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Data Protection in the Age of Huduma Namba: Who Will Benefit?

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In a country where digital technology and personal data are routinely abused by unscrupulous officials and politicians, what kind of confidentiality can Kenyans expect from the new law on data protection? Is the law a genuine attempt at protecting Kenyans’ privacy, or is it for the benefit of credit card companies and banks associated with the Huduma Namba?

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Data Protection in the Age of Huduma Namba: Who Will Benefit?
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A few years ago, in my Monday column in the Daily Nation, I explained why I was not among the millions of Kenyans who are on Facebook. I told my readers that the main reason I had not joined Facebook was because I wanted to keep my private life private.

I said that Facebook allows users to connect and “make friends” with dozens, if not hundreds, of people they would not normally interact with in daily life, which would not be such a frightening prospect if those you interacted with were people you trusted with all your heart. But because Facebook is an equal opportunity friendship-maker, the “friends” you make on the social networking platform could range from your boss to your plumber. This could affect your career development and your home life in significant ways.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, believes that by allowing many people to share more of their personal lives with each other, he is helping to create a virtual global community where “people stay in touch and maintain empathy for each other.” In other words, he believes he is creating a more caring world, where transparency and openness are the modus operandi and where there are no secrets.

However, critics have argued that instead of connecting people in meaningful ways, Facebook actually isolates people, who spend more time online rather than doing things that strengthen relationships, such as talking to each other or sharing a meal. With an estimated 2.7 billion Facebook users around the world and an estimated 10 million users in Kenya alone, that is a scary scenario that has severe consequences on how people socialise and interact.

But what is even scarier is that Facebook – the company – has been sharing users’ private data with third parties without their knowledge, as has been confirmed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that Facebook users had been manipulated to impact elections in the United States and in Kenya, as well as in the Brexit referendum in the UK. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that no data is safe and that those with ill intentions can use people’s personal information for nefarious objectives or for political gain.

It is not just companies like Cambridge Analytica (which closed shop as a result of the scandal) that are using Facebook data without users’ knowledge or consent. Recently, a local newspaper revealed that in the first half of 2019 the Kenyan government had on five different occasions demanded that Facebook reveal private information about Kenyan users of the social networking site. According to an article published in the Standard (which somehow did not raise any furore in Kenya perhaps because, as one Twitter user commented, we are so used to being abused that we no longer have the energy or motivation to fight back), “the [Kenyan] State refused to use proper legal channels while demanding the information, insisting on the urgency of the demand”.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that no data is safe and that those with ill intentions can use people’s personal information for nefarious objectives or for political gain.

The article, based on Facebook’s transparency report, further says that Facebook complied with at least one of these demands, but the company did not give details on the nature of the information the Kenyan government had demanded. The government also asked Facebook to preserve the account information of seven users. Apparently, such requests/demands are not unusual; reports indicate that the United States government requested Facebook to provide data on 82,461 users in the first six months of this year, while India made such requests on 33,324 users.

Data privacy and protection: An illusion?

At a time when data privacy and protection are becoming increasingly important, especially in light of revelations that governments and private companies are using social media platforms to manipulate voters, as happened in the Cambridge Analytica case, and in an environment of increasing xenophobia and fear-mongering, this revelation should have been a cause for alarm. But as is with most things in Kenya, news that the government was spying on its citizens and collecting data on them without their knowledge or consent barely elicited a yawn.

The story becomes even more intriguing given that Facebook is facing heavy criticism for violating users’ privacy. In July this year, Facebook was fined $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission for violating users’ privacy. The settlement includes several provisions that limit Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg’s decision-making powers, including the creation of a privacy committee on Facebook’s board of directors.

We must also remember that the Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto has not been averse to manipulating social media users to win elections. Not only has this government been implicated as a beneficiary of Cambridge Analytica’s social engineering and “psychological warfare” tactics in the 2013 and 2017 elections, but it also employed a gang of bloggers known as “The State House Boys” to bombard Kenyans with propaganda prior to and during the election period.

