Don’t we just love useless prohibitions under the guise of security? Every time I walk past Nairobi’s General Post Office, Teleposta Towers, I’m bemused by the proliferation of warning signs: ‘No Sitting’, ‘No Standing’, ‘No Idling’, ‘No Parking’... ad infinitum!
Walking past Parliament Buildings recently, I was surprised to see a newish ‘Protected Area: No Photography’ sign.
Such a great architectural landmark — complete with those outstanding exterior friezes by Kenya’s greatest ever sculptor, Prof Gregory Maloba, and a bronze statue and final resting place of founding father Mzee Jomo Kenyatta — should welcome visitors, and their cameras.
A friend recently recounted how he took a visitor on a walking tour of the capital city. The guest was interested in capturing on camera some of great historical buildings in the city centre — such as Harambee House, Sheria House, Jogoo House, the National Archives, McMillan Library, The Stanley, Kenyatta International Conference Centre and, of course, Parliament Buildings.
In many of the government buildings, the two encountered the ‘No Photography’ sign. But even in some buildings where there was no prohibition sign, there was a stern-faced policeman or private security guard with a firm ‘nyet’.
This pervasive ‘No Photography’ rule initially applied to State House, military camps and other facilities deemed sensitive in security terms.
In the age of Google Maps and the ubiquitous mobile phone camera, it has become redundant. Actually, it did not make much sense even in the pre-Digital Era, as a determined criminal casing a target does not need to take photographs.
But instead of relaxing this obsolete prohibition, we have extended it to a growing list of government office buildings as well as private commercial office blocks, hotels and shopping malls.
The excuse has been the terrorism scare, but there is absolutely no evidence that simply banning photography deters or hinders the crazies out on their missions of death and destruction.
The prohibition actually feeds into the terrorist narrative by spreading fear and impeding normal human activities.
Shopping malls, for instance, are supposed to be places for fun and recreation, where families spend time on outings and for children to romp about in the play areas.
It’s at shopping malls where teenagers hang out and make acquaintances. And then they’re told no photographs, no video, no selfies!
Every self-respecting city has bus or walking tours for tourists to take in and document notable landmarks and installations. In Nairobi, they might as well leave their cameras behind.
In Accra, I was able to tour the mausoleum of first President Kwame Nkrumah and walk around his grave while snapping away. In Nairobi, I can’t approach — leave alone visit and photograph — the Jomo Kenyatta Mausoleum!
Many of you will have posed for pictures by the White House and the US Capitol in Washington, DC, the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the Kremlin in Moscow, or the Houses of Parliament and 10 Downing Street in London. Here at home, the great official buildings and institutions are no-go zones.
Even the rickety Likoni Channel ferries at the Coast carry the ‘no photography’ signs!
The ‘No Photography’ rule did not prevent the terrorist attack a week ago on Nairobi’s DusitD2 Hotel and adjacent properties. The attack was a rude reminder that the terrorism scourge remains a real and present danger at all times despite a lull over the past few years. It told us that Kenya remains on war footing, with no room for lowering of the guard.
Our security agencies performed heroically at 14 Riverside Drive (despite Western news outlets trying to steal all the glory for their citizens who may have helped) but still there can be no room for complacency.
We must, therefore, review our anti-terrorism architecture and seal any cracks that leave us vulnerable. First, we must accept the plain fact that merchants of terror are in our midst, not domiciled across the border in Somalia.
We must also accept that absence of a major terrorist attack in Nairobi or anywhere else over the past few years is not an indication that the merchants of death have been defeated.
We must take very seriously obvious signs that, during that period, terrorist networks have been solidifying their presence across vast swathes of country in the former North-Eastern Province and adjacent parts of the Coast.
Liberating those parts of Kenya from Al-Shabaab, and finding and eliminating sleeper cells all over the country, is what should occupy us, not expanding and enforcing mindless ‘No Photography’ edicts.
[email protected]; @MachariaGaitho