Friday, October 14, 2016

Did Operation Linda Nchi Secure Kenya?

This Sunday will mark the fifth anniversary of the start of Operation Linda Nchi, Kenya’s surprise invasion of Somalia. By the government’s own admission, the October 2011 deployment of the Kenya Defence Forces across the porous border had been long in the planning. A spate of kidnappings of tourists and aid workers in the preceding months by armed gangs based in Somalia, which the state subsequently blamed on the Al Shabaab terror group and which laid waste to the lucrative tourism industry, provided the pretext to launch the first ever major cross-border military operation in the country’s history.

Five years since that fateful decision, and with the Kenyan forces now ensconced within the African Union Mission in Somalia, there has been little public discussion of the wisdom of the incursion and even less of whether the operation achieved its stated objectives.

The Kenyan government had invoked Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which recognizes member nations’ right to self defence as a justification for its actions. And while no one would dispute that Kenya was indeed threatened -and had been severally attacked- by the gangs and extremists on its border, the lingering question was whether sending troops into Somalia was the best way to guarantee domestic safety.

In the short term at least, the decision to invade appears to have backfired spectacularly. Rather than reducing attacks on the homeland, the invasion appears to have opened the floodgates. In the four years following Operation Linda Nchi, terrorist attacks went up nine fold, compared to the four years preceding it. They increased, not just in number, but in ferocity as well. 3 of the 4 worst attacks in terms of lives lost happened after the Somalia invasion. And consistently, the invasion itself was cited as justification for the atrocities.

The aim of creating a buffer zone ad push the militants away from the border similarly remains unachieved. The Al Shabaab are still able to enter Kenyan territory regularly and with relative ease. Attacks on and kidnappings of citizens and security personnel in isolated outposts continue unabated and with impunity.

Neither has the invasion proven particularly decisive in helping to restore order in war-torn Somalia. The government in Mogadishu is as unpopular, riven and ineffectual as ever, popular elections remain a dream and the feckless Somali National Army, which AMISOM is meant to be training up, is little more than a hodge-podge of disparate clan militias. The security situation continues to be dire with Al Shabaab in control of vast swathes of the Somali countryside from where it is able to plan and launch devastating attacks in Somalia and in Kenya.

Nearly a year after the invasion, the Kenyan contingent, now at least nominally directed by the AMISOM Force Commander in Mogadishu rather than the the Ministry of Defence in Nairobi, rolled into the strategic Al Shabaab stronghold at the sea port of Kismayo, to date its most significant achievement.

But even this did not turn out to be the fatal blow many had predicted. Allegations soon surfaced of the KDF engaging in the illegal export of charcoal through the port, a trade that directly benefitted the terror group they were supposed to be fighting. A report by the UN Monitoring Group indicated that Al Shabaab was actually making more money from charcoal after the KDF took over the port.

If anything, the legacy of the operation has been felt much more within Kenya than across the border.  Under the rubric of a country at war, oppressive laws have been enacted which seemed to target internal dissent rather than external aggression. As the Al Shabaab have mercilessly exploited Kenya’s vulnerabilities and exposed security and intelligence failures, “national security” has become a catch-all phrase for the government to avoid accountability. Within the media and the largely silenced civil society, patriotic jingoism has been preferred to sustained scrutiny of the government’s record.

By providing justification for continued attacks on Kenya as well as a cover for government to hide its malfeasance and incompetence, Operation Linda Nchi did little to live up to its billing. On that score, it must be considered a failure.

Friday, October 07, 2016

It's All Fine On Kenyan Roads And Why That's A Bad Thing

This week, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, James Macharia, unveiled the latest government weapon in the war to, in the hackneyed words beloved by our media, “bring sanity to our roads” -instant fines. He gazetted a new list of list of “minor traffic violations” and the corresponding penalties to be paid on the spot without subjecting the motorist to the horror that are Kenyan courts.

For many motorists, any chance to avoid spending interminable hours at the traffic courts for a 30-second ritual where one gets to either admit guilt and be fined an outrageous amount, or deny charge and still get to pay a similar amount as bail, is welcome. In fact, if one was to deliberately design a system to incentivize corruption, it would be hard to beat the combination of our lumbering court system coupled with the humongous penalties prescribed by the traffic act.

But it would be a mistake to take it for granted that the government’s attempt to bypass it is designed to or will actually either ameliorate the dangers on our roads or eliminate the opportunities for graft. History teaches us otherwise. This is in fact not the first time government is using a public uproar over the road carnage as a pretext to institute a new system of fines.

Four years ago, following yet another series of nasty accidents, Parliament passed amendments to the Traffic Act saw a tenfold increase in fines (the very fines the latest regulations are meant to bypass). The bill was signed into law by then President Mwai Kibaki in November and within four months, police were hailing it as a “success”.

Nearly a quarter of a million arrests had been effected and the government had collected half a billion shillings in fines. The number of deaths on the road, however, had barely budged. Kenyans continued dying at a rate of 300 per month even as the state inflated its coffers -such was the definition of success. Perhaps it was the fact that there were expensive election campaigns to be funded rather than the deaths on the roads that was at the forefront of our politicians’ minds when they passed the 2012 amendments. And as another election looms, we cannot discount the possibility that instant fines are just another money grab.

