Not many Kenyans can recall the first time they went through a security check before entering a building or shopping mall. The constant flash of detectors and scanners have become part of everyday life and most have learnt to cope with this the best way they know how; by simply accepting things and moving on.
Last year’s Westgate Mall attack was the turning point in Kenyans’ collective understanding of terror and security. How could such a seemingly secure mall like Westgate be attacked? It made us question safety measures in public spaces and forced us to acknowledge the level of insecurity in the country.
This saw a number of privately-owned buildings reinforcing their security checks and making body searches more thorough. Border security was strengthened by doubling patrols with Ethiopia and Somalia to ensure that suspects could neither flee the country nor enter.
For the longest time, before attacks that include the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, the only places with security checks were airports, embassies and a few private organisations. Back then, you would simply have your identity verified by producing your identity card and writing down your details at reception. However, after the series of terror attacks and threats in the country, there has been a tightening of security checks as well as an introduction of similar measures in other places like Uganda.
While Kenyans seem to agree that the searches are necessary, most people feel they are an invasion of privacy – from having hand-held metal detectors waved over one’s body to having to open one’s bags for guards to peek into their contents. There has also been concern over how efficient the security guards are, as they seem clueless about what kind of information these detectors and scanners should provide and are at times unable to determine whether the tools of their trade are in working order. These are factors that have caused people to believe that the security checks are ineffective.
Over time, these security checks have relaxed and it is now easier for one to walk into a building without the thorough inspections that had recently become a mandate. And if one is wealthy or famous, they might not get patted down or have their belongings checked at all.
Inadequate response mechanisms
There have, however, been calls through social media for government to address the security situation, especially after the recent Mpeketoni attacks, an incident where armed militia attacked and killed 48 people in Mpeketoni, a town in the coastal district of Lamu.
Consequently, people have started questioning government’s accountability and its strategies to curtail the increasing insecurity. Online interactions cite corruption as the main culprit, something which has led to the launch of a facility where Kenyans can report incidents of corruption on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s website.
Last year in October, the government set up the Nyumba Kumi Initiative, which required people to know at least ten of their neighbours as a means to guarantee safety. However, the programme was met with a lot of apprehension because it raised issues around privacy. The fact that it failed in Tanzania, where it was initially started, brought on even more concern.
Another talking point has been the deplorable living standards and low salaries and benefits of the Kenyan police, a factor in the increase in corruption, and therefore insecurity. Even with the police reforms passed in 2011 to overhaul police structures, police abuses, impunity, incompetence and shortages of equipment still plague Kenya’s law enforcement agents. Rampant poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunities among the youth are also contributing to insecurity, creating a situation that has seen some young people opting to join terrorist groups to make quick money.
A climate of xenophobia
The insecurity in Kenya has also created an enabling environment for xenophobia and xenophobic sentiments to manifest. This has especially been evident in reactions towards Somalis because of the association of Somalia with Al Shabaab, the Islamist group responsible for the Westgate Mall attack. This year, in April, the government launched Operation Usalama Watch, which identifies and detains people who are living in Kenya without legal documentation. The operation saw raids in Eastleigh and South C suburbs in Nairobi, where a large number of Somalis reside, and gave rise to Kasarani concentration camp.
According to human rights groups, detainees at Kasarani were not only beaten but also denied food and water. There are even reports of women losing their pregnancies due to stress, frustration and harassment, allegations that the government denies despite public outrage over the reported ill treatment. A good example of the national protest would be discussions on Twitter held using the hashtag, #Kasaraniconcentrationcamp. There have also been discussions about closing down of Daadab refugee camp, the largest refugee camp in eastern Kenya, and talk has largely centered on repatriation, rather than integration, of refugees.
Tensions have been further stirred through sentiments such as those of Joseph Ole Lenku, Cabinet Secretary of Security, who stated that refugees must be ‘maintained’ either at Dadaab or Kakuma camps due to Kenya’s ongoing security challenges and the need to streamline the ‘management’ of refugees. This move has seen the expulsion of many Somalis as well as an increase in numbers of Somalis opting to return to Somalia.
The concern over security was also heightened by the recennt categorisation of Kenya as a high risk country for Ebola infection by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although the health body clarified and apologised for the categorisation via its Twitter account, the Kenyan government was quick to act by closing its borders to countries affected by Ebola (including Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) on August 16, 2014. This has also seen the cancellation of flights by the national airline, Kenya Airways, to these destinations and an introduction of new screening measures such as temperature checks.
Overall, what is going on in Kenya is more than just a security issue. It highlights institutional failure to protect the mwananchi (citizens). Laws and regulations on security and government agencies in charge of intelligence have been put in place, but the problem lies in the lack of implementation and failure of the agencies to do their work as shown by the lack of response to warnings about the Westgate Mall Attack. Nevertheless, Kenyans have largely not let this insecurity dampen their spirits. People are not afraid of going ahead with their lives, which is not to say they are not worried about what may come next.
In short, life goes on.