Nyumba Kumi And Institutional Failure In Kenya

Brenda Wambui
12 November ,2013

After the Westgate attack of September 2013, Kenyans were forced to perform a post-mortem of the situation, and many questions came up. The one thing that was agreed upon was that the number of institutional failures that led up to the attack was jarring.

The terrorists were said to have rented a shop in the mall, and have transferred ammunition there over a period of time. It was said that some terrorists came in through the Kenya-Somalia border disguised as refugees, and that they registered at Daadab before travelling further south. It was said that one of the terrorists may have made off by blending in with escaping hostages. Some of the suspected terrorists were living in Kenya for a while under aliases, operating right under the noses of the police. A leaked document (which may just be propaganda) indicates that the police had been tipped off by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) about the attack, but had refused to act for some reason. Some members of the police were said to have been killed by friendly fire from members of the army – signifying the disorderly manner in which the attack was handled.

We are yet to hear a conclusive explanation of what happened that week – an account of what happened to each of the terrorists and the number of casualties and fatalities, how the terrorists got into our country, who they collaborated with and the conclusive action the state intends to take to secure our country from terrorism. What we have had is knee-jerk reactions. Our MPs debated on building a fence around parliament to keep themselves safe. They also debated on closing Daadab refugee camp. The President also instituted the Nyumba Kumi initiative.

This initiative, borrowed from Tanzania, involves dividing households into groups of ten, and the people within those ten households are to get to know each other and share information with their leader about arising threats. They also share with the leader information on any new people within the households. This means that a foreigner, or potential terrorist, cannot hide among them.

Most Kenyans are on edge about the threats that terrorism poses to our society, therefore they are willing to participate in any initiative that promises to make their lives safer. However, in instituting such an initiative, the government is basically accepting the failure of the police service, whose mandate is to protect and serve Kenyan citizens. It is an admission of defeat, and as opposed to committing to bettering the police service, we are looking for ways to circumvent its failure.

This is extremely trendy in Kenya today. When an institution fails to perform its functions, instead of committing to its rehabilitation and reform, we circumvent its failure and create a new mechanism that is not entrenched in the constitution to perform its function. For example, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) is tasked with ensuring that public officers maintain a high standard of ethics and integrity within the standards defined by the constitution. Its powers are entrenched in the constitution, however, it has not been as successful as Kenyans hoped. In light of this failure, the President launched a website where Kenyans can report corruption directly to him.

This is absurd on many levels. Should Kenyans expect that the President himself will go through each and every complaint of corruption forwarded to him? Does he have the capacity? After he reads it, then what? Who does he second it to? Why not have us report it directly to this person or entity? Why form yet another mechanism to deal with corruption when we have one that is enshrined in our constitution? Why not work on strengthening it and making sure it is able to perform its duties? What happens when the President’s initiative fails? Do we build another website to replace it?

The same applies to the Nyumba Kumi initiative. It is an indictment of the failure of our police service. They have failed to act on intelligence reports. They have failed to curb terrorism. They actively take bribes from the highest bidder and look the other way, with no regard to the lives of the people they have just handed over to death. This is frequently attributed to their job conditions – it is one of the most thankless jobs in the country. Their lives are constantly in danger, they are underpaid and unmotivated, and the culture of corruption has thrived for so many years in the police service, it will be difficult to kill it.

We have adopted Nyumba Kumi to overcome police failure. The system was at its height in Tanzania between the 1960s – 1980s when the country was still under Ujamaa, and the only party was Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). The people were few, and everyone either worked for government or government-owned corporations. Nyumba Kumi worked largely because of this system of government. However, since Tanzania became capitalist, the effectiveness of Nyumba Kumi has waned. The system has more or less been abandoned in Tanzania – with the rise of private sector jobs, rural to urban migration and people constantly moving in and out of houses, it is almost impossible to keep track of one’s neighbours. People are too busy working to keep up with the increasingly hard economic conditions, there is little time for brotherhood and being your neighbour’s keeper. When one considers that the spirit of brotherhood and concern for one’s neighbour is more in Tanzania than in Kenya, one is left to wonder how the system is expected to work to curb crime and terrorism here.

Another issue is that we still have remnants of the provincial administration in place, and the chief and his underlings are in a position to carry out these duties if they are willing to extend themselves. If they were to work in collaboration with the police, they could successfully smoke out criminals and terrorists from residential areas. This system would basically be a duplication of their job – passing on their responsibility to citizens yet again, a silent admission of institutional failure.

The potential for misuse of Nyumba Kumi is high. Since it has its roots in communism, it creates a network ripe for misuse as communist policies and institutions have little regard for human rights and the rights of the individual. There is potential for it to be used to create a “Big Brother” state, where the government wields totalitarian power over its people not for their sake, but for its own. It could serve as a tool for placation of the masses in times of genuine concern over the government’s misdeeds, and it could be used to justify telling on your neighbours for not having government friendly views, under the guise of “being one” and fighting crime.

