Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Frying Pan Into Fire: Will Beefy Governments Make Us More Secure?

The reaction to the terrible attacks in France and continuing anti-terror operations across Europe will sound familiar to many Kenyans but should make them sit up and listen nonetheless. Across the world, the rhetoric of war, the beefing up of security forces’ presence in our lives,  and the benumbed acquiescence of the citizenry to this governmental power grab have for the last four years almost become the de rigueur response to terror attacks.

From Paris to Nairobi, terrorists are decidedly succeeding in scaring people into abandoning long-cherished notions of liberté, égalité, fraternité and are consequently empowering and emboldening governments to act in ever more undemocratic and unaccountable ways. Democratic constitutions designed to contain the power of states are seeming ever more quaint and anachronistic in an era where regimes have reinvented themselves as protectors rather than oppressors of the people.

Today lockdowns, emergency powers, mass surveillance, armed police on the streets, criminalization of thoughts, expression and even dress are fast becoming an indispensable attributes of a “free society”. The diminution and sacrifice of civil liberties is seen as necessary to earn the favour and protection of temporal potentates.

Back to Paris, which has now suffered a second, high casualty terror incident in the space of less than twelve months. So far, criticism of the French security and intelligence services has been muted, even within France. This is understandable given the outpouring of sympathy the attacks have provoked. However, when a conversation on how men and women could smuggle military-grade weapons and suicide belts into the heart of the city does get under way, it will almost inevitably result in more assaults on liberté. Already, the French Parliament has voted to extend a state of emergency which grants “the police and military greater powers of search and arrest, and local governments the right to ban demonstrations and impose curfews” for another three months.

In Kenya, pro-government types have already begun to latch on to the idea of uniting behind the regime as an example of how we should respond to attacks. “French opposition stands with the govt amidst kenya theyd be calling on the president to resign” went one tweet. In times of terror, they would have us believe, the government can do no wrong. The warped definitions of patriotism being forced down Kenyans’ throats essentially boil down to “my government, right or wrong”.

Anyone querying the narratives coming out of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration risks being branded a terrorist sympathiser.  National security has become the carpet which covers all ills. When a recent report exposed syndicates within the Kenya Defence Forces smuggling charcoal and sugar in southern Somalia where they are deployed as part of the AU peacekeeping force, the report’s authors were immediately condemned as unpatriotic and malevolent agents. The KDF spokesman went on national TV to announce that the KDF had “quietly” begun investigating them and their sources. Meanwhile, the allegations, which have consistently been made by others including the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea as well as independent journalists, went unanswered.

Similarly, when, a few weeks ago, journalists reported on security procurement queries raised by the Auditor-General, they were immediately summoned and one arrested by police apparently on the orders of Internal Security Minister Joseph Ole Nkaissery, who demanded they reveal their sources. Ironically, they were accused of endangering public safety for reporting that the Auditor-General had specifically stated that the “purchase of second-hand arms and ammunition… from ‘friendly manufacturers’” had “seriously compromis[ed] the operations of the security agencies”. Of course, like with KDF smuggling, little to date has been said about an investigation.

Our ears should thus prick up when President Kenyatta declares corruption a threat to national security. This is not to say that graft does not threaten the very fabric of the nation. It undoubtedly does. However, a glance at the opaque and unconstitutional means the Uhuru administration has adopted to deal with other national security threats, such as terrorism, should give us some pause. They have resulted in laws that, instead of tackling terrorists, have vastly expanded the powers of government and targeted its opponents as well as the media’s ability to report on terror attacks. The above example of Nkaissery’s mendacity demonstrates that the government has few qualms about using “national security” to shield itself from public scrutiny. Therefore, allowing it to frame the struggle against corruption in the language of national security carries significant risks.

The reason Kenyans should keep a wary eye on European reactions is because the administration will almost inevitably seek to legitimize its own bad behaviour and lack of accountability by referring to them. It will argue that the citizens of this “mature” democracy are blazing a trail we should all follow, one of unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the authorities. Just as few in France are today interrogating the retaliatory bombardment of the Islamic State “capital” of Raqqa in Syria, so Kenyans are encouraged to gloss over the reasons for and achievements of the 2011 invasion of Somalia.  

Security, we are told, is a prerequisite for liberty. And in our terrorized times, this has translated to a preference for more brawny and less brainy states. However, beefy governments rarely countenance civil liberties. We conveniently forget that throughout history, it has been governments that have been the main agents of terror. And that from Burundi to North Korea, they continue to be the main perpetrators of it. True Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, ISIS, Boko Haram and their counterparts across the globe horrible savage and vicious collections of mass murderers who need to be determinedly fought. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, last year terror groups were responsible for 32,658 deaths last year, the highest death toll ever recorded. 

However, it pales into comparison compared to the deaths caused by governments which US political scientist RJ Rummel estimated to be in the order of 262 million over the last century – an average of  over 2.5 million a year.  Government’s cause death and suffering on an exponential scale. There's even a term for it: democide. Beefing them up so they can supposedly more effectively and efficiently fight terrorists may very well be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

It is also important to remember another of Rummel’s findings: “Concentrated political power is the most dangerous thing on earth ….The more power a regime has, the more likely people will be killed. This is a major reason for promoting freedom." Democracies which fragment and distribute power are much less of a threat to their citizens than totalitarian regimes where power is concentrated in the executive or in the leader.

Given the above, here’s the really bad news: And, as Canadian MP, Elizabeth May, noted last year: “Once we give up our rights and liberties, it's very hard to get them back.” Rousseau was even gloomier. “Free people remember this maxim: we may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.”

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