But as is with most things in Kenya, news that the government was spying on its citizens and collecting data on them without their knowledge or consent barely elicited a yawn.

Ironically, this is the same government that is now going after bloggers through the controversial Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Bill that some view as a gagging order on bloggers and social media users – a form of censorship that will severely curtail what and how Kenyans communicate via the Internet.

The Bill says that bloggers will need a licence to operate. Failure to comply with this requirement and to adhere to the standards set by the Communications Authority of Kenya could lead to fines of up to Sh10 million or two years in prison. Offences include “degrading” and “intimidating” recipients/readers. This leaves the door wide open for politicians and others to charge bloggers with all manner of offences just because they do not like what they have to say about them. Columnists, cartoonists, writers and even photographers could be “criminalised” on spurious grounds.

Huduma Namba and commercial interests

Ironically, while this Bill is being debated, Parliament has finally woken up to the fact that privacy is a right guaranteed by the Kenyan Constitution. A few days before Kenyans learnt that the government was spying on its citizens through Facebook, President Uhuru Kenyatta approved legislation that complies with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. The Data Protection Bill, 2019, which came into force in mid-November this year, prevents governments and corporations from sharing an individual’s personal data without the consent of the owner of the data. Personal data is defined as information relating to a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, educational background, medical condition, criminal history and financial transactions, among others. (Note: Some data, such as a person’s credit rating, though protected by privacy laws in Kenya and in other countries, are still easily accessible to interested parties.)

A Data Protection Commissioner will also be appointed to ensure that the law is enforced. The Commissioner will not only receive complaints about data privacy violations but will also have the power to investigate breaches of privacy and to impose fines. However, the Data Protection Bill also says that this law will not apply to personal data collected for the purposes of national security or in the public interest.

This law is viewed as critical to ensuring that data is not abused by third parties and is seen as a necessary and important step to increase investor confidence in Kenya and to regulate the use of mobile phone technology and digital apps, which are increasingly becoming the targets of predatory business and corporate interests.

The timing of the law is, however, interesting. It comes into force at precisely the time when the government is being criticised by some for implementing the National Integrated Identity Management System – better known as Huduma Namba – which many view as a surveillance tool modelled on the Chinese “social credit” system, where citizens gain points for “good conduct” and lose points for “bad behaviour. As I have said before, the idea that you can be denied a service because you cannot identify yourself through a number negates basic constitutional freedoms and rights. Various government mandarins have said that those without a Huduma Namba will be denied government services, including obtaining a Kenya Revenue Authority Personal Identification Number (PIN).

Critics have also raised privacy concerns with regard to Huduma Namba, which is perhaps why the Data Protection Bill was passed in a hurry – to reassure Kenyans that their personal biometric data is safe and that government institutions have perfected the art of making digital technology secure. However, as has been witnessed in the recent past, laws in Kenya are not sufficient to protect Kenyans from electoral or other types of fraud and invasions of privacy.

For instance, Kenya’s electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries and Commission, has proved to be completely inept (or deliberately malicious) in using technology, as demonstrated during the 2013 and 2017 elections when the biometric digital systems for voting either failed or malfunctioned. Apart from questions regarding the procurement of the technology, and whether kickbacks were involved, Kenyans watched in horror as the electoral body fumbled through the election results, even claiming that several voting stations could not electronically transmit the election results. Almost all attempts by this so-called “digital” government to introduce computerised systems in government, ostensibly to reduce corruption and to streamline service delivery, have also failed miserably; in fact, corruption has reached unprecedented levels. It is now an accepted fact that the introduction of the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) in government procurement led to the disappearance and theft of billions of shillings from state coffers. If IFMIS can be so easily manipulated by government officials, then how easy will it be to hack or manipulate the Huduma Namba and other data collection systems?

