Drive up to the guards, open your car boot, guards look at your spare wheel (or if they are especially dedicated they may give it a quick prod), guards close your boot, you proceed to the parking lot. Rinse and repeat.
Every day thousands of motorists in Nairobi go through these “security checks” at shopping malls, at office blocks, at places of worship, at hotels, at government buildings etc.
These security checks seem to serve no real purpose. The message seems to be if you want to carry a car bomb do not put in the boot. Or if you are going to put it in a boot at least put it in a suitcase first.
Security experts advise that by the time a bomb is at the gate of a shopping mall then the nation’s security systems have failed. As was seen during the Westgate terrorist attacks guards with metal detectors are not a deterrent to terrorists with machine guns.
So if the checks at the gates of parking lots are not about security why then are we subjected to them numerous times every day? What purpose do they serve?
These checks are not about security, they are about activity. Endless opening of boots of cars and staring at the spare wheel serve at least two key purposes.
- Firstly, the activity makes many people feel safe. People are apparently reassured when they witness this exercise in keeping up appearances. It is comforting that someone is doing something!
- Secondly this endless activity stops the guards from getting bored and dozing off; it keeps them alert throughout their shift. Security companies lose their contracts if guards are caught sleeping so they have to find ways to keep them awake and what better way than giving them something constant and routine to do?
The problem with this approach is that activity is not security. You may get away with this at the shopping mall, office complex level, after all private security companies are not intelligence gathering outfits. You can not get away with substituting activity for security on a national level. Especially if you are waging a self proclaimed “ war against terror”.
Why then are Kenyan law enforcement agencies engaging in activity at the expense of security in the recently launched Operation Usalama Watch? Following a cowardly attack on a church in Mombasa (the latest in a series of increasingly regular attacks in Kenya) Kenya’s law enforcement agencies launched Operation Usalama Watch which we are told is designed to flush out terrorists.
After watching the operation for the last week we have seen it involves
- Detaining anyone who looks “Somali”
- Detain anyone without identification papers especially if they look “Somali”
- If you look “Somali” and do have identification papers you are detained anyway, even if you happen to be a Senator carrying your national and Senate IDs.
The crackdown targets the Somali ethnic group many of whom are Kenyan citizens. The warped logic behind this goes like this: since Al Shabaab has a large Somali membership, all Somalis should be treated as Al-Shabaab sympathisers until they can prove their “loyalty” to Kenya. The police operation has been conducted largely in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi, which has a large Somali population. In the last few days the operation has moved into Nairobi’s suburb of South C. In case we forget, ethnic profiling goes against Article 27 of the Kenya Constitution which is against discrimination.
What has been interesting is the near universal praise this police action has attracted from across the political, national and cultural spectrum. Traditional supporters of the police see the massive police operation as more evidence that the police are doing what they are paid to do and we should get out of their way and let them do it even if it means a temporary violation of the rights of Kenyans. Activity.
Traditional critics of the police are happy that finally the police are doing something about the constant attacks that have been killing innocent Kenyans. Finally something is being done. Activity.
The problem with both these opinions is that activity is not security. Supporting the current police action makes no sense, even from a strictly law enforcement perspective in which it is ok for the rights of Kenyans to be violated by the very body responsible for maintaining the law.
To support the current crack down you have to believe the myth that the Kenya’s law enforcement agencies are not very good at gathering intelligence about security threats within Kenya. Supporters of the current crack down argue that it is a necessary step (evil?) as it is a temporary substitute to intelligence gathering. If Kenya’s law enforcement agencies were good at gathering intelligence they would not have to go door to door asking people to produce their identification documents. They would already know where the high-risk threats are located. The police going to door to door is the least they can do, supporters argue. Finally there is some activity.
Except activity is not security.
The reality is Kenya’s law enforcement agencies are designed primarily for gathering information about Kenyans in Kenya and they have become very proficient at it over the last 50 years. To our political leaders the threat within is always more dangerous to their power than the threat without. It sometimes seems that our law enforcement agencies are more concerned about knowing exactly what everyone is doing all the time and with whom than they are about maintaining law and order. The problem with Kenya’s law enforcement agencies is not that they do not have information. The problem is that information is for sale. The problem with our law enforcement is corruption.
Corruption means for the right price you can buy all the confidential intelligence you want. Corruption means that any “terror lord” or “drug lord” would have paid to be informed about Operation Usalama Watch long before the door-to-door police action started. Corruption means they will not be caught in this dragnet. You can see this in the actions of police officers on the ground in Eastleigh and South C who are collecting significant sums of money to leave people alone. Clearly even they do not believe that any significant criminals will be caught in their net and instead are out to make a shilling.
So what then is the purpose of this police action?
When something so high profile does not make sense one strategy is to watch closely for any major policy announcements that accompany that action. Which fire are our collective geese being marinated for? The major announcement this time was that plans are underway to make Kenyans apply for new digital identity cards. This new “super ID card” will contain biometric information — each person’s unique biological markers — as well as social security and national insurance details. This plan is dubious for various reasons, one of the main ones is that it will not make Kenyans any safer. To introduce a policy so controversial as a fait accompli requires a huge distraction.
Another reason for this police action is perhaps much simpler. As people seem reassured by the activity of shopping mall guards opening and closing car boots, they are also reassured by knowing their law enforcement officers are doing something. So long as that activity is happening on the other side of town far away and so long as that activity targets “them” and not “us”.