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In the 21st century, the police have become the law enforcer, jury, and executioner of the people. For the rich, the police are the protector of their assets and wealth, whereas, for the poor, they are criminals in uniforms sanctioned by the state against them. It appears as though the police were created by the rich to police the poor. Police misconduct and abuse of power have been an ongoing debate for a long time due to the series of cases reported worldwide ranging from arbitrary arrests, harassment, torture, enforced disappearances (EDs) and extrajudicial executions (EJE), among other criminal activities. The police have long been used to oppress the masses rather than maintain peace and order. These traits of police abuse of power have manifested themselves in developed and developing countries, from the US, where the issue is intertwined with racism, to China, Nigeria and Kenya.

A brief history of the Kenyan police state

In Kenya, the first formal police unit was created by the British Government in 1907 as the British Colonial Police Force. This unit was created to protect The Crown’s commercial interests in the vast region covering Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and some parts of Tanzania. Kenya Railways introduced its police units in 1902 to protect its main infrastructural project – Kenya-Uganda Railway.

This police unit evolved over the years as the British Government continued with their rule in the region. To effectively subdue the population, they used divide and rule whereby they recruited one community to serve under their units as home guards and set them against other communities. The successive independence regimes that followed maintained these units without reforming them. They used the police to protect their newly acquired wealth and also to repress any dissident voices that questioned their authority. Through them, several arrests were made, and some enforced disappearances and deaths.

Kenya’s first post-independence assassination was the killing of General Baimunge who was a general in Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KFLA) and one of Dedan Kimathi’s confidants who led the KFLA battalions on the East side of Mount Kenya Forest covering Meru and Embu. His death was carried out by the police who were under the instructions of the first Kenyan Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta. This was the first betrayal committed by the first government on its war heroes. Under Moi’s rule, they were empowered even more with the creation of special units for the torture of political detainees during his authoritarian rule that went for 24 years. Prisoners of consciousness such as Maina Wa Kinyatti, Koigi Wamwere, Karimi Nduthu, GPO Oulu and Oscar Kamau King’ara among many others.

Assassinations of activists during Arab Moi’s era 

Karimi Nduthu was a renowned activist during Moi’s regime. He was the Secretary General of the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) pressure group and also served as the Mwakenya National Coordinator. Karimi was initiated into radical politics by the December 12 Movement (DTM) literature which included Pambana, Cheche and later Mwakenya materials. Karimi was from Molo and he investigated the Molo massacre and ethnic clashes during the Moi regime. Moi was a ruthless dictator who never hesitated to silence any dissident voices that seemed to oppose his iron fist rule. He made organizing a challenge for political activists and university students. This forced many of them to organize in hiding. Karimi was expelled from the University of Nairobi for his activism as a student leader in February 1985 before he could complete his degree in engineering. He was arrested in 1986 for being a member of Mwakenya and was jailed for six years at the dreaded Naivasha Maximum Prison.

He was later released in 1992 after Mothers of Political Prisoners piled pressure on the Moi regime to release political prisoners. Immediately after his release from prison, he went straight to All Saints Cathedral where mothers of political prisoners and members of Release Political Prisoners had camped. They continued to pile pressure by camping at the cathedral until all the prisoners were released. On the night of March 23 1996, Karimi was brutally murdered at his Riruta home by the infamous Jeshi la Mzee murder squad – a vicious youth militia run by the Moi government and the then ruling party, KANU. Neighbours recounted how the police, who appeared immediately at the murder scene seemed to have been there to confirm the activist’s death. To make it look like a burglary and or a theft scene, they took his possessions including books and cassettes and manuscripts. His murder is among many questionable murders and assassinations carried out by Moi’s regime through the help of his secret police squads.

The subsequent murders of human rights activists, George Paul Oulu and Oscar Kingara, in 2019 show how Extra Judicial Executions are deep-rooted and systemic in Kenya. The denial of justice to the victims to date shows how the justice system has been rigged against a section of Kenyans.

The police force has been maintained to this date to serve the ruling class and their interests in the country without any regard for the poor majority in Kenya. The fundamental structures of the police force haven’t changed since the colonial era despite the many calls for reforms in training, service delivery, maintenance of law and order, impartiality in carrying out their duties, professionalism, attitude and relationship with the public. The Kenyan set-up shows a force that has been trained to protect the elite in a country with glaring economic disparity between the ultra-rich that have controlled the country since independence and the malnourished poor populations who survive on meagre daily wages. To control these hungry and angry masses, the police force has been concentrated in the poor urban informal settlements and slums such as Mathare, Kibera, Kayole, Dandora, Kayole, Mukuru and Kariobangi. These areas that harbour the majority of the poor in Nairobi are highly policed not to offer protection but to pacify and repress them into submission. It is from these areas that many cases of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and extortions are reported every week.

Police violations and abuses disguised as special operations and crackdowns

Special operations and crackdowns in Kenya have provided ample justification for use of force, coercion, mass arbitrary arrests with subsequent disregard for the rights of arrested persons, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. From the crackdown on multi-party democracy crusaders, Marxist-Leninist ideologues, Mungiki, the 2007/08 Post-Election Violence, Mombasa Republican Council, the anti-terrorism fight, crime in informal settlements to the Covid-19 lockdown, the state has always flexed its muscles on unarmed civilians and created fear in communities through the police force.

