Unbowed, we should make Kenya secure

We are united in mourning victims of the terror attack at the Dusit complex in Nairobi on Tuesday. May friends and families of the victims find strength during this difficult time. As a country, we will not be bowed by the violence of those who seek to further their political goals through murder of civilians. May this tragedy strengthen our unity and resolve to forge a peaceful political community based on the fundamental values of individual freedom and equality of our citizens – regardless of religion, gender, economic status, or ethnicity.

There is not much we can do about the tragedy that visited us on Tuesday afternoon. But there is a lot we can do about how we react to the tragedy. Understandably, there is anger and desire to exact revenge on those who harmed us. This is for both human and more strategic reasons. Striking Al Shabaab may be cathartic. It may also serve to give us a collective sense that we are not completely helpless in the face of their ideology of violence. On the strategic front, we need to demonstrate to Al Shabaab there is a price to be paid for killing Kenyans. Being a group committed to violence as a political tool, it is important that they understand and internalise the full might of Kenyan military force (together with that of our allies).

The immediate military reactions should also be accompanied by long-term considerations of how to secure Kenyans better. 

In this regard, we should first acknowledge the achievements of our security forces. Pointing out that “it could be much worse” is no consolation to those maimed or lost loved ones to terror attacks – from Nairobi, to Mombasa, to Garissa. But it is also true that terror attacks continue to be rare events in Kenya. And that is because of the behind the scenes efforts by our security forces to keep us secure. For every attack carried out there are many more nipped in the bud.

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For that we are thankful. Now, I will be the first to admit that our security forces have not always been at their best while doing this – for instance, too many young men in the Coast region have been disappeared or illegally jailed in our name. But that is a matter of policy and political choices made by their superiors. And as a society we must continue to makepolitical demands on our leaders to ensure that their efforts to keep us safe do not violate the fundamental values enshrined in the Constitution.

Having acknowledged what we are doing right, we shouldthen consider potential ways of making Kenya more secure. Not being a security expert, my recommendation here would be to ensure that each and every policy we adopt reflects what is good for the country. First, we should not be blind water-carriers in some amorphously-described “Global War on Terror.” It is true that given our military capabilities, wehave strategic reasons to make friends with more powerful countries in the world. But we should enter into such arrangements guided by our interests. Our first and only priority should be to secure Kenya.

Second, we should continue to invest in the strengthening of the administrative and surveillance capacities of the Kenyan state; as well as making it more accountable. Reasonable Kenyans will rightfully be skeptical of the suggestion to makeever more domains of our lives legible to the state. But the world has lots of examples of states with highly effective security systems but which are also constrained by the political demands of a free society. We should not give up on our collective ability to both strengthen and constrain the state. 

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While we can never fully eliminate the threat of terror attacks, we can certainly work to ensure that they continue to be rare events.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University

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