CHEESEMAN: New laws alone won’t work, Kenya’s security strategy needs rethinking - Daily Nation

New laws alone won’t work, Kenya’s security strategy needs rethinking

Saturday December 20 2014

President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses Kapedo residents on November 2, 2014. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |

President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses Kapedo residents on November 2, 2014. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

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There can be no doubt that Kenya’s security sector was in need of reform. The number of attacks on the country has increased dramatically in recent times, and the security forces have yet to demonstrate that they either understand the scale of the problem or have an effective solution.

The impact on Kenya’s politics, economy and society has been dramatic. Partisan splits over how to respond to the threat of terrorism have led to acrimonious disagreements between the main political parties. Religious tensions, which have been rising since the fallout of the 2007 elections and the 2010 referendum, have intensified.

Tourist numbers have fallen, which has undermined the economy in the Coast and forced the Treasury to downgrade the growth forecast from 5.8 per cent to 5-5.5 per cent this year – and some analysts believe that Kenya will be lucky to manage that.

It is, therefore, clear that something had to be done. The question that remains is whether the changes that President Uhuru Kenyatta has wrung to the structure and staffing of the security sector are the changes that the country needs.

The first major aspect of the reforms is a change in personnel in top positions. This change makes broad sense for a number of reasons. It has been clear for some time that Kenyans have lost faith in those responsible for security both within the Cabinet and in the upper echelons of the security services. The poor performance of figures such as former Cabinet Secretary for Interior Joseph ole Lenku drained public and international confidence in the government’s capacity to respond to the growing security threat.

Following the latest round of attacks in which 64 people were killed by Al-Shabaab in Mandera, the President Kenyatta finally moved to reshuffle the pack. He accepted the resignation of Mr David Kimaiyo, the Inspector General of Police. At the same time, he nominated Kajiado Central MP Major-General (Rtd) Joseph Nkaissery to replace Mr Lenku. Maj-Gen Nkaissery’s appointment is particularly interesting as he is a long-term ODM supporter and a former military man.


Maj-Gen Nkaissery’s success in office will depend on his willingness to stand up for his ideas and to maintain broad national support for his policies. During vetting, he proved willing to follow his own principles rather than simply follow the line of his new political paymasters, promising to support the deletion of clauses in the security laws that infringe on human rights.
Retrograde step

But he also said he would support removal of security of tenure for the chiefs of intelligence and police service in order to empower the President to hire and fire them. This would be a retrograde step, undermining the professionalism of the armed forces. It is a peculiar position for a retired major-general to take, and one that implies that Nkaissery may be vulnerable to prioritising the President’s interests over those of the security forces.

This leads me to a broader point. Changes to security personnel are important and overdue, but are no silver bullet. Maj-Gen Nkaissery will surely do a better job than Mr Lenku, but has little specialist knowledge in counter-insurgency techniques – after all, when he was a major-general the country did not face anything like the terrorist threat it does now. He will, therefore, need to bring in and listen to expert advice on how to better train and manage Kenya’s security forces if the country is to turn the tide against Al-Shabaab.

The second major change that appears to be in the works is the rumoured plan to restructure the security sector, merging the Interior ministry with Defence Ministry to create a “super ministry” of Homeland Security that would bring the Kenya Defence Forces, the National Police Service, and the National Intelligence Service under common leadership. According to an article in The Star, the proposal was made during meetings between President Kenyatta and his security chiefs in November, and came after Mr Lenku had made a five-day trip to Israel to learn from best practice in homeland security.


A related plan would see the regular police and the Administration police merged into a single command.

If this is indeed the way that the government plans to go, it is important to ask how much this is going to achieve. Weak central co-ordination has clearly been a major problem in the fight against terrorism in Kenya.

In the aftermath of the Westgate attack, the National Intelligence Service criticised the police for failing to act on intelligence, while the police blamed the KDF for mismanaging the whole operation. However, it is not clear that weak central control has always been the main problem.

Away from Westgate to the attacks in the north of the country, or at the Coast, what seems more problematic is a basic lack of quality information, effective presence, capacity, and planning at the local level. This is not simply a logistical problem – too many cooks – that can be solved by a national restructuring. In this context, changes to the structure of the security forces at the national level will only make sense if they result in a more co-ordinated approach on the ground, and this will require local, rather than national, reforms.

The third main strand of reforms comes in the shape of the controversial new security law that Parliament passed this week. The law contains a number of important reforms to strengthen the hand of the security forces but also facilitates significant restrictions on human rights. The government had sold the Security Bill on the basis that it needs new powers to win the battle against Al-Shabaab, but it is not clear exactly how some of the provisions in the legislation will help this goal.

For one thing, given the concentration of authority in the hands of the President, and the alleged abuses by the security forces over the past 10 years, it seems strange to place the blame for Kenya’s poor anti-terrorism record on the government’s lack of power.


Moreover, while it is clear that being able to detain terror suspects for a year will empower the security forces, provisions that require journalist to obtain police permission before publishing stories and pictures on terrorism and security issues, will not play a central role in the struggle against extremism, and have not been employed by a number of other countries that also face a significant domestic terrorist threat.

Rather, these measures seem to be designed to protect the government and the security forces from public scrutiny and criticism. This is a problem, because so far the media has actually helped to enhance the performance of the security forces. If it was not for journalists, we would know far less about how security chiefs mishandled Westgate, and the pressure to bring in better and able leaders would have been muted. In other words, freedom of information and speech is not a hindrance to Kenya’s war-on-terror, but a boon.

The failings of the security law highlights a broader problem, which is that the Kenyan government is now focusing overwhelmingly on winning this battle through force, and is forgetting about hearts and minds. The chaotic scenes in Parliament on Thursday, is an excellent example of the failure of the government to build consensus around its security strategy.

If it is to be successful, Kenya’s security strategy needs to be seriously re-thought. In an article that can be downloaded free from the journal African Affairs (http://afraf.oxfordjournalsorg/content/early/recent) from the middle of next week onwards, Professor David Anderson of Warwick University and Jacob McKnight of the University of Oxford argue that Kenya’s invasion of Somalia has made the country more vulnerable to terrorism, not less.

In a paper entitled c, they conclude that “while the military defeat of al-Shabaab in southern Somalia seems inevitable, such a victory may become irrelevant to Kenya’s ability to make a political settlement with its Somali and wider Muslim communities at home”.

Dr Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University and is the founder of