By Dr. Washington MacOdingo
This post originally appeared on the Standard Newspaper on May 25, 2015 and the consent of the author has been granted to republish it on this platform.
There can never be freedom without security, and there can never be security without freedom. The tricky part for any government is striking a balance between the two for the enjoyment of both. President Uhuru Kenyatta is famed for uttering the words, “Security Begins With You”. At the time, many people (myself included) frowned at the idea of the State throwing back its core responsibility to We, the People. How could the President ask us to be responsible for our own security yet we pay taxes so that the State can protect us? Kenyans on social media went wild with rage. The President had lost it, we said. Then the attacks on Garissa University College happened. From reports, these were well-calculated attacks. The terrorists clearly understood their target. They knew there would be prayers at 5.30am. They knew where the bulk of the students were.
They knew where the vantage points were for cover. They had probably been to this compound. It is even likely that some students had noticed strangers, but dismissed it as normal. A similar situation probably happened at Westgate Mall. They could have rented a stall in the mall for months. There were probably local security guards that had befriended them as they studied the mall and stockpiled weapons. It is feasible that had wananchi in these instances been just a little bit more vigilant, the attacks would have been thwarted. None of this happened. As a result, more than 200 people lost their lives in these incidents. Just recently, a bandit attack in Turkana left over 60 people dead. Without knowing the specifics, it is clear that such an attack could not have been planned and executed unnoticed. Someone knew it would happen and kept quiet. When you walk on Tom Mboya Street, you are not going to spend the entire time talking on your iPhone 6 oblivious of your environment. If you did that, you would not have possession of that phone by the time you reach half the distance. Your arm would probably have suffered a fracture in the process. In the same vein, it would be pretty stupid to park your car unattended in Grogan overnight and then wake up to blame the Government when you find the chassis suspended on stones. My point is, we must play our part in the war against insecurity. We must be suspicious of strange people around us. And if one of the terrorists in Garissa (a learned lawyer with a promising future) is anything to go by, the next terrorist maybe that guy or lady you hang out or strike a deal with.
Of course, the State must also take its responsibility to protect Kenyans seriously. It must gather proper intelligence and act on them promptly. It must investigate all reports from wananchi and take prompt action where the reports turn out to be credible. But to do this, the State needs certain tools; and wananchi need to talk to security officers and provide information. This is why the Security Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2014 (now Act) was introduced. Among other things, it provided for the National Intelligence Service officers to be given powers to arrest and detain suspected terrorists. It also proposed to allow the National Security Organs to intercept communication for the purposes of detecting, deterring and disrupting terrorism. It provided for the limitation of information the media can release on ongoing investigations so as not to jeopardise the outcome. It provided for stiff penalties to public officers facilitating the entry of criminals into the country. It provided for the admission of digital evidence, mostly to ensure that surveillance material can be used in trial. It also created an offence for possession of weapons for terrorist purposes, possession of weapons in places of worship or public places, possession of weapons by an institution or place of worship and radicalisation. Unfortunately, some of these provisions were struck down by the High Court. The Bill (now Act) sought to give national security organs the tools to detect, deter and prevent terrorist activities against the People of Kenya. In doing so, it may mean that once in a while the privacy of your conversation may be infringed if you are having a phone call with a suspected terrorist or terrorist financier. It may mean that the next time you are entering a public place, your right to privacy may be infringed by having a search done on your person. It may mean that the security organs, on reasonable grounds, may stop and search your car in traffic if there are credible reports that an attack could occur in heavy traffic. But the inconvenience of a disconnected call, or a few minutes of search, or the occasional traffic stop is nothing compared to the realistic possibility of being blown into pieces by a terrorist. The Constitution may guarantee these rights, but these rights are only enjoyed by those who are alive to read them.
We are at war – and it is not a conventional war. We have an enemy we don’t know by name. We don’t even know what this enemy looks like. We cannot even begin to pretend that we know where the next attack is likely to be in or come from. It is precisely for this reason that we must all give just a little bit of our freedoms so that the national security agencies may have the necessary tools to protect all of us from those amongst us who intend to do us harm. The President is right – absolute freedom means nothing to dead people. And as he has said before, “Usalama unaanza na Wewe”.
The author of this piece, Dr. Washington MacOdingo is consultant based in Nairobi. He has worked for the government, the private sector, NGO’s and CSO’s. He is also a FES alumni – Political Leadership Development Program (Intake II, Class of 2005/6).
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of FES