Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rethinking Security

Kenya’s security system is broken. Two devastating attacks in the space of nine months, each claiming more than 60 lives, are testament to the veracity of that fact. Even before last week’s attacks on the coastal town of Mpeketoni, Kenyans had good reason to fear for their safety. According to the police, in the 35 years from 1975 to 2010 Kenya suffered a total of 6 terror attacks. However, in the last four years, the country has had to endure nearly 80 such attacks. In the light of this, it is amazing that the country is operating with pretty much the same security mindset that informed responses for over a century.

The choice of 2011 as a watershed year is, of course no accident, being the year that Kenya sent its troops across the border into neighboring Somalia where they today operate as part of the UN-funded African Union Mission to Somalia. Most of the attacks have been blamed on the Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda affiliated terror group that the Kenya Defense Forces were meant to be chasing down in Southern Somalia.

Thus many now see pulling the troops out of Somalia, and in the process fulfilling one of the Al Shabaab’s core demands, as a way to turn the clock back. It is a view that seems to be winning the support of many Kenyan politicians, but one that I consider to be extremely, even dangerously, naive. It is true that Somalia is the Al Shabaab’s primary target, where the extremists previously sought to impose a harsh, Taliban-inspired form of Islamic law alien to Somali culture and history.

However, on many occasions, the extremists have openly declared that their agenda does not stop at Somalia’s borders. Not only has the group allied itself to the global terror network, Al Qaeda, it has also actively provided a safe haven for terrorists such as those who, in November 2002, bombed the Paradise Hotel on the Kenyan coast, killing 22 innocent people.

Consider this 2009 statement from one of its officials following Ethiopia's withdrawal: "The fact that the enemy has left Mogadishu does not mean that the mujahideen will not follow him to where he still remains." The Al Shabaab thought the idea that jihad had ended with Ethiopia's withdrawal was "in clear contradiction with the statement of Prophet Muhammad … that jihad will continue until Doomsday."  Why would they treat Kenya’s withdrawal any differently?

The fact is our security problems did not start with the invasion of Somalia (though attacks have undoubtedly multiplied since) and will not be fixed by withdrawing from there. With Al Qaeda seeking to establish a base next door, we should’ve expected that the war would sooner or later come to our doorstep, whether or not we intervened. The question is why were we not better prepared?

The real issue is that our security setup is not fit for purpose. As David Ndii notes in his recent piece, “we retained the repressive colonial security infrastructure whose primary function was to protect the government from its oppressed subjects.”   As I have written many times before, the colonial state was never overthrown and the extractive state was maintained with our ravenous elites feasting at the top. The entire security apparatus remains designed to protect this obscene banquet.

Thus our agencies (and institutions) are very good at finding political opponents and disrupting citizen demonstrations, but not as good at detecting, preventing or responding to terrorist atrocities. In a very real sense, they are fighting with their guns aimed at the very people they are supposed to be protecting. Because they have been resourced to fight internal opponents of the regime, they have neither the training nor the equipment to deal effectively with the threat from international terrorists. The shambolic responses to the Westgate and Mpeketoni atrocities are proof positive of this.

However, true to form, Kenyan elites both in opposition and in government have been more interested in exploiting these attacks for political and financial gain rather than in resolving our problems. It is the same elites who in the late 90s and early 00s hatched schemes to steal humongous amounts of money under the guise of making much needed technological improvements to the security systems. The improvements, of course, never materialized.

Today, they treat security as a political football, something with which to score points against your political opponent, as opposed to a national emergency that must be addressed with sobriety and honesty. And, as always, they have sought to get paid, utilising the opportunity to sneak in tenders dubious, opaquely sourced and ridiculously expensive surveillance systems.

There appears to be little inclination to find real and long term solutions. Following the Westgate attack, President Uhuru Kenyatta promptly forgot his promise to institute a commission of inquiry into the failures that preceded it and that characterised the response. A joint parliamentary committee probe then produced a report that was so poor that the National Assembly binned it.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” said Albert Einstein and this, unfortunately, is precisely what Kenya is trying to do. However, without a clear understanding of what the long term security challenges are, Kenya will be continue to be prey to the short-term machinations and greed of those in power.

A comprehensive and independent public inquiry into the terror attacks and security responses of the last four years would help identify causes and lapses and provide the fodder for us to think about security in new ways. So far, only Musalia Mudavadi has had the good sense to demand one, albeit timidly. Let’s hope that in the coming days, many more will join him.