There are also strong rumours that the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) is being routinely robbed by unscrupulous medical officers and NHIF employees. Kenya Power, the country’s only electricity company, has also been accused of stealing from customers by sending them fictitious and inflated bills. All this is possible because employees have access to subscriber/customer data that they can easily manipulate. In other words, no Kenyan is safe from government bodies that provide a service at taxpayers’ expense – you will either be denied the service or will be robbed. –.

Citizens or borrowers? The debt trap

But protecting people’s privacy in order to comply with the Constitution may not be the primary motive of the data protection bill. As David Ndii has suggested in a recent article, the Huduma Namba is not so much a personal identity tool for Kenyan citizens as it is a credit facility that ensures that every Kenyan is a potential “customer” for micro-credit services, and which has the potential to place every adult Kenyan on a borrowing treadmill that will benefit banks and businesses associated with the Kenyatta family.

The scheme could have severe adverse effects on citizens/customers/borrowers who risk getting a negative credit rating, and thus becoming criminalised, not for “bad behaviour” as the Chinese would define it, but for not paying back a loan on time. Remember, unlike a normal credit card, the customers –Kenyan citizens – have not been given a choice whether or not to apply for the card – the government has deemed it mandatory for everyone.

Given the high standards set by international credit card companies on issues such as customer privacy and data protection, it is possible that the Data Protection Bill was a means to make the Huduma Namba (and its local and international commercial partners) compliant with international norms and standards, thus giving the illusion that, unlike rogue betting companies or greedy loan sharks, the Huduma Namba is a respectable and legitimate way of borrowing money.

If IFMIS can be so easily manipulated by government officials, then how easy will it be to hack or manipulate the Huduma Namba and other data collection systems?

The question one must ask is: if the Huduma Namba is essentially a credit card, what business is it of the government to impose credit cards on people who can barely make ends meet, thanks to the same government’s economic policy failures? For the government and its commercial partners to make money from hapless Kenyan borrowers is not only unethical, but raises questions about whether – like the subprime mortgage crisis in America where the US government’s housing agencies encouraged low-income people to buy houses even though they did not have the means to pay the mortgage – this scheme could lead to the collapse of an economy that is already in the doldrums.

Coupled with the “Affordable Housing” pillar of the Jubilee government – which is based on the erroneous premise that a majority of low-income people in the country are eager to own apartments (a notion I refute in this article), I see many Kenyans losing their money and their property because the government has encouraged them to take loans they cannot afford. This government has already set the country on a path to unprecedented and unsustainable debt. Now it wants every Kenyan to become a reckless borrower.

The problem is that, unlike the government, individuals cannot rely on taxpayers or a second credit facility to get them out of a debt trap. Families in the United States who lost their homes during the subprime mortgage crisis have still not recovered, despite President Barack Obama’s efforts to avert a financial crisis in 2008 – a lesson this government is unwilling or unable to process but which signals doom for the many Kenyans who are being made to believe that taking a loan, no matter how risky, is the easiest way out of poverty.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Every Worker Is Essential and Must Be Guaranteed Social Protection, No Matter What

The International Domestic Workers Federation and UNI Global Union demand that all workers of the formal and informal economy are guaranteed social protection.

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Every Worker Is Essential and Must Be Guaranteed Social Protection, No Matter What
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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to the global economy and a massive increase in unemployment — exacerbating the ongoing crises of inequality. Despite massive public investment in mostly wealthy countries, worldwide, too many workers are living in extremely fragile conditions and directly feeling the effects of decades of austerity programs aimed at cutting social protections to the bone — and limiting workers rights.

Right now we are at the crossroads. As the world begins spending trillions to lift us out of economic crisis, unions and organizations representing workers in both the formal and informal economy sectors are forming new alliances to ensure the legacy of the pandemic is one of improved working conditions throughout the world.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider caregivers. Caregiving is one of the most common and rapidly growing professions. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us repeatedly just how essential caregivers are. Caregiving might also be one of the most diverse yet in demand roles in the entire world. While nurses operate for the most part in the formal economy, often in a hospital or institution, care providers in a domestic setting may actually live with their employers and can be called upon 24 hours a day with few avenues for recourse.

