On December 19th, President Kenyatta signed into law the Security Laws (Amendment) Act that grants the Kenyan government and its security services increased powers to fight terrorism. This should come as no surprise due to recent militant attacks along the border with Somali and in Mombasa, and the government’s apparent fecklessness to stop them. The new law, which many say tramples on civil liberties, is also an example of African leaders focusing on their personal security and remaining in power over democracy and building legitimate governments and functional institutions to support and protect their citizens.
Mr. Kenyatta said the law is meant to “protect the lives and property of all Kenyans and disrupt any threats to our national security.” However, opponents of the law have used
words like draconian, Balkanization, unconstitutional and Police State to describe the ostensibly anti-terrorism legislation. The law has met with strong reactions from the main opposition party Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), the media, and civil society groups who argue that it infringes on basic human rights. Provisions within the law grant Kenya’s security and intelligence agencies the right to detain terror suspects for up to 30 days. The new law also bans: publishing or broadcasting of insulting, threatening, or inciting material; images of dead or injured people likely to cause fear; and information that undermines security operations. In addition, it requires journalists to obtain police permission before investigating or publishing stories on domestic terrorism.
Kenya is facing numerous pressing challenges such as deep ethnic divisions, economic stagnation, endemic corruption, and a rapidly growing security threat posed by homegrown militants and Islamist fighters. Recently, al-Shabab killed 64 people in two attacks in the north-eastern region of Mandera, Mombasa’s moderate Imams and citizens are under siege, and everyone remembers last year’s multi-day attack on the upscale Westgate shopping center in Nairobi. There is a general sense of vulnerability throughout many parts of the country, especially in the east and northeast. This can be ripe ground for politicians to leverage and enact sweeping, and ultimately harmful, laws that benefit themselves, their supporters, and their ethnic group.
Kenya, one of Africa’s most develop countries, is heading toward a precipice, but it is not solely due to terrorism and the rise of al-Shabab’s activities. One of Kenya’s long-standing problems is the ethnic divide in the country, which flared into public view during the violence immediately following the 2007 election. However, it appears that all of Kenya’s security concerns have somehow been rolled up into one giant crisis focused exclusively on terrorism, and thus the need for unprecedented powers found in the new security law. While the new security law may have many well-intentioned goals and provisions, I am concerned that the powers it is allocating to the Kenyan security services will gradually lead toward abuse of it along ethnic lines. If this occurs, the backlash along ethnic lines will dwarf the current violence from al-Shabab and their sympathizers.
I am in no way diminishing the risks to Kenya from Islamic radicals, but the currently prescribed solutions in the security law need to be watched closely so they are not abused by the current leadership. If properly implemented, the powers in the security bill may allow Kenyan security forces to start to get a handle on the increasing violence, but the quality and respect of the Kenyan police, national security forces, and local security forces is highly questionable. A better approach would be to focus on building a more professional and ethnically diverse police force that is respected and trusted by the public. The public concern regarding the security law is, in large part, due to the public’s lack of trust in the people paid and elected to protect them.