Insecurity Is Destroying Kenya’s Economy

But instead of combating the rise in violence, politicians in Nairobi are talking loud and saying nothing.

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Uhuru Kenyatta is very good at rhetoric. He’s not so good at keeping Kenya safe. Now, the president is telling Kenyans that this shortcoming is no shortcoming at all, because Kenya has problems no one can solve. In the meantime, the Kenyan economy is paying the price of his inaction.

Late last month, an attack by the militant group al-Shabab in the northeastern city of Mandera claimed the lives of 28 citizens. At the time the attack occurred, the president was in Abu Dhabi, attending the final race of the Formula 1 season. His comment was hardly inspiring: “No matter how many police officers we deploy, they will not be everywhere to watch over us.”

Shortly thereafter, Deputy President William Ruto announced that more than 100 al-Shabab militants had been killed by Kenya’s military in a cross-border airstrike in Somalia. There was no independent confirmation of the strike, or the fatalities inflicted on al-Shabab, but the message of retribution was clear: “Going forward we are going to make sure that incidents like this are avoided,” he said.

They are words Kenyan taxpayers have heard before. Three weeks before the Mandera massacre, 19 policemen were slain in an ambush by bandits in Kapedo, a small town of 3,000 on Kenya’s remote western frontier. To date, no one has been arrested — much less prosecuted — for this attack.

Both attacks were part of a wider wave of violence that has occurred in East Africa’s biggest economy this year. The failure of the policy and army to keep citizens safe is met with government rhetoric and little follow-up action. If any does come, it is either a militarized response, as with Kenya’s air strikes in Somalia, or completely disproportional to the problem at hand.

Raids by militants in June and July on Kenya’s coastline in Mpeketoni, near the town of Lamu, left more than 100 people dead. None of the attacks actually took place in Lamu. But that did not stop Kenya’s police from imposing a curfew in the region — instead of trying to hunt down and arrest those responsible for the slaughter. Tourism, the town’s main financial lifeline, is now virtually dead. Official data suggests that accommodation and restaurant meals were down a whopping 28 percent in the first half of 2014, the biggest drop in five years. According to Benjamin Muchiri, the manager of national accounts at Kenya’s National Statistics Bureau, the drop came primarily from tourism.

The problem is garnering attention beyond Kenya’s borders. Recently, the International Monetary Fund warned that insecurity in Kenya is among the challenges that, “if not addressed decisively, could turn into long-term drags to sustained growth.” If the tourism numbers are anything to go by, the anchors have already dropped, and Kenya is slowing down.

Kenyatta has made plenty of excuses. In a speech on Oct. 31, the president said there was often “a lack of consensus on how to tackle clear and present dangers to the state and the country.” But there is agreement between the government and the opposition that Kenya’s security apparatus is being politicized and not functioning as it should.

The billion-dollar question is why, if both critics of the state’s internal security and those in charge of it agree on the problem, nothing is being done about it. “I think we have an extraordinarily eloquent president,” said Senator Hassan Omar of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement, “but it ends at rhetoric. We saw that at Westgate. We’ve never gotten to the heart of it.”

Not that there haven’t been promises. Police recruitment, the government’s communication team stated on Nov. 27, “has been expanded and will be sustained to drive the police-citizen ratio to acceptable standards.” Such promises have been left unfulfilled in the past. As candidate, Kenyatta pledged to expand Kenya’s police by 15,000 personnel per year. That is yet to happen, and if historical data on the size of Kenya’s police force offers any sense of the limitations, it is highly unlikely; since 2009, the size of Kenya’s police force has never risen past 42,600.

In any case, when recruitment happens, it’s a mess. A July review of a police recruitment exercise by the Independent Police Oversight Authority pointed out there was no standardization of recruitment procedures, as well as reported incidents of influence peddling. Taxpayers cannot be faulted for asking where the $876 million Kenya plans to spend on internal security in fiscal year 2014-2015 will actually go.

Police and the judiciary could point to a fall in reported crimes in 2013 and a five-year low in completed cases as evidence that basic levels of security are improving. That, however, could well be an inaccurate conclusion; Kenyans may simply be more reluctant to report crime and pursue criminal cases.

This is hardly surprising given the questions surrounding the quality of police personnel. A 2014 report by the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) indicated that the police were responsible for 67 percent of the gun-related deaths the group studied. More than 350 such deaths occurred between 2009 and 2013, but the quality of data was patchy at best. “There are serious gaps in the documentation of critical forensic findings at autopsy,” IMLU wrote.

Indeed, the lack of results for the billions Kenyan taxpayers spend is a disincentive to trust Kenya’s internal security apparatus altogether. Given the failure to capture the killers of hundreds in Mpeketoni, Mandera, or Kapedo — or of dozens of Muslim clerics in Mombasa — it’s no wonder security is a commodity most here see as attainable only for the wealthy or well connected. As long as that’s the case, Kenya’s economy will continue to suffer.

Andrew Winning – WPA Pool/Getty Images

Ramah Nyang is a broadcast journalist based in Nairobi, currently working for CCTV-Africa.