For us, as long-time advocates of workers in the formal and informal economies, the time has come to work together to demand universal social protections like a living minimum wage for all and access to healthcare and paid sick leave. We must fight to change the global rules through mandatory human rights due diligence laws and other steps to enable workers to exercise their rights to bargain collectively.

The recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) only underscores the urgency. The ILO found that over half of the global population lacks any form of social protection. This is the case even after the unprecedented expansion of social protections that took place following the global outbreak of COVID-19.

In 2020, just 47% of the world population had effective access to at least one social protection benefit, the ILO found. The remaining 53% — up to 4.1 billion people — had no protection at all.

Take this in contrast with a global study from earlier this year from the ITUC and UNI Global Union that found 98% of the world’s workers are not getting the sick pay, wage replacement and social benefits they need to address the challenges of COVID-19.

Active government policies will make the difference. We cannot fully recover or rebuild a better world if we don’t urgently and effectively protect all people, including the 61% of the global workforce who labor in the informal economy. When these workers aren’t recognized for the work that they do, not only are their basic rights breached, but their access to collective bargaining mechanisms and unionising is withheld.

In South Africa, this year, domestic workers achieved an historic victory that deserves examination. Since 2000, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union has been campaigning for a suite of laws that would extend protections to domestic workers. Eventually, after many years of campaigning, the laws passed, but one of them, which would provide compensation for work-related injury or illness known as COIDA, still excluded domestic workers. After the tragic death of a domestic worker in the employer’s swimming pool, organizers in Pretoria lodged a complaint. It took five years, but the high court declared the exclusion of domestic workers unconstitutional in 2020.

Domestic workers are now covered under South Africa’s COIDA because domestic workers organized and demanded change against all odds. We raise this example because active government policies are critical to protecting workers and raising standards. There are too many attempts at excluding entire groups of workers and while they are usually unconstitutional, it takes years for workers to win.

A strong recovery for domestic workers, street vendors, agricultural workers, and other informal economy workers will be the linchpin for a strong global economic recovery. At the Essential for Recovery Summit, we’ll join workers from around the world to make an urgent call to national governments and international organizations to address our demands for better income and social protections so we can weather this crisis and also build a better future for ourselves.

To allow the sector to expand without formalizing protections, and union representation, threatens to make harsh and often grim working conditions worse. For Myrtle who found her voice organizing during apartheid in South Africa, the goals have always been clear: essential protections for caregivers, the majority of whom are women and often immigrants or racial and ethnic minorities. And as Christy has said: “To put health and safety first — and put the virus to rest — we will need more collective bargaining and unions in the care sector.”

Caregivers and their communities have been particularly impacted, both economically and health-wise by the virus, making the need to uplift their working conditions and wages even more urgent. If we do not address these fundamental inequities, the lasting impacts of the pandemic will be a system worse than what we started with, which already was not supporting and protecting workers. Our key global demand is for all workers of the formal and informal economy to be guaranteed social protection.

This article was first published by Progressive international.

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Securing Kenya’s Electoral Integrity in the Digital Age

A collaborative approach by all stakeholders is crucial in order to curb the spread of content that undermines healthy democratic activity without subverting healthy online engagement.

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Securing Kenya’s Electoral Integrity in the Digital Age
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Kenya is less than a year away from the 2022 general elections. The role of social media in the forthcoming polls has been the subject of dialogue in recent weeks, and for good reason. In electoral contexts, social media platforms have been lauded as equalisers, levelling the playing field for politicians. Providing instantaneous peer-to-peer communication while dispensing with traditional gatekeeping has made social media a potent tool for grassroots organising, one-to-many communication, and broad engagement. Its potency in Kenya is only amplified by the number of internet subscriptions, which stood at 43.7 million as at March 2021, approximately 83 per cent of the total population.

