The terror attack might have come at the right time for politicians but Kenyans should be wary of divisive leaders and attempts to curtail freedom.
Every country has the right and duty to protect its citizens. But as Kenyan leaders and citizens debate how best to respond to the Westgate attack, the words of Benjamin Franklin may be useful.
“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” he wrote.
It is difficult to agree with this argument, especially after the events at Westgate two weeks ago. We all want something to be done to prevent a recurrence of the crime. But we would do well to resist such urges to be seen to act immediately and instead pause for thought.
For one, the rush to be seen to be active in defence of Kenya can lead to shortsighted policies that may make the situation worse. Take, for example, Ndung’u Githenji, head of the National Assembly’s defence committee, and his suggestion that Dadaab Refugee Camp be closed. He claimed on BBC that some of these camps were being used as a training grounds.
Mr Githenji’s argument will no doubt receive a lot of support. But is it grounded in fact? How can state officials discuss measures to prevent attacks when we don’t even know the basic details about perpetrators?
What would the effects of dispersing more than 500,000 Somali refugees into the borderlands of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia be? It is unlikely such a measure would increase stability of the region.
Mr Githenji and other politicians find themselves in an unenviable position. I do not wish to besmirch individuals who are, no doubt, acting with the best intentions and in difficult circumstances. Bestowed with great responsibility to protect citizens, the likes of Githenji and, more importantly, President Uhuru Kenyatta know they must appear to be doing something.
Mr Kenyatta will not be short of advice. Counter-terrorism expertise will be offered by the same Western governments that help fund the AMISOM campaign. Unfortunately, the evidence from elsewhere points to the fact that tragic circumstances don’t produce intelligent policies.
Policies introduced in the aftermath of attacks such as 9/11 and 7/7 have led to absurd and habitual restrictions on the rights of ordinary citizens. The furore over Edward Snowden and his leaks about collection and retention of enormous quantities of personal data by the US and UK intelligence services was a reminder of how much of what Benjamin Franklin held dear has been lost.
In Britain, we are told that surveillance of daily life is necessary to ward off terrorists. We are asked to trust our government and that the data will not be used against us malevolently. Do Kenyans trust their government or courts enough to accept such assurances?
There is another reason to resist surrendering liberty for security in Kenya. Evidence from the UK and the US is shows that the process involves shifting of power from elected officials and courts operating transparently to the security forces and increased official secrecy. In Kenya, this would certainly mean granting greater powers to the National Intelligence Service, the police and the military.
A former intelligence officer has already demanded in the Standard that NIS be given the powers enjoyed in the past by the dreaded Special Branch.
Transfer of power from democratic institutions to security forces is problematic. It is difficult to identify a group that has been more responsible for the spread of insecurity since 1963 than these organisations or their predecessors.
As more details emerge of the events inside the mall, Kenyans have reason to doubt abilities of these institutions to protect them. There is a danger that liberties will be given up to these organs without improvement to security.
So what is to be done? Among the most compelling images that came out of Westgate were those of lightly armed officers courageously putting their lives at risk saving others. They don’t need more powers of arrest, detention or surveillance.
Instead, they and their counterparts in the army and NIS need better training, equipment and closer scrutiny of operations in order to do their jobs properly. In other words, these institutions need reform.