Mutuma Ruteere contends that the Westgate Mall siege in Kenya in September 2013 emphasizes the urgency for comprehensive security sector reforms.
This article was first published by the Daily Nation on September 27, 2013
Last weekend’s attack on the Westgate Mall is a catastrophic reminder that the threat of terrorism still prowls the country. In the last several months, there has been a drop in violent attacks in northern Kenya, possibly lulling us into a false sense of security.
Westgate is a reminder that Kenya remains a soft target for international terrorists. As a country that has waged war against al-Shabaab in Somalia, we may forget that we are top on the list of the terror group�s target.
Kenya has done little to address the threat, even in the face of the evidence that al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda would retaliate against the military onslaught into Somalia.
Analysts, political leaders and the public have raised critical questions on the preparedness and effectiveness of our security agencies in preventing and dealing with such attacks.
There is no question that the mall attack represents a failure of intelligence or failure to act on intelligence both in Kenya and globally. Forensic audit of those failures will certainly be done in various world capitals. Whether Kenya will take a serious evaluation of these blunders and take measures to prevent a repeat is what is critical.
Obviously, it is too early and the pain too fresh for any of us to rush to judgment on what went wrong. From the outset, the selfless dedication and commitment to save lives by security officers was exemplary.
Officers who rushed into the mall and endured the horror are some of the least paid and least appreciated public servants. Their heroism and humanity should not be glossed over even as the inevitable and necessary questions are raised over how this kind of attack could have been executed in the most watched malls in the country.
Parliament has pledged to open an inquiry, and hopefully, that will provide the much-needed insight into security lapses. However, as we await that inquiry, it is important to caution that temptation to rush to judgment against any single institution, whether the National Intelligence Service or the Kenya Police Service, should be avoided.
The study of disasters has shown that no single mistake is usually responsible for catastrophic flops. It is often the cumulative consequences of many institutional weaknesses and failures that often cascade into large scale death and destruction.
It will be remembered that the 2009 Ransley Report on police reforms underscored the need to invest in intelligence-led policing, better intelligence sharing between agencies and improvements to make intelligence into clear and useful basis to stop or prevent crime.
Beyond this, a more forward-looking assessment of the country’s preparedness in addressing security threats is necessary. In particular, there is need to pay close attention and breathe new life into the unfinished business of reforms. There is a view gaining currency that police reforms may be losing steam with the leadership lost in bureaucratic sideshows. Since the death of (Cabinet Minister) George Saitoti, government reforms do not seem to have any effective salesperson.
Wrongly, there is sometimes a perception that police reforms is merely about accountability and punishing rogue officers. In reality, the bulk of the reforms proposed by the Ransley Report are about improving effectiveness of the police to fulfil their mandate professionally.
The Criminal Investigations Department remains woefully underfunded and the re-skilling of officers to prepare them for intelligence-led police has not yet been undertaken. In the absence of an investment into creation of a 21st century police service, temptation to resort to crude force appears to be creeping back.
In addition, we need to revisit the country’s counter-terrorism strategy. There have been some suggestions that a community policing approach will correct some of the weaknesses and plug some gaps in intelligence gathering on terror threats. Community policing is now secured in the legislation as the preferred approach.
However, community policing remains something everybody likes, but no one knows how it looks like. Arming neighbourhood watches is not community policing as some suggest. Nor is recruitment of crime spotters by police. There is need to put flesh onto the bones of the legislation and policy, spelling out what community policing is.
It is also time to open the debate on Parliamentary oversight in security. So far, security agencies have largely operated in secrecy, choosing to designate virtually everything as secret and classified.
In a democracy like ours, security cannot be entirely left in the hands of experts within the police. A mechanism needs to be put in place to ensure that the respective parliamentary committee has the security clearance to see some of the intelligence gathered by police and the NIS. This calls for a system of classification of intelligence with appropriate penalties to deter leaders who may be tempted to play partisan politics with classified information.
Even after many warnings regarding Westgate and indeed other soft targets, it is clear we have not done anything significant beyond the routine checks by guards on entry.
It is obvious to most people accessing such places that unless one is carrying a conspicuous object openly labelled “bomb”, it is impossible for the checks by guards to discover concealed explosives.
The public and parliamentary scrutiny trained on the police and intelligence services overlooks the role of private security guards who are, in fact, in the frontline in securing shopping malls and other public places. The private security industry operates without regulations on training and little is done to ascertain the background of the guards.
Arming private security guards, as some analysts and political leaders have suggested, should not be considered outside a regulatory framework.
Moreover, it is obvious that even gun-toting guards could not have stopped attackers as heavily armed as those who raided the mall. Regrettably, the Private Security Industry Regulation Bill prepared by the defunct Police Reforms Implementation Committee in 2010 has never found its way into Parliament.
The lessons of the Westgate tragedy also point to the critical role landlords play in security as they determine who can and who cannot access their premises. Rightly, security agencies need to investigate the Westgate Mall tenants.
The more important issue, however, is to regulate tenancy and purchase of properties. Currently, there are no requirements for landlords to conduct background checks on prospective tenants. Anyone with money can let property virtually anywhere without tripping any security alerts.
Investment in data collection, scrutiny and verification of every prospective tenant should be seen as central to the counter-terrorism strategy.
This is not the role of the police or intelligence, but rather county governments. Those who assume that county governments do not have security functions because they don’t control police confuse police for security and institutions for outcomes.
It is important to remember that terrorist attacks have been taking place in many parts of northern Kenya. Eastleigh and the Coast province have also suffered attacks most of last year.
For a country that is so vulnerable and with such a high incidence of attacks, it is remarkable that data, research and analysis of this violence remains limited.
Institutions such as the National Crime Research Centre that have the mandate to provide leadership in research and analysis on crime have failed.
Of course, and as we have come to expect, our universities have nothing to say about these contemporary security problems and the less said about their relevance the better.
Unfortunately, without analysis and thinking on safety measures located outside the security agencies, we are unlikely to see any new thinking in dealing with our security problems.
As the great science philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote, ‘paradigm-shifting’ ideas do not come from veterans in any field but from those on the outside or newcomers. To expect security agencies to boldly reform themselves is to fundamentally misunderstand human nature and behaviour. No one will reform themselves into irrelevance.