Social media in democracy: a boon?

The benefits afforded by social media are not only enjoyed by politicians. Social media has also provided citizens the space for civic engagement that is not readily available offline. One need not look far to identify the tangible effects of this democratisation. Kenyans recently took to Twitter under the hashtag #JusticeForKianjokomaBrothers to protest the tragic death of two brothers, Emmanuel and Benson Ndwiga, who were in police custody for an alleged curfew violation.

A section of Kenyans also held digital protests under the hashtag #LightsoutKE, going offline for half an hour from 9 p.m. every Sunday night in remembrance of victims of police brutality. Shortly after the online uproar, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), announced it was launching an investigation into the brothers’ deaths at the hands of the police. The investigations resulted in indictments of the police officers involved. While there isn’t enough evidence to draw causal relationship between these digital protests and the resulting action, the very fact of such online organising is enough to highlight the potency of social media in civic engagement and political participation. It would also not be far-fetched to assume that the public outcry online influenced IPOA’s decision to act promptly.

This is also not the first time that digital protests have supplemented offline complaint mechanisms. Earlier this year, students at the Kenya School of Law protested the Council of Legal Education’s (CLE) procedurally flawed decision to go ahead with bar exams despite giving short notice and facing numerous logistical challenges. One of these challenges was a government-imposed lockdown of certain areas to stem the spread of COVID-19 that made it difficult for students outside the affected areas to access the designated examination venues.

Using the hashtag #CLEwi (a clever play on words merging the abbreviation CLE, with sielewi, the Swahili word for “I do not understand”), students voiced their concerns while at the same time pursuing offline channels, in this case, an anonymous complaint to the Commission on Administrative Justice (CAJ). The CAJ eventually intervened, directing that the CLE postpone the exams. These examples seem to highlight the increasingly seamless integration of online and offline spaces. Unfortunately, this integration also extends to more nefarious elements of human interaction. In some cases, exacerbating the effect of these elements.

Double-edged sword: harmful content

The very characteristics that make social media such a potent tool for civic engagement and political participation also make it an effective vector of harmful content. Over the past few years, the nexus between social media and democracy has featured prominently in news reports, academic articles, and general discourse. Part of this trend is attributable to the perceived failings of social media in democracies around the world. Reports of harmful content such as misinformation, disinformation (both sometimes wrongly conflated and labelled as “fake news”), and hate speech appear to now be commonplace during elections.

Recent experiences in Brazil, Qatar, and the United States, provide some examples for these challenges. Such harmful content is not novel. However, recent events such as the 2016 US elections have widely popularised concepts such as “fake news”, with former US President Donald Trump going as far as to claim he invented the term (he did not). The tangible outcomes of such content through social media platforms have understandably resulted in calls for accountability, and for the regulation of these platforms. For example, in Myanmar, Facebook was reportedly used by military personnel to spread inciteful rhetoric against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country, contributing to violence against the Rohingya.

These calls for accountability, and the broader concern with the unchecked power of the largest technology companies (Big Tech), has been referred to the “techlash”. In recent years, countries have been grappling with law reforms aimed at mitigating the spread of harmful content online. For example, Germany passed the Network Enforcement Act (popularly, NetzDG) which sought to impose large fines on social media platforms that fail to take down illegal content promptly. Facebook was fined under this law. At the same time, social media platforms have sought to respond to the techlash by implementing their own transparency and accountability mechanisms such as Facebook’s recently established Oversight Board.

The very characteristics that make social media such a potent tool for civic engagement and political participation also make it an effective vector of harmful content.

