Kenya Failures on Security Weaken Ability to Fight MilitantsJoseph Burite and Ilya Gridneff
Islamist militants carrying out attacks on Kenya are exploiting the state’s failure to overhaul its security apparatus, which analysts say leaves the country vulnerable to further strikes.
At least 147 people, most of them students, died on April 2 when al-Shabaab gunmen stormed the Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya. The raid, the deadliest since al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Nairobi, in 1998, was at least the fifth massacre by al-Shabaab since it stormed the upmarket Westgate shopping mall less than two years ago.
The attacks could have been foiled had the country implemented reforms introduced five years ago to reorganize its police, intelligence and defense forces, said Ndung’u Wainaina, executive director of the Nairobi-based International Center for Policy and Conflict. Those changes are aimed at improving the coordination of security agencies and intelligence gathering, the lack of which has undermined the authorities’ ability to deal with the threat posed by militants, he said.
“There is a serious lack of political will to ensure there is a transformation of security in Kenya,” Wainaina said. “We have a plethora of policies, a legislative framework that has been done along with a government commitment to reform, which consistently have never been implemented.”
Before the latest incident, at least 361 people died in “terrorist” attacks in Kenya since Westgate, according to Bath, U.K.-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. The violence has scared off tourists who contribute more than $1 billion to Kenya’s foreign-exchange earnings every year -- the second-largest source after tea exports. The shilling has weakened 6.5 percent against the dollar over the past 12 months.
Kenya has missed at least three opportunities in the past decade to reorganize its security system, according to Wainaina. The first came from a 2008 inquiry into violence that killed at least 1,100 people following a disputed presidential election in December 2007.
The so-called Waki Commission provided “clear recommendations” on how to address failures by the National Intelligence Service to act on information it had and established that the service was “more focused on politics than security,” Wainaina said. It also characterized the police force as highly politicized, ethnicized and corrupt, he said.
In 2010, Kenya adopted a new constitution that sets out autonomy for the police and provides oversight and accountability mechanisms.
Legislation drafted in that year and in 2011 to overhaul the police, intelligence and defense forces has yet to be implemented, according to Wainaina. Changes have failed to take place even after Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to overhaul security in the wake of the Westgate attack in 2013, he said.
“Every commission of inquiry on a range of incidents and issues recommends major reforms to the security services to deal with the human-rights violations, the corruption and the total impunity in which they operate,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The problem is these good recommendations sit on the shelf. The reforms don’t happen.”
Poor perceptions of the government’s ability to get to grips with the security challenge have been compounded by comments by government officials. The day before the Garissa attack, Kenyatta criticized travel-advisory updates by the U.K. and Australia warning of an increased threat in Kenya as “not genuine” and a “smear campaign.”
Those statements echoed remarks by Munyori Buku, a director of communications in the presidency, who in May 2014 criticized the decision by foreign travel agencies to evacuate tourists from the country’s coastal region as “economic sabotage.” A month later, at least 60 people were killed in an al-Shabaab attack on the coastal town of Mpeketoni.
Manoah Esipisu, a spokesman for Kenyatta, defended the government’s record on security and noted it had recently changed the leadership of the country’s security agencies. In December, the president appointed Joseph Nkaissery as the new interior minister and replaced the head of the police.
“We have invested heavily in new gear and equipment,” Esipisu said. “We are also recruiting 10,000 security officers a year for the next five years. We are doing a lot in terms of leadership and capacity.”
The government has also announced plans to build a wall along parts of the 682-kilometer (424-mile) border with Somalia. The structure would cost as much as 1.54 trillion shillings ($17 billion) if it was built along the entire length of the frontier, the Nairobi-based Star newspaper reported on March 25.
The security forces have been criticized in the domestic media for their slow response to the Garissa attack. Special forces in the so-called General Service Unit, who are based in Nairobi, were only deployed after seven hours and entered the university hostel seized by the gunmen after 11 hours, the Sunday Nation reported on April 5.
Police Inspector General Joseph Boinett said the same day that such claims were untrue.
“When the incident occurred a combined force of security agencies swung into action immediately,” he said in a statement. “Such rescue operations are not easy to mount and as the same are undertaken, officers have to be mindful of how they carry out the operation for effectiveness and safety for all.”
There are no special forces based in Garissa, a legacy of the colonial system under which the police focused on protecting the authorities in Nairobi, the British seat of control, Wainaina said.
“The colonial structure of security forces in Kenya was generated for purposes of social control and to protect the property of the moneyed,” he said. “It’s never been about people-centered security.”
Compounding the current inadequacies of the security infrastructure is the pervasive corruption in security forces, said Stig Jarle Hansen, associate professor at the University of Life Sciences in Oslo and author of ‘Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group.’
Kenya’s police force is among the most corrupt institutions in East Africa, with officers accounting for almost half of all bribes paid in the country last year, according to Transparency International, the Berlin-based anti-graft watchdog.
“Corruption is a terror problem,” Hansen said. “Al-Shabaab or other criminals can both buy passage, visas and other useful items from the police and other governmental services, making the border to Somalia highly porous, and terrorists able to avoid the police.”