Does Uhuru Kenyatta know Kenya is burning?

Kenya’s president doesn’t seem to consider the murder of Kenyans as a security crisis.

People hold wooden crosses to represent those killed in a string of attacks [AFP]
People hold wooden crosses to represent those killed in a string of attacks [AFP]

Legend has it that while a fire destroyed the city of Rome, the emperor Nero played his fiddle; he was merrily ignoring the plight of his people. This weekend, it seemed to be Kenya’s turn to get a taste of what official neglect and disinterest look like. As 28 Kenyans lay dead, murdered in cold-blood by terrorists, President Uhuru Kenyatta was wining and dining with the jet set in Abu Dhabi, enjoying the trapping of a Formula 1 weekend.

But things are not always as they seem. The fact is, it is not that Kenyatta’s government was disinterested in security. It is that its understanding of what constitutes a national security threat is radically different from what most Kenyans would expect.

The events immediately preceding and following the massacre of bus passengers in the town of Mandera, near Kenya’s border with Somalia, have amply demonstrated why Kenya’s security is in the toilet. Days before the atrocity happened, county government officials had been warning of the threat of an attack.

“We have strong intelligence which we have shared with security authorities, but we are disappointed that the authorities are not taking us seriously,” Mandera County Governor Ali Roba complained.

Policing, not protecting

Instead of reinforcing security at the border town, the government dispatched officers to the Kenyan coast, where a series of raids on several mosques had apparently turned up a small cache of weapons including pistols, grenades and petrol bombs. More than 360 people had been arrested in the night-time raids, including some as young as 12, with many claiming to have been taken from their homes. As a result, according to one report, at the time the Mandera attack happened, “there were only four officers in the area“.

Al-Shabab claims responsibility for Kenya bus attack

It is not difficult to guess why police would be withdrawn from an area under imminent threat of terrorist attack to one where the government had just closed several mosques, arrested and alienated huge numbers of people and where attacks on non-Muslim communities had already been carried out. The problem the authorities are concerned about is not the external one from the Somalia-based armed group, al-Shabab, but rather the internal one from disaffected, disillusioned and radicalised citizens.

The government has tended to deal with the citizenry as the primary source of national security threat, which it defines as the threat to itself and to its authority, not to the people. It thus has shown no compunction about demonising entire communities, from Somali refugees and citizens of Somali origin, to Muslims, to the marginalised communities across the north and in the west of the country.

From their founding, the Kenyan security institutions have been set up to police, not to protect local communities. The security system is a colonial era edifice that has not been fundamentally reformed and continues to prioritise the protection of the rapacious interests of a tiny and powerful elite over the rights and safety of the rest of the country. These elites have actively resisted any attempt to reform the system. They have actively sought to undermine the 2010 constitution which enshrined a bill of rights and articulated a new security structure.

Laws reforming the security structure, when they have been passed, have either been ignored, or amended so as to detract from their original purpose. There have there been legislative moves to turn oversight bodies into mere paperweights, which would only confirm the reality that they are ignored anyway. For example, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority has noted gaps in the implementation of legislation meant to streamline the National Police Service and demanded the resignation of the inspector general of police over the inability to deal with insecurity, but it now finds itself threatened with dissolution.

‘A personal challenge’

The result of this is that the elite have continued to have a free hand to exploit the resources of the country at the expense of its population. Kenya’s elephant and rhino populations are being hunted to extinction while the government protects those most responsible for the carnage. The country has been turned into a major conduit for illegal drugs and a destination for illicit money. Further, it has fallen to the international community to step into the breach created by the inaction of Kenyan authorities and to attempt to prosecute some of those responsible for the mass murder of Kenyans, as well as the corruption that impoverishes them. Predictably, such moves have been met with either foot-dragging or outright opposition from the government.

It is plain that a government run by people who see the rest of the populace as a threat to their position and to their opportunities to extract rents, will not be too motivated to protect them.

It is plain that a government run by people who see the rest of the populace as a threat to their position and to their opportunities to extract rents, will not be too motivated to protect them. In fact, Kenyatta’s administration has tended to treat insecurity not as a security threat, but a public relations problem. The government has, for example, been slow to respond to the widespread incidents of violence against women, with half-hearted reactions when public outrage over incidents of women being assaulted and stripped in public made the news.

Terrorist attacks have inspired little other than strong words and perplexing declarations of victory (such as we heard after the attack on the Westgate Mall) and sometimes, outright lies. In the aftermath of the attacks on Mpeketoni, near the coastal town of Lamu, the president got into an unseemly tussle with al-Shabab whose claim of responsibility had complicated his own efforts to lay the blame on “local political networks”, which is shorthand for the opposition.

In a statement issued on behalf of the president following the Mandera attack, Deputy President William Ruto was quick to congratulate the security forces for protecting Kenyans (go figure!) and, without offering any proof, repeat claims that many other attacks had been stopped and that in the particular case of the Mandera attackers, the security forces had caught up with them and killed 100 of them. As evidence for the latter, the government appeared to have released pictures bearing a time stamp from two years ago.

An address to a high level security seminar given by the president just hours before the killing of 22 officers illustrates his propensity to see national security purely through the prism of his own “personal challenge” as he once described his prosecution at the International Criminal Court. It is peppered with references to the fight against foreign domination and demonises civil society organisations, which have pushed for his case not to be prematurely abandoned.

So when informed of the attack in Mandera, Kenyatta did not think it prudent to skip the Formula 1 race and dash home to deal with the security crisis simply because he does not consider the murder of Kenyans a security crisis. The problem is not that he is fiddling while Kenya burns. It is rather that despite all evidence to the contrary, he does not think that Kenya is burning.

Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi. 

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