Beyond Westgate: Security and Accountability in Kenya

by Web Administrator · March 12th, 2014.

By Dr. Awino Okech*

The Westgate mall terror attack that began on Saturday, September 21, 2013, and ended three days later has generated multiple debates about security in Kenya. Three sets of debates are worth noting here. The first set of debates, are triggered by the efforts of the incumbent government to re-assert control over Kenya's security and therefore project a strong state. These debates are generated from political assertions about Kenya's military strength in the sub-region and renewed performances of international security alliances.

I call them performances because of the foreign policy tensions raised between Kenya and the United States of America (USA) and the United Kingdom (UK) in particular ahead of the March 2013 general elections over their limited engagement with governments headed by International Criminal Court (ICC) indictees. It is obvious that the UK and USA would of necessity continue with security and more specifically defence related engagement with Kenya irrespective of who was elected, however in the public eye a different message is consumed – one of acceptance of “Kenyans electoral choice”. The Westgate attack has been used to re-adjust regional relationships by simultaneously deploying pan Africanism and pleading international peace and security (as opposed to national reconciliation) as the impetus for a renewed call to defer the ICC cases against the President and his Deputy President. Concomitantly, the role of Kenya's Defence Forces in Somalia has come under sharp focus. The African Union driven ICC deferral campaign has re-centred conversations on accountability, impunity and the democratisation process in Kenya. Does security and in this case the war on terror serve purpose of entrenching non-accountability under the guise of democracy?

The second set of debates, are those animated by reflections about an appropriate counterterrorist response to Al Shabaab, who claimed responsibility for the Westgate attack. Counter-terrorism has provided an opportunity for international actors especially USA to assert the value of the contested United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) to the war on terror in the sub region. Increasing militarisation in Africa and the militarisation of development are major critiques that were levelled against AFRICOM, which remain pertinent today.


The third and final set of debates, which form the focus of this opinion piece are those that scrutinise the state of our security apparatus in Kenya and the impact of knee jerk reactions by government officials. While evidence of a strong state is expected perhaps even needed in a period of crisis, decisions around security in Kenya are increasingly unsettling for their potential to muzzle public dissent and silence demands for accountability from the various arms of the security sector for their pre-emptive and actual efforts during the Westgate attack. Labelling voices of dissent as unpatriotic reverses the nascent efforts to democratise the security sector and security discourses in the country. In fact, an emphasis on the war of terror in isolation, takes focus away from the internal drivers of insecurity not only for the role they play in creating a fertile ground for radicalisation but also for broader socio-economic and political inequalities that it lays bare. Discussions on holistic security sector reform have therefore re-surfaced in the public domain and I would like to examine their evolution.

Security Sector Reform: Real or Cosmetic?

Conversations on security sector reform in Kenya began in earnest after the 2007–2008 post-election crisis. The reform debate focused on the Kenyan Police Force, since the force was implicated in extrajudicial killings. The National Task Force on Police Reforms was established in May 2009 and mandated to make proposals for reorganizing the police. Some of the major changes that resulted from the task force's work include the National Police Service Act, passed in August 2011, which merged what had previously been two separate police units and established the position of inspector general of police, with authority over one force. The act also placed limits on the force that police are allowed to exercise, stipulating that an officer may use “force and firearms, if and to such extent only as is necessary.” A civilian board was established to oversee the recruitment and appointment of police officers, to review standards and qualifications, and to receive complaints from the public and refer them to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) and other government entities. Since March 2013, the inspector general of police has repeatedly requested an increase in his powers, arguing that his management role is constrained by the current provisions, which give the National Police Service Commission (an independent government commission) responsibility over hiring and firing as well as disciplinary action. The call for police to be able to exercise increased force has now been enforced in the wake of the Westgate attack under the guise of ascertaining security and fighting terror. In fact, increased are the demands by the police force to arm civilians (police reservists) and private security service providers.

In addition to the roll back in the police reform process noted above, the Westgate attack exposed problems in the broader oversight and democratization of Kenya's security sector. Oversight responsibility for Kenya's security sector lies with the joint parliamentary committee on defence and national security. However, processes within Parliament reveal how limited the oversight committees are in effectively handling their responsibilities. In October 2011, an intelligence bill made its way through parliament without much debate. A citizen-led watchdog platform pointed out the process flaws and operational loopholes involved in the passage of the law. Unlike other bills, the National Intelligence Service Bill 2011 did not go through a process of Cabinet approval. The bill originated from the National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS) and went straight to the Constitution Implementation Commission (CIC) by passing Cabinet scrutiny. The Assistant Internal Security Minister Orwa Ojode at the time stated that his Ministry had not seen the bill and could not interfere in matters of defence and security.

The limitation of parliamentary oversight was further illustrated during a public vetting process for the cabinet secretary for defence, Raychelle Omamo in 2013. When the Cabinet Secretary was questioned about her role in increasing transparency around defence contracting, she argued that this was an area that would remain outside parliamentary scrutiny because of its sensitive nature. Security analysts have noted examples of wide-scale international corruption within defence contracting; such as the 1999 arms deal scandal in South Africa. The consequences of such corruption are clear. Limited oversight of defence contracting can lead to inappropriate equipment purchases and increase budgetary and operational inefficiency. The mantra “on a need to know basis” continues to serve as a veil for massive loopholes in the democratic governance of Kenya's defence forces.

Further flaws within the oversight framework have become more apparent after the Westgate siege. The joint parliamentary committees on national security and defence publicly pledged to investigate and offer clear recommendations on security sector institutions. The efficacy of the joint parliamentary committee has come under scrutiny due to their co-option into covering up for suspected criminal acts by the security forces during the siege and diminishing the role that the lack of a clear command structure may have played in the protracted four day siege.

What Kenyans must consider

First, beyond the current reforms debate, Kenya needs a process for collectively envisioning a national security policy that would make security forces responsive to citizens and foster an environment of trust and, ultimately, safety. The constitution provides for broad-based citizen consultation; however, the predetermined nature of who is consulted, why, and how has limited robust conversations in the country on security sector reform and civil-military relations.

Second, security reforms in Kenya have focused on the police, but it is clear that other sectors need to be held accountable for their operational capabilities, state of preparedness, and adherence to the rule of law. With regard to the on-going police reforms, the leadership needed to implement legislated changes has so far been lacking, and the institutional culture within the police remains resistant and unresponsive to a larger democratization effort.

Finally, Kenya's parliamentary oversight committees face three interconnected challenges. The first is limited knowledge of the security sector they are required to supervise. As a result, only a small cabal of people and organizations understand the true state of affairs in Kenya's security sector. Second, the lines of accountability limit the demands the committees can make on security institutions and finally the politicization of oversight has a big role to play in effective execution of their tasks. Security literacy, especially for parliamentary staff who form part of the institutional memory of Parliament, remains urgent. The government must also think through a broader and inclusive oversight mechanism for the security sector as a whole that goes beyond the parliamentary committees. A security sector that is responsive to the nation and citizens it serves and protects must centre their voices.

*Dr. Awino Okech is a research associate with the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town. She is also a member of the African Security Sector Network and serves on the advisory board of the African Peacebuilding Network.

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