The urgency of figuring out a solution to this problem rapidly escalated in early 2020, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Perhaps there is nothing more emblematic of the promise and peril of social media than the range of behaviour witnessed in the early days of the pandemic, and even more recently with the development of vaccines. While public health officials were able to widely disseminate accurate and up-to-date information regarding the virus, individuals were equally able to spread false information. In some cases, this information was inciteful, fuelling anti-Asian sentiment and, in a few instances, resulting in violence. More recently, the spread of such information threatens global efforts to inoculate against COVID-19. This inundation with information, both false and true, was termed as an infodemic by the WHO.

The public health measures which have been adopted to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, such as social distancing and the wearing of masks, have served to enhance the role played by digital platforms in our lives. People are increasingly reliant on these platforms for, among other things, work and school. With such high levels of online activity, it is expected that the problem posed by exposure to harmful content will only worsen.

Kenyan perspective

The challenges posed by the spread of harmful content are not far removed from Kenya. It is reported that disinformation was spread through social media during the 2017 general elections. Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm accused of using improperly acquired personal data from Facebook to engage in political microtargeting, was reportedly active in Kenya during those elections, providing its services to one of the political parties. Since then, Kenya has made attempts at regulating online speech and the use of personal data, enacting the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act in 2018, and the Data Protection Act in 2019. Despite these efforts, it is apparent that Kenya is yet to overcome the spread of harmful content online. For example, a recently authored report revealed a whole industry in Kenya dedicated to the spread of disinformation through social media.

Increasingly, government entities and some politicians have taken to social media to disavow content attributed to them on the basis that the content is fabricated. At the same time, a number of social media accounts have been engaging in what appears to be a coordinated campaign to disparage certain political actors, with the hashtags #RutosViolencePlan and #RailaHatesMtKenya most recently trending. These developments are quite concerning, and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) has previously warned against the trajectory of the country’s politics.

On 26 August 2021, the Cabinet Secretary for Interior & Coordination of National Government, Fred Matiang’i, cautioned Kenyans against misusing social media ahead of the general elections. The Cabinet Secretary highlighted the use of vulgar language, insults, and the spread of “fake news” as conduct which the government intends to clamp down on. Speaking at a youth forum, he reiterated that any excesses would be met with “equal force”. In a region where there have been increasing concerns about internet shutdowns by governments during elections, the Cabinet Secretary’s words may raise concern. To his credit, the Cabinet Secretary has publicly assured Kenyans that the government would not shut down social media over hate speech although, in the same breath, he affirmed that the government would deal “ruthlessly” with those purveying hate speech. Now, the spread of hate speech should never be tolerated, particularly in Kenya where inciteful rhetoric resulted in election-related violence in 2007/8.

Perhaps there is nothing more emblematic of the promise and peril of social media than the range of behaviour witnessed in the early days of the pandemic.

Regulating speech on social media to prevent the spread of harmful content necessarily means impacting the freedom of expression and right to assemble online, both of which are constitutional rights and crucial during elections. The approaches that governments and social media platforms use to achieve these important goals significantly impact the balance that is ultimately achieved. Put another way, in attempting to stop the spread of content that undermines healthy democratic activity, governments or private platforms may inadvertently subvert healthy online engagement. The entire endeavour of regulation therefore implicates a balance that must be carefully threaded. The fickle nature of this balance is further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Search for balance

Recognising the link between conduct on social media and electoral integrity, Kofi Annan, through his foundation—the Kofi Annan Foundation—established the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age in 2019. Consisting of leading experts drawn from different disciplines and jurisdictions, the Commission synthesised the concerns around social media in elections into five focus areas: polarisation, hate speech, disinformation, political advertising, and foreign interference. In its report, the Commission put forth practical recommendations for various stakeholders involved in the electoral ecosystem – governments, businesses, and civil society.

What is apparent from these recommendations is the importance of a collaborative approach to safeguarding electoral integrity in the digital age and achieving the earlier mentioned balance. The nature of the problem at hand is such that actions taken in isolation may not be very effective, especially where clear links exist, such as between regulation of personal data use and the activities of political advertisers. This is particularly important to consider as various stakeholders in Kenya commence preparations for the 2022 elections. For example, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission announced a plan to keep tabs on social media activity in the run-up to the elections while the Kenya Editors’ Guild commenced a series of elections preparedness trainings.

