Sunday, September 29, 2013

Secrecy, Speculation and Westgate.

This is Kenya's problem, at least one of them: speculation in the absence of even the semblance of credible, verifiable facts. It is going a minute a riot with the Westgate Attack, and its aftermath. But this would not be so without the pernicious and corrupting secrecy at the heart of the Government of Kenya. In the wake of Kenya's colonial history, Jomo Kenyatta and his successors maintained the colonial rules of secrecy and even bolstered them to ridiculous levels. It is a crime to reveal almost anything that goes on in the shadowy chambers f the government and it matters not that you work for the main public service, the parliamentary service or the judicial service. If you know something, you keep it to yourself until you are authorised to tell someone about it, usually some other public servant.

This secrecy breeds unhealthy speculation. Among the speculative conclusions doing the rounds over the Westgate attack are that it was successful because Kenya had prior "intelligence" on the attack and did nothing; Kenya is corrupt and that this contributed massively to the success of the attack; that the National Police Service does not have a well-trained anti-terror response unit that would have taken on, and defeated, the attackers at the Westgate; that the members of the National Security Council are incompetent and that some of them should never have been appointed to their positions at all; and so on ad infinitum. Almost no one wants to link the level of secrecy in the government to the poor public participation in national security, yet without the active and dedicated participation of even a portion of the adult population would see wonders being done in national security.

Secrecy is a vital tool of public policy. It is essential to managing the national security. But it is effective when it is properly calibrated to achieve a balance that serves both the national interest and engages the people to participate in issues of national importance. Excessive secrecy breeds resentment. It creates avenues for rent-seeking. It fosters corruption. It facilitates costly errors. In Kenya, we have taken secrecy to way beyond what is necessary for national good. It is time we reviewed the manner in which information is collected, analysed and disseminated. In other words, rather than shining a light into every nook and cranny of the State, we should reconsider the number of nooks and crannies we require.

Take the secrecy behind the agreement between the Chief Registrar and the Judicial Service Commission. These two are public institutions, created by the Constitution, and charged with public functions that call for very high levels of probity and integrity. But the unseemly tango between the two has been hidden behind a veil of weaselly lawyer-words with the aim of protecting the two institutions, but not promoting the rule of law in Kenya, or fostering the confidence of the people in the institution of the Judiciary. It could only end in tears.

The same is so when it comes to national security and public safety. When the Ransley Commission went round, they could never confirm how many policemen Kenya actually has, or what their qualifications are. I doubt whether the Cabinet Secretary knows how many men and women work for the National Intelligence Service. In this pit of secrecy, Kenyans imagine all manner of perfidy. It is why when a rumour is spread that the President lied about the number of dead, it is believed, especially by men willing to believe anything evil about him without question. It is why when the Cabinet Secretary refuses to divulge what the Government of Kenya knew, when it knew it and what it did, he does nothing to reassure the families of the victims that the evildoers will be caught and, in the words of the President, punished painfully.

Kenyans demonstrated that they will come together when they are faced by evil. But for the Government to demand more of its subjects, it must make them want to participate. This cannot be achieved by rhetoric or sloganeering. It can be achieved by transparency and accountability. Our instinctive desire to protect Big Men from embarrassment must end. A Commission of Inquiry must be appointed. Its terms of reference must be to review the intelligence that was available at the time; no hiding of information by the National Intelligence Service or the National Police Service is permitted. It must inquire into the deployment of experienced police. (Is it true that many elite members of the National Police Service are acting as bodyguards instead of going after al Shabaab types?) It must review the manner in which information is classified and whether it is a valuable tool in preventing the next Westgate or it is a habit that no longer makes sense. And it is time we debated whether the goal is national security first or public safety.

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