Why I shudder: I worry to imagine if such a system had existed in Kenya at the time of the 2007/ 2008 tribal conflicts.
I am so outraged by the idea of introducing the “Nyumba Kumi” security concept in Kenya that I am going to cut through the chase and get straight to the point. For those who don’t know what “Nyumba Kumi” is, it is a system of social organisation by which the country is divided into units of 10 households at the village level. The idea is that the people get to know who their neighbours are and to share information about the threats that arise. A foreigner cannot live among them in hiding.
It’s a really enticing idea, especially at times like now when terrorism has struck fear in the heart of every Kenyan, but from a human rights point of view, it is macabre – a dance of death.
First, our constitution outlaws it. While granting every person a right to “form, join or participate in the activities of an association of any kind,” Article 36 (2) then states that “a person shall not be compelled to join an association of any kind”. The Interior Ministry cannot organise people into households of 10 unless they themselves are willing to do so. Otherwise it would be a grievous abrogation of the people’s right to freedom of association.
The question would then arise whether, in the light of the threats of terrorism that we now face, it would be a good idea to entrench the system in our constitution. It would not. The origins of the “Nyumba Kumi” concept are based on systems of administration that had no regard for human rights and which were geared towards control and manipulation of the population by the administration.
In Tanzania, the system was implemented as part of the communist system of government that placed the general population into “communes” through which they were administered. In Rwanda, the concept, known in Kinyarwanda as imidugudu, is a village organisation that is slightly larger than the “Nyumba Kumi”. It traces its origins to the traditional and colonial government systems.
But whether it is colonial or communist in its origins, the common intention of designing this system of social engineering was to enhance the government’s grip on the general population. And the human rights records of some of the world’s governments that have fervently pursued this system of administration speak volumes on this. But even where the system is introduced with good intentions, it is too tempting to misuse for political purposes. With a legally endorsed and sanctioned mobilisation machinery at their disposal, few governments will resist the temptation not to use it as a political mobilisation system. It would be an invaluable and incomparable tool for the mobilisation of political propaganda and resources.
And, at the disposal of the security system, it is a spymaster’s dream. The intelligence service will have a pool of pre-identified potential informers all over the country to the household level reporting on the activities of their neighbours. It has happened elsewhere.
At the time of its collapse, “The Ministry for State Security” of the communist regime in East Germany was described as “one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies to ever have existed”. Using systems like “Nyumba Kumi”, the ministry is said to have recruited over two million informers who spied on their neighbours. When their headquarters was invaded by the population upon the fall of the regime, the country experienced a major social crisis as people saw reports filed on them by their own neighbours. The government that will effectively implement this system will never lose an election in Kenya.
Lastly, there is the danger of enhancing ethnicity. Our rural areas are not homogenous in ethnicity and “Nyumba Kumi” will only be a hurdle to the tribal integration of our society. Similar structures were used in Rwanda to propagate ethnic hatred and eventually to organise the genocide.
I shudder to imagine if such a system had existed in Kenya at the time of the 2007/2008 tribal conflicts.
The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya