fbpx skip to Main Content

Kenya’s Security Playbook: New Reports Highlight Threats to Civic Space

New research supported by the Fund reveals the Kenyan government’s misuse and abuse of national security and counterterrorism measures.

Protesters demonstrate against police brutality, in the Mathare slum, or informal settlement, of Nairobi, Kenya Monday, June 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

In a new multi-part report series, a team of independent researchers in Kenya have found stark evidence that the Kenyan government’s use of repressive national security and counterterrorism measures has eroded critical rights in the country, undermined and endangered civic space and human rights defenders, and contributed to widespread human rights violations.

The reports analyze the impact of prevention of violent extremism (PVE), counterterrorism, and national security measures in Kenya. This research is a collaborative effort between ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa, HAKI Africa, the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), and the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (CHRIPS), with support from the Fund for Global Human Rights.

About the Reports

Since the rise of extremist threats from militants linked to Al-Shabaab, Kenya has been on the front lines of efforts to combat terrorism and prevent violent extremism. In response to high-profile incidents, including the 2013 Westgate Mall attack and the 2015 Garissa University attack, the Kenyan government has passed wide-ranging anti-terrorism legislation and established agencies such as the National Counter Terrorism Centre, tasked with quelling the threat.

But these efforts, the researchers conclude, have contributed to the continued shrinking of civic space within the country. By embracing a national security narrative and ceding important authority to security agencies, the state has undermined the rule of law and stifled civil society.

In their summary paper, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa outlines key findings and recommendations from the three research reports:

From the onset, many governments and their security agencies’ fight against terrorism was not framed as one intent on being respectful of human rights…

While there are critical concerns for States’ efforts in fighting terrorism, we must not countenance unjustified and unchecked infringement of fundamental freedoms including the freedom of expression, freedom of association, or the right to privacy among others. Transparency and accountability, by both states and private entities, are necessary values in guaranteeing respect for human rights in security matters.

Read: The Impact Of Prevention Of Violent Extremism, Counter-Terrorism, And National Security Measures On Civic Space In Kenya

In the first two-part report, “Protecting Kenya’s Civic Space in the Context of Securitised Responses to Terrorism and Violent Extremism,” the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies provides a deep dive into the historical and contemporary context of civic space in Kenya and its evolution alongside the country’s experience with terrorism and counterterrorism efforts over the years.

Part A, “The Security Playbook: Counter-Terrorism and Civic Space Restrictions in Kenya,” offers a detailed diagnostic of the security laws and regulations and how they impact civil society and its operating space. Part B, “A Holistic Approach to Defend Civic Space and Overhaul the Security Playbook in Kenya,” examines the strategies to counter security overreach and the challenges and opportunities for civil society.

Read: Part A | Part B


In the second report, the Kenya ICT Action Network examines the role of digital technologies and tools used by the government in enhancing surveillance under the guise of security and their implication on civic space. The paper includes an analysis of the applicable legal framework and case studies of the various tools and technology that have been cause for concern among civil society actors.

Read: Surveillance Laws and Technologies Used in Countering Terrorism and their Potential Impact on Civic Space


The third report, from HAKI Africa, is a field study of civic space actors and human rights defenders in eight counties (Bungoma, Isiolo, Kisumu, Kwale, Mandera, Mombasa, Nairobi, and Nyeri) seeking to assess their perceptions and/or knowledge of the existing counterterrorism architecture and its impact on civic space actors, including from their lived experiences.

Read: Perception Survey on the Impact of Prevention of Violent Extremism, Counter-Terrorism and National Security on Civic Space in Kenya

Understanding Kenya’s Security Playbook

These reports are part of a growing body of activist-led research supported by the Fund that examines the securitization of civic space around the world. In liberal and illiberal countries alike, governments have embraced what activists call the security playbook: a set of repressive tools and tactics including the misuse of PVE and counterterrorism laws and measures, the abuse of digital surveillance technologies, and the stigmatization and persecution of human rights defenders.

“Security-justified and -enabled closing of civic space threatens the huge array of human rights work done by Fund grantees across movements, from climate justice to LGBTQ+ rights, and often has a racialized and gendered impact affecting the most marginalized,” said James Savage, director of the Fund’s Enabling Environment for Human Rights Defenders program.

“When local activists carry out research, civil society domestically and internationally benefits from the analysis of those with the closest lived experience and insights to the issue. It can also catalyze new conversations and collaborations across movements in expanding civic space.”

This research is critical to understanding and disrupting the security playbook. By analyzing the security playbook in local contexts, activists are able to spot common trends, share learning, and develop strategies for allies to effectively push back.

“The research papers offer a baseline on where we are in safeguarding civic space from excesses of the security playbook in Kenya,” said Jane Muhia, programme officer for civic space, law, and policy at ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa.

“We hope that the papers offer insights and lessons on how the security playbook has affected civic space and why its reach cannot be underestimated. The recommendations will not only guide our strategies in safeguarding civic space, but we hope our partners and other actors in the space will take the cue on the necessary interventions to effectively pushback.”

The Way Forward

The Kenyan research team has identified an extensive list of priority actions for civil society, government, the private sector, the media, and donors. These include:

  • Civil society: Ensure evidence-based data on civic space violations perpetrated under the guise of countering terrorism and protecting national security by regularly monitoring, documenting, and publishing reports on human rights abuses.
  • Government: Address deficiencies highlighted in the Financial Action Task Force’s 2022 review of Kenya’s laws and regulations that prevent the risk of terrorist financing and money laundering, so measures are risk-based, targeted, and proportionate and respect civic freedoms.
  • Private sector: Develop and implement ethical guidelines and human rights policies to ensure their products and services are not used to abuse or violate human rights, including privacy policies, safeguards, and remedy mechanisms.
  • Donors: Provide flexible funding to frontline activists to address evolving threats to civic space and scale up initiatives to reform and transform security laws.