for taking on AMISOM’s Forward Operating Bases.

The El Adde attack was the third such attack in the last seven months. Over 50 Burundian AMISOM soldiers were reported to have been killed when the group overran their base at Leego, 62 miles north-west of Mogadishu. Then four months ago, they sacked the Ugandan contingent’s base in Janale, again killing at least 19 soldiers, though media quoted a briefing note sent to diplomats by Western military officials claiming that around 100 soldiers were "unaccounted for" after the attack.
The tactics Al Shabaab has employed across the last two assaults are also remarkably similar to those used in the El Adde attack, both coming immediately after troop rotations and involving use of suicide car bombs and large swarms of fighters to overwhelm resistance.

Even more damning are the reports that the El Adde attack was widely anticipated and that locals had left their homes in advance of it. It is curious that little has been said about the Somali National Army troops that were co-located with the AMISOM troops. They appear to have not taken part in the fighting which probably means that they too had evacuated the area in advance of the attack. The reports indicate that this information may even have been shared with the Kenyans!

Further, the obviously poor state of relations and distrust between the Kenyan contingent and local people is another source of concern. Somalia’s fractious clan divides are a dangerous minefield that would be peacekeepers must navigate carefully. The KDF’ support for Ahmed Madobe in Kismayo has inevitably earned Kenya the suspicion, if not hostility, of clans rivalling the Ogadeni, including the Marehan who dominate El Adde.

All this is most troubling. There is a clear and massive failure of leadership which left our troops at the mercy of our enemies and that should not be swept under the carpet of a jingoistic patriotism. Once the current search and rescue operations are done, we must set up an inquiry, learn lessons and hold senior officers to account. We failed to do this following similar KDF failures at Westgate and at the Garissa University and are once again paying the price for it in blood.

The above also invites a serious debate about Kenya’s and AMISOM’s objectives in Somalia and what it will actually take to achieve them.

Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in October 2011 was in response to a spate of kidnappings for ransom by Somalia-based bandit gangs which threatened the lucrative tourist industry. Although the goals of Operation Linda Nchi were not well articulated at the time, at the very least it was meant to make the country safe for tourism. By that measure, the invasion was a spectacular failure. In the time since the invasion, attacks by Al Shabaab (which by the way had denied responsibility for the kidnappings but was targeted by the KDF anyway) on the Kenyan homeland multiplied exponentially, almost obliterating the tourism Linda Nchi was meant to save.

Today, little is heard about this. This is because Linda Nchi was hurriedly would up and the Kenya forces in Somalia rehatted as AMISOM less than a year later. They thus acquired a different set of objectives. AMISOM is a peace support mission mandated to help restore the Somalia National Security Forces, fight Al Shabaab and help extend the writ of the government in Mogadishu. It does not exist to secure Kenya.

However, it is true that a stable Somalia would be a boon for security across the region and there is no doubt Kenya would be a major beneficiary. It is important then, as a contributor to AMISOM, that Kenyans examine how that effort is doing.

On the surface, there is reason for hope. Since 2011, as noted above, Al Shabaab has been pushed out of nearly all of Somalia’s major towns including all the ports it once controlled. But while the terror group has been degraded, the authority of the Federal Government does not extend much outside the towns and Al Shabaab is still able to operate freely in much of rural south Somalia. Further, as the El Adde attack demonstrates, the Somali forces are far from ready to take on Al Shabaab.

This has critical implications for AMISOM. Its exit strategy is predicated not just on sufficiently degrading Al Shabaab, but also on training up effective Somali troops. The latter’s continued weakness is a double blow to AMISOM. Firstly, it delays the date of an eventual AMISOM exit. Secondly, one of the reasons for the UN Security Council authorising relatively low troop numbers for AMISOM was the expectation that the SNA would fill the gap. The UN Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II) – the second phase of the initial UN intervention, from March 1993 to March 1995 – had a similar mandate to AMISOM and had 30,000 troops. AMISOM has just over 22,000 and for much of its time Somalia has had much less.

The Mission also lacks crucial equipment and support enablers. Although belatedly authorised by the Security Council in 2012, helicopters are yet to arrive in the Mission area. Thus despite the successes it has achieved, there remain serious questions as to whether AMISOM, as currently constituted, can fully deliver on its mandate.

These and other issues should form the basis of an informed public debate on the wisdom and objectives of the KDF deployment in Somalia.  There is an opportunity today for Kenya to begin to seriously examine the options it has in Somalia and for the Kenyan public to finally have an informed say on what course to follow.