This is the first of a five-part op-ed series that seeks to explore the use of personal data in campaigns, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, social media censorship, and incitement to violence and hate speech, and the practical measures various stakeholders can adopt to safeguard Kenya’s electoral integrity in the digital age ahead of the 2022 elections. This five-part op-ed series is in partnership with Kofi Annan Foundation made possible through the support of the United Nations Democracy Fund.

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Northern Kenya Pastoralists Should Be Licenced to Carry Arms

The law needs to be changed to allow herders to carry arms to safeguard livestock rearing which is a valuable economic activity in northern Kenya.

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The protracted fighting between the two major ethnic groups in Marsabit County—the Borana and the Gabra—has attracted national and international attention over the years. The unending fighting in Marsabit County has claimed more lives than any communicable disease outbreak in the region. According to a petition tabled in parliament by the Saku Member of Parliament, Hon. Dido Ali Rasso, by 8 July 2020, 97 lives had been lost in Saku Constituency alone.

The situation has escalated from minor skirmishes to fighting using militia tactics where simultaneous attacks are carried out on the same day, or on consecutive days, along the Saku-North Horr constituency border and along the Kenya-Ethiopia border, to overpower the opponent community. The security apparatus and the political leadership take the largest share of responsibility for failing to ensure peaceful co-existence between the warring communities in the county. The former takes blame for failing to respond to distress calls adequately and promptly, which often leads to loss of lives and livelihoods. The latter takes the lion’s share of the blame for hiding behind the ethnic tag and is at times viewed as an active player in escalating the conflicts. Therefore, the many peacebuilding and conflict resolution missions have been futile.

The infamous Mlima Kofia Mbaya on Mt Marsabit is the repository of terrible statistics of the many leaders who have perished in plane crashes while on peacebuilding missions. Among some of the darkest memories is the 1996 helicopter crash that took the lives of the then Eastern Provincial Commissioner Ishmael Juma Chelang’a and ACK Assistant Bishop Andrew Adano Tuye following a peace mission to Marsabit.

The plane crash that occurred on the morning of 10 April 2006 is another painful scar on Marsabit’s landscape. It claimed the lives of vibrant young leaders, including North Horr Member of Parliament Hon. Dr Bonaya Godana, Saku Member of Parliament Hon. Abdi Tari Sasura, Moyale Member of Parliament Hon. Dr Guracha Galgallo and Laisamis Member of Parliament Hon. Titus Ngoyoni. The Assistant Minister of Internal Security, Hon. Mirugi Kariuki, and a member of the East African Legislative Assembly, Hon. Adan Biru, also perished in the accident together with the crew and security officers.

An uneasy co-existence has prevailed between the warring Gabra and Borana communities following these calamities and little has been done by the government to reconcile the two communities for lasting peace. Since the aircraft carrying the peace delegates came down in 2006, there have been no efforts to find a lasting solution; mediators have adopted a crisis management approach which stops at brokering ceasefire deals when outbreaks of violence occur. The situation has worsened with the advent of devolution. Cattle rustling has now been commercialized, where the raiders organize to transport the stolen livestock to markets in neighbouring counties, making it difficult for the security apparatus to recover the stolen animals. The raiders have also resorted to the use of modern weaponry including bazookas that make it impossible for police officers to pursue the raiders.

Traditionally pastoralists value livestock even more than human life since their livelihoods revolve around and are dependent on domestic animals. Cattle rustling has a long history in the traditions of these communities but it must now be contained by means of a good security apparatus and a proper system of governance. There are no dividends in the ongoing blame game. Government efforts to disarm the communities in the north have been futile because of the poor containment measures in place. The Regional Centre for Small Arms has recommended heightened control of the proliferation of illicit arms, increased cross-border collaboration, investment in alternative livelihood programmes, promotion of cultural dialogue on conflict resolution mechanisms, strengthening of local governance structures, and development and harmonization of livestock identification and traceability systems (LITS).

