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It was tragic and traumatic to experience yet another terror attack on Kenyan soil last month. Since the heinous 14 Riverside complex attack in Nairobi, much of the discourse has focused on the victims, the attackers, the response and prevention measures. It is also worth reflecting on the biopolitics of security in the fight against terrorism. Bio-politics — a form of politics that deals with life — is a term first associated with Michel Foucault. It is used here to examine the changes to social life in Nairobi as a result of the various regulatory controls that have been deployed and exerted on the population in the name of securing the country.

It is a fact that in the pursuit of protecting Kenya against terrorist elements, ordinary day to day life has changed for citizens and residents. Terrorism has altered our lives and we have gradually lost a degree of freedom, privacy and control over our lives. This may no longer seem obvious because of the ubiquity of visible security features as we go about our daily business and the sense of permanence that they have assumed in our environment.

For example, not too long ago, security scanning machines, cameras and CCTV surveillance were rare. Today, they have extended from airports and diplomatic missions to hotels, shopping malls and offices. Frisking and bag searches are now commonplace at events and when walking into public spaces and places of worship. The boom barriers, security guards with their procedures and, lately, sniffer dogs, that welcome drivers and their passengers to shopping malls in Nairobi have now become the norm. The car searches, which started out with scanning underneath the vehicle and the boot, now extend to the glove compartment and under the seats.

The peculiar security set-up at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport also illustrates how much things have changed since Kenya became a target of terrorism. The first layer of security at the airport is encountered roughly a kilometre away from the terminal buildings.

Here, travellers are required to disembark from their vehicle, rain or shine, physically challenged or not, and walk through a scanner before re-entering the vehicle on the other side of the boom gate, after their driver has been granted entry. Minutes later, travellers encounter the second layer of security at the terminal before checking in. Finally, there is a security checkpoint after check in and before boarding that is standard globally.

Curiously, since Kenya Airways launched direct flights to the United States in 2018, the established drop off and pick up areas have been cordoned off and alternative spaces created further away from the terminal buildings, increasing the walking distance for travellers.


Nairobians have become accustomed to the new normal. The inconveniences in terms of the extra time it takes to get past security, the invasion of privacy as the contents of one’s handbag are searched and the intrusive body searches have become part and parcel of life. But are we really safer with all these security processes?

This brings me to another dimension of the reality of terrorism in our country, which is that it makes us all exist in a dangerous sphere of potentiality. As we have learned from previous attacks, either there really isn’t such a thing as a face of terrorism or it is an ever-changing face.

A seemingly ordinary looking man or woman could be a terrorist or an accomplice. We have also learned that terrorists live among us. In effect, this makes us all potentially suspects and the spaces where we interact, potential targets. This provides justification for the introduction and progressive normalisation of additional security measures. We continuously have to prove our innocence by being subjected to layers of security and vigilance on an everyday basis.

Kenyans have been led to believe that increasing security, even if it comes with certain inconveniences and limitations on our freedoms, is ultimately good for us and for our country. The sites that have invested heavily in security are the ones that have been targeted for attack.

It is ironical that terrorists penetrated the heavily guarded Westgate Mall in 2013 and 14 Riverside Drive, a mixed use facility housing an office park, restaurants, shops and the Dusit D2 Hotel. Sadly, this reveals that the range of sophisticated security systems deployed after previous attacks to guard against future attacks have not deterred terrorists and that despite increased security, we remain vulnerable.

As we try to move on, let us not ignore the fact that terrorism has thrust us into a new reality that is difficult to reverse. The bio-political significance of counter-terrorism strategies on the lives of Kenyans should not be overlooked when reviewing our approaches to security in the aftermath of the recent attack.

Dr Musuva is a political scientist and works for the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.