In a statement laying out the case for instant fines, the Director-General of the National Transport and Safety Authority, Francis Meja, noted that one of the challenges the system would inevitably face was in collection of the fines promising the NTSA would push for electronic and mobile payment platforms.

His concerns are borne out by the proceedings of the police vetting exercise conducted by the National Police Service Commissions. The comical attempts by traffic police officers to explain away their astounding wealth and numerous MPESA transactions have been the source of much public merriment and outrage. However, it is unclear how the instant fines will do much more than cap the bribes which will inevitably be demanded – with the unintended consequence of making it cheaper for rougue operators to stay in business.  In 2012, the matatu industry opposed the draconian fines saying they would only result in higher bribes. It is not difficult to see why they are now supporting the new system.

The fate that befell the cashless transit payment system is illustrative. Launched with much fanfare and backed by the best companies in Kenya, it came a cropper, as ably described by Ken Griffith in a 2014 piece, at the junction of crews who must pay matatu owners a fixed amount per day before they get paid and cops under pressure from superiors to hit their MPESA targets. Thus the crews, who are incentivized to do as many laps as possible, need to have ready cash to bribe cops and so would sabotage the cashless system. A similar dynamic was at work when cops insist on manning city roundabouts already governed by traffic lights.

Because instant fines do little to address the structural and systemic roots of the bad behavior on the roads, we can safely predict that they will do little to ease the carnage but will make money for the government. After all, there’s an election coming, remember?

Friday, September 30, 2016

Ezekiel Mutua And Kenya's Language Of Silence

Ezekiel Mutua is at it again. The head of the Kenya Film Classification Board has developed a fondness for showing off the perks that come with his job. In April, he took to social media to boast about using an airport’s VIP lounge and flying business class.

This week, he posted pictures of his diplomatic passport (which, to the schadenfreudic glee of many tweeps, an embarrassed government has since ordered to him to surrender) on his Facebook account to brag that he had received a visa to visit the United States despite his bigoted and illegal crusade against “content promoting LGBT and Atheists culture in Kenya”. "I didn't even have to go to the Embassy for biometrics or pay the visa application fee. It was delivered to my office free of charge," he averred.

Mutua’s immaturity predictably drew a large number of mocking responses which only spurred him on to new lows, petulantly sending insulting direct message calling one “an idiot” and a “bloody fool”. But however disgraceful we might think his antics to be, we should be careful not to be distracted by them. 

It would be a deadly mistake to focus on the theatrics and ignore the real danger. For that lies, not in his braggadocio, but in the silence that has greeted his distorting the law and the constitution in an attempt to impose his views and beliefs on the rest of Kenya. 

Mutua has used the KFCB, which was set up to regulate “the making and exhibition of cinematograph films, for the licensing of stage plays, theatres and cinemas” in ways not contemplated in legislation. He has attempted to police parties, the internet, TV ads and even claimed the power to regulate the content of political shows. Though there is no law criminalizing homosexuality, he purports to declare it illegal and to ban internet videos that celebrate love between same sex couples. He has claimed that atheism is similarly unconstitutional despite the clear constitutional prohibition on establishing a state religion.

Yet few of these outrages have elicited much discussion outside social media. Much of Kenyan media seems to be blissfully unaware or even worse, dismissive, of the threat he poses especially as we head into the election season. If nothing else, one would expect that the idea of a government official prescribing the limits of political speech would have both journalists and opposition politicians up in arms. But it has elicited little more than whimpers and an empty threat to sue from media owners, which Mutua has laughed off.

This silence mirrors a wider quiet, a tendency to focus less on the substantial and more on the superficial. Last week, as the country marked the third anniversary of the horrific attack on the Westgate mall, I noted that official accounts of terror incidents were mostly designed to cover up the incompetence and culpability of senior officials and officers rather than reveal the truth. But the really alarming fact is that the government’s obviously flawed tales do not elicit much commentary or questioning from either the press, civil society or the opposition.

But just as the silence over the mistakes and criminality at Westgate allowed them to be repeated at Mpeketoni, Garissa, Mandera and El Adde, so the silence over Mutua's overreaching only serves to embolden him and spur him on to further violations. Like the proverbial frog slowly boiled alive, we are all imperiled by the failure to raise the alarm over his menacing of citizens and the government attempt to control the lives and opinions of citizens. 

Kenyan novelist, Yvonne Owuor, has described silence as one of our languages, which "plays out in the hasty attempt of the powerful to shut down independent voices that cannot be controlled." From the harassment of bloggers, to the firing of free-minded journalists, editors and cartoonists, this "shutting down" has been particularly evident in Kenya media. But it is not only happening there. Today Mutua is illegally transforming the KFCB into a tool to bludgeon vulnerable minorities -and political dissidents- into silence.

It is a truism worth repeating that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Whether it is about security and terrorism or the diminution of citizens’ rights to free speech and conscience, this silence leaves us all vulnerable. Freedom from predation by terrorists or even by a narcissistic and insecure public official, will only come when we loudly and consistently demand it.