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The Origins of the Intelligence System of Kenya

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How did Kenya's intelligence service emerge? What challenges does it face? After the colonial government established a 'Special Branch' in the police force to gather intelligence on political matters, Kenya's intelligence service developed a reputation for oppression. It was only when the National Security Intelligence Service Act was passed in 1998 that it began to institute democratic principles and to upgrade its staff and codes of conduct. Despite continuing challenges, the NSIS now has the capacity to address internal and external security challenges and the flexibility to adapt as required.

Pre-colonial African communities developed a credible intelligence system with which to live cooperatively with their neighbours and protect themselves from incursion or attack. Spies operated under the guise of artisans, actors, beggars and herdsmen, gathering information on their opponents' weapons, warriors and security.

  • British colonists recruited mercenaries as porters and guides. First the mercenaries provided information, but later they served as community chiefs, displacing traditional leaders. This meant that most of those who became chiefs were opportunists.
  • The colonial system did not destroy existing networks, but used them to build a new intelligence system. The colonial government initially gathered information from tourists, missionaries and traders, but after 1895 gathered information at the local level through commissioners and retainers, including from African allies and collaborators. From 1906, intelligence reports were submitted to the Commissioner of the East Africa Protectorate.
  • The British East African Police was established in 1892, and for 18 years gathered intelligence. During World War One, the focus of intelligence gathering changed from African affairs to information on enemy activities in neighbouring countries. African agents were recruited, and tapped telegraphic communications, tracked the enemy, and visited other African workers to gather information. Coastal traders engaged in counter-intelligence.
  • In 1926 a Criminal Investigations Division was created, staffed by colonists, and involving a Special Branch responsible for intelligence.
  • In the post-World War Two period until 1963, the SB's activities expanded from the collection of intelligence on criminal activities to investigation of citizens agitating for independence and the trade union movement. The SB also expanded to combat the Mau Mau insurgency and was reorganised following intelligence failures.
  • The post-independence government inherited an intelligence mentality that used force to ensure compliance. After 1965, police and intelligence services became politicised and linked to individuals. By 1982, the police force (including the SB) had become a tool of oppression, systematically abusing the law and disregarding the Constitution.
  • In 1998, however, the National Security Intelligence Service was created, and over 170 SB officers were purged from the NSIS. In 1999, the NSIS and the police were separated, arrest authority was removed from the NSIS, and a tribunal was established for complaints against the intelligence service.

The NSIS has established itself as a professional intelligence agency, with new priorities including the provision of early warning on matters of national interest, particularly security, terrorism and corruption. While it supports government policymakers, the NSIS is expected to refrain from direct involvement in policymaking. Recruitment now targets graduates and post-graduates for a one-year course at its training academy. However, challenges for the NSIS include:

  • Lack of trust from Kenyan citizens, making them reluctant to provide information to the NSIS
  • Questions over its financial credibility and political independence
  • The tension between accountability and necessary secrecy - taxpayers' money allocated to NSIS operations remains unaudited, which causes friction between the public and the agency.


Author: Brigadier (rtd.) Wilson Boinett
Source: Boinett, W., 2009, 'The Origins of the Intelligence System of Kenya', in Changing Intelligence Dynamics in Africa, eds. S. Africa and J. Kwadjo, GFN-SSR and ASSN, Birmingham, UK, pp. 15-40
Size: 25 pages (773 kB)