Kenya's controversial security bill just a step away from Thoughtcrime - why we should be afraid

And for those outside elite circles, the very concept of Kenya is a shadow, a whiff, an odour in the air, but with no real form or substance.

YESTERDAY, I met a friend, whom I’ve known since we were teenagers, for dinner. 

We’ve gone from exchanging emotionally-charged letters in high school – no one does letters any more, we were the last of that era – to holding down jobs, paying our taxes and becoming proper adults with families and responsibilities.

Along the way, my friend has managed to build a successful music career, sits on the board of a prominent human rights NGO, and is also a trained architect. When we got to talking, and inevitably got to the topic of the controversial Security Bill that Kenya’s Parliament passed this week amid brawling, fisticuffs and chaos in the House.

Though President Uhuru Kenyatta has defended the bill as a necessary measure to strengthen the country’s security position, the hurried way in which it was bulldozed through Parliament has been seen as a precursor to some malicious political agenda, intended to snuff out opposition to the government of the day and trample on citizens rights.

Law simply goes too far

The Bill has several wide-reaching laws (too wide, opponents say) banning the publishing or broadcasting of “insulting, threatening or inciting material”, images of dead or injured people “likely to cause fear” and information that undermines security operations – including on social media. 

Police have to approve the publication of photographs of victims of terrorist attacks.

One of its more chilling provisions is the one that says “Any person who adopts or promotes an extreme belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious or social change shall be liable, if found guilty by a court of law, to a jail term not exceeding 30 years.”

It’s just one step away from Orwellian Thoughtcrime – what, exactly, is to “adopt” an “extreme” belief system?

But for my friend, the worst provision is that which gives the Director of Registration the power to cancel or revoke the identity card of any person if the card was obtained through misrepresentation or concealment of material facts, through fraud, forgery, multiple registration or “any other justifiable cause”.

Kenya is one of the few African countries that have a national identity card system, and without the card, the majority of people have no way of proving they are Kenyan citizens. You can’t open a bank account, vote, get insurance, or even transact mobile money without it. 

Risk of being an ‘unperson’

By the new law, if your ID card – and citizenship, in effect – is cancelled, you have a 15-day window to appeal the decision, otherwise, you are basically an “unperson”.

My friend’s activist credentials obviously make him nervous. He has a nine-month-old daughter, and it worries him that we live in a country where his daughter’s citizenship can just be taken away for some vague “any other justifiable cause”. 

But then he dropped a bombshell that completely took me by surprise.

He said that over the past few months, he had been liquidating his assets in the city, selling off his shares and bonds, paying off outstanding debts and transferring whatever he can into his wife’s name – his wife happens to be from the same community as the President, while he is from an “opposition stronghold”. 

He told me he was ready to leave everything behind and move upcountry to his “home village” at a moment’s notice, because here in the city he is exposed, while in the village he’s sure “the neighbours would protect him”.

Here’s a deeply conscientious 30-year-old, upwardly mobile, young professional who’s been born, brought up and married in cosmopolitan Nairobi, saying he doesn’t feel like he has a stake in “this country”. 

A country is lost

He’s never even been actively persecuted by the authorities, but he’s actively planning an exit strategy – to a village he has never lived in.

As a city girl myself, I have always regarded Nairobi as home – the upcountry life is good for a visit, but I have never considered that to be one of my options (at least not yet).

When talking about the problems of African states, public policy and good governance types like to talk about fuzzy concepts like “retreat of the state”, “elite capture” and ‘the social contract’. 

African states are weak, and government is essentially absent in many remote rural areas and in pockets of urban areas like in the slums, where authorities basically let residents govern themselves.

But it was shocking to me to hear the same feelings of abandonment from a young, middle-class Kenyan.

It confirms what reports like the Fragile (formerly known as Failed) States Index have been saying for years. For those outside elite circles, the very concept of Kenya is a shadow, a whiff, an odour in the air, but with no real form or substance.

I have encountered the same in many African cities I have visited, where the state is really an apparition that those in power can conjure up at will - and make disappear just as quickly.

Africa is supposed to be the next economic powerhouse. As the world’s youngest continent, it is poised to benefit from a demographic dividend in the next few decades, when families get smaller and there’s more disposable income to buy things like houses, cars and shares on stock exchanges –which should lead to an economic boom.

The biggest threat to this rosy future is the lack of quality education among African young people – although real progress has been made in primary enrolment, net enrolment in secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa is just 32.5%, and without job opportunities, the majority of young people actually have nothing to look forward to.

But even more worrying is the feeling of alienation among those who are lucky enough to be educated, conscientious enough to care, and who actually have the technical skills to drive the much-heralded future boom.

When people like that retreat from the business of making a country work, then it is the politically-connected layabouts and thugs who take over, and this “Africa rising” story will just be that – a story that once made headlines circa 2010-2015.

It’s the kind of stuff that led to revolutions in North Africa, and elsewhere in the world. But for the record, I am not “adopting or promoting an extreme belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious or social change”.

I’m just sayin’.


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