In North Korea, for example, there is usually a government spy in a group of more than three people, and any criticism of the regime is forbidden. People are constantly reported to authorities by their very own neighbours. Those found guilty of anything the regime terms wrong end up in political prison camps. Encouraging neighbours to spy on one another is a common tactic in Fascist regimes, which whip up the spirit of nationalism whenever they are questioned about their tactics. Indeed, Nyumba Kumi is being justified as a patriotic initiative. This leads to a constant state of fear and silence among citizens because they do not want to face the wrath of the totalitarian state if found to be out of line.

Collection of intelligence on virtually anyone becomes extremely simple, and this information has the potential to be used for good as well as for evil intents. For example, if one wants to target someone for assassination, all one would have to do is access the information filed on the said person by his neighbours, and he would have an accurate representation of the basic on goings in the person’s life, making it easy to know when to strike. The police may use this information to extort people, while doing nothing about the reports. The government and other related parties would virtually have eyes everywhere, and they cannot be trusted not to misuse this power.

Community based policing has also been tried in Kenya several times before, and according to our previous Commissioner of Police, Matthew Iteere, it has failed. This was largely because of lack of faith in the police, and the officers’ negative attitude towards the initiative. Nyumba Kumi is a form of community policing, and when Kenyans find that they have suspicious neighbours and report to their leader, she will ultimately report it to the police, the very same people who have hindered the success of community based policing before.

As bad as this sounds, we must not give up on institutions that are enshrined in our constitution. We need to embark on deliberate efforts to reform them.

Democracies are only as good as their institutions – presidents and their regimes come and go, but institutions remain, and the people who run them largely remain the same. The process of institutional reform is long and hard, but it must be done for this exact reason.

When a new regime takes power, it largely inherits the old regime’s civil servants. When institutions have failed, even when a revolutionary group gets into power, they will likely fall into the same behavioural pattern as the last regime. We saw this during the Mwai Kibaki regime – he came in promising reform and the end of corruption, but at the end of his presidency, this was not so – because of the institutions he inherited and their entrenched corruption.

Institutions are the only way for the people to exert their power and influence in government – because we cannot all be in government, we create institutions to work for us. Because we do not want these institutions to have absolute power, we separate their powers. That is why government is divided into the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Because these institutions need checks and balances, we enshrine their pillars into the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. When these institutions fail, we as a people need to be very concerned, and should devote ourselves to working to ensure that they begin to succeed.

The first thing we need to do is stop creating many institutions whose functions end up duplicating those of already existing institutions. For institutional reform to be feasible, there needs to be integration across institutions, and this becomes difficult when they are too many, or when they are unaware of where their mandate stops and that of a duplicate institution begins. They need to be able to work together to achieve a common goal, and share information and resources with each other that will enable them to do so.

Second, we need to realise that we have enough laws, maybe even more than enough. It is not laws we lack, it is implementation. Our constitution is one of the most progressive in the world, and we have largely failed in implementing to the extent that it should be. We are guilty of constant intent to change, but we rarely ever make the effort to do so. Before we legislate, it is necessary to pay attention to the contextual realities that actually shape our society, and come up with workable solutions, not impressive pieces of paper that are impossible to implement.

Lastly, both the citizenry and the government must play their roles in the implementation of good governance. The government must accept to be transparent and keep the citizens informed of their actions, and the citizens must actively hold the government accountable. Procedures – be they administrative or fiscal, need to be simplified and the number of participants in these procedures reduced to the bare minimum, making it easy to pinpoint individual failure. People who have failed their institutions need to be held personally liable, and not only fired, but prosecuted as well. The fight against corruption must remain spirited, and we must protect the freedom of individual and collective expression for this to be possible. Media gags only serve to impede institutional reform. Our legal system must also be free from duress, and the political system needs to refrain from pressuring them and intervening unnecessarily, as they have taken to doing recently.

We need to practice adaptive governance, where there is an iterative process of experimentation, learning and adaptation. As we proceed with every step, we will learn how our problems can and cannot be solved, and we will build public goodwill for these reforms as well as the capacity to implement them.

A good example of this is Rwanda’s Imhigo Program, where objectives towards achieving the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), Rwanda’s Vision 2020 and other local goals are set in a bottom – up manner. The learnings from each set of experiments in the process are captured and fed into the next wave of experiments, and every few years, there is an assessment of progress, adjustments where necessary and further steps forward. There is a public presentation by district mayors to a senior government official using testimonies and physical evidence of performance, and the lessons learned from different areas are captured and transferred to other parts of the country.

This program is deeply rooted in Rwandese culture, and has led to the adoption of small initiatives like homestead gardens to big ones like construction of schools across the country to provide quality, free education. It has become an important measure of performance for local government, leading to socio-economic development, and it is one of the largest contributors to poverty reduction in Rwanda. We need to create our own home-grown solution to remedy institutional failure, and we need to be willing to support and implement it over the long-term.

We already have enough laws to fight insecurity, corruption and other ills, it is the implementation of these laws that we need to ensure. Otherwise, initiatives like Nyumba Kumi being implemented by our police service in its current state will only serve to bring repression closer to the people – not to protect them.

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