Kenya’s Security Act: Everyday Life

Image | Wambui Mwangi
Image | Wambui Mwangi

It might be, as some suggest, that the Security Act will change little about everyday Kenyan life. It might be, as some are claiming, that loud shouts of “draconian,” “repressive,” and “regressive” are premature, if not unwarranted. It might be that intensified securitization and enhanced surveillance is inevitable, a sign of “development,” and a pragmatic approach to old and emergent terrors.

Instead of dismissing these ideas—many of which are circulating as common sense—let me attempt to map the terrain through which they circulate.

Securitization

Everyday Kenyan life is heavily securitized. To enter into any public space—a supermarket, a mall, a church, a public gathering, a bookstore—one must undergo a range of security checks. Cars will be inspected, sometimes thoroughly, sometime cursorily; bodies will go through metal detectors; bags will be opened. Depending on where one is going, multiple security procedures will be in place. For instance, you will likely pass through a security check as you enter a mall and then be subjected to further checks depending on the store you patronize. Sometimes, armed guards will patrol.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for Kenyans to remember that it was not always like this. Now, we hesitate to enter places that do not have such security checks. We have learned to expect them, to submit to them, to keep proving our innocence as we are all implicitly criminalized.

Intensified security and surveillance will probably be welcomed by many as a sign of progress. We will probably continue to lose the sense that these are marks of unfreedom.

More Punitive Legislation

Higher fines for traffic offences and more repressive ID laws will probably not mean much for many Kenyans. In part, this is because few of us have read the Traffic Act and the Registration of Persons Act. We do not know what the law says. We do not know what to expect.

Those populations already troubled by existing laws—border populations, marginalized indigenous groups, non-black Africans of Asian descent, the poor, the youth—will continue to bear the brunt of punitive legislation.

Given the government’s plan to issue new biometric IDs, the Registration of Persons Act will take on new force as a way to govern everyday life—there will probably be penalties for those who do not have the new ID, and the government has already indicated that no transactions will be possible without it—no using the bank, MPesa, acquiring legal documents, domestic or foreign travel, and so on.

From the little we know—and we don’t know much—terrorist forces are very well funded. It’s unclear how imposing heavier fines will impede well-funded terrorists.

Mainstream Media

Fears about the mainstream media being gagged—I honestly have no real opinion about this. Given the mainstream media’s largely sycophantic behavior toward this regime, it’s unclear what gagging might mean.

In fact, opinion articles that indict the government will probably increase, and the state will point to them as evidence of its benevolence, as evidence that freedom of speech and expression exist in Kenya.

A few evidence-based articles about police and military criminality will be permitted in the media, but the targets of such stories will be low-hanging fruit: very junior police officers or, in very few cases, a few more expendable senior offices.

Evidence-based articles documenting the scale of atrocities committed by the police and the military—the many disappeared, tortured, and assassinated—will probably not appear in the mainstream press. It’s unlikely that the (much attenuated) Report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission will be allowed to inform structural changes or public policy.

Development Imaginary

The development imaginary will increase its hold on our lives and imaginations. Acts of unhumaning—evictions, dispossessions, massacres—will continue to happen in the name of development.

Development will continue to be a silencing term, and the new missionaries of the development imaginary—the apostles of Africa Rising—will continue to unsee the atrocities that permit their expensive conferences, their delightful holidays, and their global speeches about seeing “what’s positive in Africa”

Public Intellectual Life

Public intellectual life in mainstream spaces will continue to be a farce, where the elite and those aspiring to be elite exchange many documents and plan how to raise more funding to generate more documents.

Radical Culture

Spaces for radical culture will have to be fostered—spaces where the imagination can travel beyond what the state allows. We will need artists, musicians, poets, writers, dancers, photographers, filmmakers, sculptors—people willing to stretch their minds and hearts and talents in ways they have yet to envision.

The radical cultures envisioned will have to stretch beyond the neoliberal hoax of Africa rising and the imperium of NGO objectives.

These radical cultures will have to extend beyond single-issue politics and the pursuit of elite approval. We will have to learn to look beyond those already anointed as radical—almost all men, almost all ethno-patriarchal—and to listen, very hard, to those voices we are afraid to admit exist.

Resilience

Kenyan everyday life is often understood through resilience: Kenyans are “tough,” Kenyans “survive,” Kenyans can “take a lot, and more.”

The repressive state relies on this resilience to increase repression: You can take it. Be proud of how well you can take it.

How to see this resilience as one of the conditions of our undoing? How to see what it licenses? How to distinguish between acts of resilience and everyday violations?

Futures?

Kenya needs to be re-imagined. The nudge-here and nudge-there approach has not worked. It makes more people disposable. It continues to devalue human life.

Kenya needs to be re-imagined and re-built.