Interrogating The Nyumba Kumi Initiative

Guest Writer
26 November ,2013

by Shitemi Khamadi

Two weeks ago this essay was published on Brainstorm about the Nyumba Kumi initiative. This is a reply.

The ambitious Nyumba Kumi plan in which people should know at least ten of their neighbours underlines how critically the government views security. It brings to the door step of individuals the mandate to ensure their own safety by knowing a few things about their neighbours. Guided by the reality that development is largely in the hands of devolved governments, security remains what could define the success of the national government.

It could mean that the government appreciates that it cannot handle the huge task of security on its own. Certainly, community policing has not worked to the expected results hence a rethink of policy.

Borrowing heavily from Tanzania, this system needs deeper thinking. In Tanzania, it worked perfectly because of the Ujamaa or socialism policy. To them, the African saying “I am because we are, and because we are so I am” is well exemplified. Communities develop a natural interest for one another and this becomes a springboard to other issues like security. For Kenya, so much leads to a pessimistic blank cheque on its possible success.

There are many issues that come to mind with regards to its application in Kenya. One can argue that the taxpayer pays government, so it should provide better security by employing both human and technology. This argument fails to consider the reality that resources are always scarce and everyone has the primary concern of their safety and should collaborate with government to make security both a personal and institutional endeavor. When you decide to conceal or not reveal a security concern to relevant officers, you tacitly accept to be a target of insecurity in one way or another.

There were 75,733 reported cases of insecurity in 2012 as published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in its 2012 report. In that same report 16,388 of ammunition and firearms were recovered and surrendered to police officers.

Police ratio to human population dynamics is also telling. The data available is not specific to Kenya, though. The ratio of police to citizens throughout Africa is roughly half of that in North America and Europe, with rates of 180 per 100,000 compared with 346 and 325 respectively according to UNODC report of 2009. It gets more interesting in Kenya, where this leads to an understaffed and struggling police force are a lack of training, poor equipment and general incompetence.

Corruption is rife in the sector. While the police are poorly paid and live in deplorable conditions, this does not fully explain why they keep taking bribes every now and then. It does not follow that if they are well remunerated, they will desist from taking the bribes. Even the most or highly paid people in government are not immune from corruption. Perhaps this is more of a software issue or concern, not just a hardware one.

When one thinks of the issues that hamper the possibility of successful implementation of Nyumba Kumi, one gets an idea of how well or far it will go.

First, Kenyans are heavily individualistic. The nation is wired solely on the principle of “me first”. Hardly does anyone create an interest in the other beyond one’s house. This is reflected every time you walk around and see people staring as others are being robbed of things, at best. They cannot even scream to assist – they just watch and move ahead. It is also reflected in other areas like jobs and routine processes where injustices go unabated and those in the know take comfort that it isn’t them. Injustice anywhere, is injustice everywhere, so asserted Martin Luther King Jnr.

Second, the villages offer good insights. In many villages, a neighbour knows who the thieves, night runners, witches, sorcerers and robbers are. They share moments together with this knowledge, including borrowing things like salt. This knowledge in no way means they feel less secure or unprotected or feel a greater urgency to spill the beans to higher authorities. Will Nyumba Kumi change anything in such scenarios?

Third, in many urban residential areas, especially low-cost housing neighbourhoods, thieves strike a deal with residents not to steal in neighbourhoods where they live. So, they practice their illegal trade in other estates and establishment and come back to share the loot with their neighbours. What will inspire a neighbour to a thief to reveal them if they lack evidence and have not been victims? Furthermore, they partake of the loot in some way, so where and how does Nyumba Kumi come in?

Fourth, it will largely depend on honesty and willingness. I could tell you, or even give you my business card indicating where I work. If necessary, we could even go to some office somewhere and I could convince you that is my work station. It could be a cover for what really I do for a living. How many honest people do we have out here? What is the price of honesty and diligence anyway in Kenya? The dustbins.

Fifth, the police are as culpable as criminals. Hardly does any crime happen anywhere without the knowledge of the police. They are stakeholders with the thieves and they advise them on where to go and where not to. They even delay in responding to a call from a victim to ensure that by the time they get there, the robbers have left. They then get a share of the loot. They then easily kill you when they are tired of you, when you refuse to share the loot with them or when you contravene some agreement with them.

Sixth, why bother with the small shoplifter? Only the poor have it rough. They work hardest and are paid the least. The mighty are comfortable, caressed by the powers that are, especially when their source of wealth is questionable. Our society celebrates grand thieves and even offers them strategic offices to ensure they continue stealing and disenfranchising the public. Voters prefer liars to truth tellers when it comes to the ballot. They want money now, and they forget about tomorrow. The big man knows well that an empty stomach is a poor political adviser and once he recaptures the seat, he ensures the poor remain where they are as it serves his interests best. So why bother with the small ones yet those at the top drive cars that make them immune to Kenyan potholes? Is the smaller thief more important than the grand one?

At the end of the day, it comes down to individual commitment and sacrifice. No amount of top-down approaches, especially when artificially superimposed, will see the light of day. A worthy effort to make people know and like each other, however, may. On paper, Nyumba Kumi is terrific. That is as far as it goes.

The writer is a blogger on governance, economics and development in Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @oleshitemi

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