Wednesday, November 20, 2013


I am not a prophet of doom but even as an ordinary Kenyan with no interest in the occult, I can predict with near certainty that the hurriedly-conceived Nyumba kumi concept in which the country is to be divided into clusters of ten households will fail, unless we come up with a more pragmatic way of involving the people.

We all know this is not an original idea. It was tried in the neighbouring Tanzania for almost twenty years starting from the late 1960s. During its prime, it was successful in managing security at the grassroots level. Balozis or cell leaders, drawn from the faithfuls in the ruling TANU, were carefully selected to ensure strangers were identified and reported to authorities. It was the same leaders who were responsible for "whipping" people into complying with the ujamaa system, a form of communism copied from socialist China. The leaders were also used to distribute food during the country's long period of food shortages; and to handle births and deaths within their blocks.

Thus, the nyumba kumi idea was conceived as a political solution to deal with challenges of a political dispensation set out in the Arusha Declaration of 1967. It was not intended primarily to deal with insecurity. It was a tool of survival for the socialist government.

After Nyerere's death and the introduction of capitalism, the system took a dosedive. It was no longer effective, as tens of thousands of people abandoned ujamaa villages and flocked into urban areas to look for jobs. Today, foregners returning to Dar es Salaam are able to move freely, something they could not do three decades ago when nyumba kumi was in full blast and government agents were everywhere.

In Kenya, on the other hand, the idea did not spring out of any political ideology. It emerged from the ashes of the Westgate mall attack.

A lot of confusion reigned during that fateful week. The government had no answers to a myriad questions following the terrorist attack. There were queries about alleged intelligence failures; shoddy performance by security forces and total mishandling of information. For days the number of attackers were unknown with official estimates putting the figure between five to fifteen. Neither the Cabinet Secretary, Joseph Ole Lenku, nor the Security Chiefs, could tell us whether the Al Shabaab fanatics were killed on site or had managed to escape. Most of those questions still linger on.

With Kenyans in a panic mode, the government conjured the nyumba kumi initiative to reassure people it had a plan. To many in this generation the plan made no sense. Even the way it was announced left Kenyans unconvinced about its effectiveness as a crime deterrent.

Ideally, an issue as important as this should have been subjected to public discussion. This was not done, hence the lacklustre reception it has received from the public.

Weeks down the line Kenyans still do not understand how this concept will work. How will the cell leaders be elected? What powers will they have?; What are the rules?; Are there any penalties for residents who refuse to participate? If so, under what law? There are far too many gray areas. How are we going to handle urban areas where people have a poor record of good neighbourliness? At least in rural areas the spirit of community living is alive.

Also, with all the people flocking into towns daily to stay with extended family members, and with all the routine, unannounced visits we Africans regularly make to homes of friends and relatives, it may not be that easy to differentiate strangers from genuine denizens.

That the security situation in Kenya has deteriorated significantly over the past few months is not a secret. It's no longer safe to drive on roads because of escalating carjackings. Burglaries and murders have become routine. Rapes and physical abuses are common everywhere. Threats of terrorist attacks are looming high and shopping in malls is no longer an enjoyable experience.

Insecurity has brought with it economic pitfalls. Travel advisories by tourist-generating countries have become a permanent feature and have driven away tourists. Many hotels along the Kenyan beaches have closed down because of lack of business, bringing suffering to hundreds of people who earn their living from serving tables, selling fish and peddling handcrafts.

Promises made by the government and the many stop-gap measures taken so far to deal with criminal activities have failed to bear fruit. Now, we are being introduced to what Lenku tells us is a 100 days Rapid Results Initiative to deal with insecurity during the holiday season. What will happen after the 100 days, the Secretary is not telling us.

I know the government wants the nyumba kumi idea to work. I do too, but it wouldn't, if the people do not get answers to some of the questions I have raised above.

Some say that the nyumba kumi concept violates Article 36 (a) of the constitution which basically says that "a person shall not be compelled to join an association of any kind." Will nyumba kumi committees be considered associations in the eyes of the law? Lenku says the concept is fully compliant with the constitution and quotes Article 244 (e), which only says that the National Police Service "will foster and promote relationship with the broader society."

It looks there are legal issues too to be confronted.

The bottom line is, unless we are willing to engage the public and completely rope them in, the nyumba kumi idea - as good as it may sound - will go the same way as the community policing which has largely failed to make a difference in crime prevention in our neighbourhoods.

And that is my say.