The raiders have also resorted to the use of modern weaponry including bazookas that make it impossible for police officers to pursue the raiders.

It is against this backdrop that I strongly recommend that adequate measures be adopted to safeguard livestock rearing which is a valuable economic activity. These measures must, in my opinion, include licensing herders to carry guns to guard their livestock investments.

Moreover, the directive issued by the Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i on 12 July 2019 to disarm the Kenya Police Reservists (KPR) and the National Police Reservists (NPR) was ill-advised and has exposed security officers and poor herders to frequent attacks by holders of illegal firearms.

I am not a security expert but it is common sense that the benefits of allowing licensed firearms within a community, which is then able to act as a support system to the police in responding to distress calls, far outweigh the perceived disadvantages.

The recent series of attack on the residents of Saku constituency, where several lives were lost around Marsabit forest and over two thousand head of cattle stolen from residents of Kukuto area, has exposed the laxity in the response of the security apparatus which has rendered the victims even more vulnerable to aggression.

The conflict in Marsabit County is complex—especially in the current Saku hotspot—as it revolves around the issue of land ownership. In particular, the utilization of the rangeland area, the only piece of arable land, requires a truth, justice and reconciliation process such as the one employed in South Africa. In my opinion therefore, Kenya’s Ministry of the Interior, under whose docket the protection of life and property is domiciled, requires a different strategy for the lives of the people of northern Kenya to become tenable.

The county leadership and legislators from the region have on many occasions implored CS Matiang’i to reverse the decision on KPR and NPR disarmament so that they can complement the response of the police service to distress calls from the affected community. In this regard, Saku Member of Parliament Hon. Dido Ali Rasso is on record as having petitioned the parliamentary committee on security on 8 July 2020. The minister needs to revisit the policy to avert the loss of more lives and property among pastoralists of northern Kenya.

The theft of livestock should be treated in the same way as a bank robbery due to the high economic costs incurred. In this regard, I call upon the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group (PPG) to front the amendment of the Kenya Firearms Licensing Act to include the arming of pastoralists so that they can protect their lives and livelihoods. This approach will add value to security agencies’ efforts to trace criminals as all legally held arms will be audited, which is not the case for the arms illegally held by attackers.

In its current form, the “law does not define the number of firearms a person can own but, on the other hand, no one can be issued with more than one gun for their personal safety. Very few private applications for gun for self-protection are approved because the argument is the Kenya police is responsible for everyone’s safety. Applications for self-protection are mostly approved when the applicant’s status exposes them to danger.” This justification could apply to pastoralists whose means of livelihood is under constant threat of raids in a context where cattle rustling has been commercialised. This approach has worked in other parts of the world and Kenya must borrow a leaf from the neighbouring Federal Republic of Ethiopia to reduce the number of illicit firearms in the country.

Traditionally pastoralists value livestock even more than human life since their livelihoods revolve around and are dependent on domestic animals.

In effect, Ethiopia’s parliament passed legislation in 2020 aimed at curbing illegal gun ownership following a surge in regional ethnic violence that was blamed on the proliferation of small arms in private hands. The spread of small arms has been partly blamed for hundreds of killings in various ethnic conflicts over the past two years that have displaced more than 2.7 million people. This is the same situation prevailing in the pastoralist-dominated counties in Kenya, where more and more pastoralists are arming themselves to protect their lives and livestock during conflicts triggered by competition for pasture and water.

In my view, it is easy to track the use of legally held firearms and allowing herders to carry arms legally will make their life easier for they are left economically drained each time they suffer a raid. I challenge our legislature to be proactive in finding a lasting solution instead of participating in blame games and accusations and counter-accusations through the media.

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