In 2006 and 2007, the state launched an operation to crack down on the outlawed Mungiki Sect which had taken hold of Nairobi, Central and some parts of the Rift Valley region. This group incorporated aspects of religious, cultural and political issues. They kept dreadlocks just as the Mau Mau rebels did to show their ties to the country’s freedom fighters. Their oath-takings which were rumoured to involve the use of human blood and subsequent killings that were linked to the group invited the government to start a crackdown. Mathare and other slums in Nairobi and other regions in Central Kenya suffered a huge blow as hundreds of youths were killed by police and many others disappeared during the same time. According to a report released by a group of lawyers, more than 8040 young Kenyans were executed or tortured to death since 2002, during the five-year police crackdown on the outlawed Mungiki Sect under President Mwai Kibaki’s reign.

During the 2007-2008 post-election violence, around 1,200 Kenyans lost their lives and the police were used to kill people from the zones termed as opposition. The majority of these killings happened in informal urban settlements in Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu with most of the deaths being as a result of police brutality. To date, the National Police Service has never been held accountable for the atrocities committed against its own people. In Kenya, the police force has also been bashed for being impartial in their work more so during election periods.

Mombasa Republican Council was an organization formed in 1990 by separatists who wanted secession of the coastal part of Kenya. They claimed that it was time to form their own republic. The movement subsided over the years only to be revitalized in 2008 with their vocal leaders pointing to the thorny issue of land in Kenya, marginalization and skewed development. Under the Pwani Si Kenya (Coast region is not part of Kenya) slogan, they rallied residents to join them with instances of oath-taking in coastal forests being reported. The government responded by deploying contingents of police officers who used excessive force on citizens including women and children. Most of the leaders were detained and some were forced to denounce their stand. With the creation of a decentralized government in 2013 after the first election under the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, the movement waned as the creation of county governments gave the coastal people a sense of control of their issues through local governments.

When the Kenyan army entered Somalia to help the Somali Government fight the Al-Shabaab terrorist outfit, there were increased cases of terrorist activities in the country as a retaliatory response from the outfit. This led to a crackdown on citizens of Somali origin and the Muslim populations at large in Kenya. Mombasa and Nairobi became hotbeds of police crackdown by the dreaded Anti-Terrorist Police Unit (ATPU) which rounded up and arrested hundreds of suspects, some of whom were innocent, and held them in different stations for more than 24 hours. Many Muslim male residents of Eastleigh and Majengo in Nairobi fled as searches were being carried out in mosques and homes. In Mombasa and other coastal areas, young Muslims and clerics were reported murdered during this operation with some being abducted by plain-clothed police officers, never to be seen again. Some of these abductions and arrests have been carried out in front of families and friends.

The fight against crime in the informal settlements seems to be a war against the poor young black males in the Kenyan ghettos. Their poverty has criminalized them with their dreadlocks and sense of fashion used to profile them while labelling them as criminals. This has led to the execution and disappearance of many at the hands of the police. Each informal settlement has a renowned killer police officer who seems to be backed by the state to help with its covert operations of cleansing alleged crime suspects. Kayole, Mathare and Dandora all have these serial killers in police uniforms who have taken the role of the judiciary to issue instant ‘justice’ to alleged lawbreakers. Despite the overwhelming evidence against these officers, the state seems unwilling to act on them and the only action taken is the transfer and re-shuffling of officers from one area to another.

The realization that what the government was doing was cleansing young people in the informal settlements led to the mushrooming of community-based organizations to fight this injustice and bring to light and call out the massacre of the ghetto people by their government.

Social movements and the fight against extrajudicial executions (EJE)  

The Social Justice Centres Working Group (SJCWG) is the decision-making body of the Social Justice Centres Movement which is the umbrella body that brings together all the social justice Centres in Kenya. These social justice centres act as human rights defenders’ centres based in the communities. They are formed by the members of the community to find solutions to the pertinent challenges in the communities. SJCWG has over 60 centres spread across the country organizing on different political, socio-economic and cultural issues.

The social justice centres movement continues to organize against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. To document these cases, different partners came up with The Missing Voices website and so far, 1226 Extra Judicial Execution cases and 275 Enforced Disappearance cases have been documented since 2007. The Missing Voices website is supported by Amnesty International-Kenya, Peace Brigades International-Kenya, International Justice Mission, HAKI Africa, MUHURI, Defenders Coalition, ICTJ, International Commission of Jurists, Kituo Cha Sheria, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, CODE for AFRICA, Heinrich Bӧll Stiftung, ODIPODEEV, Protection International-Kenya and SJCWG. These partners help to document, provide legal aid to victims and their kin, and offer psycho-social support among other services. Documenting helps to fill the gaps in evidence by layering victims’ testimony with quantitative data. It also creates a platform where one can report, sign petitions and follow trials of such cases as well as offer support.

The social justice centres working group operates under committees and the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network (MVSN) is one of the pillar committees. The MVSN brings together mothers of victims and survivors of police brutality to provide a platform where they can share their experiences. This also acts as a social circle to enable the survivors to start the healing process as they offer each other a shoulder to lean on. They actively engage in the documentation and follow-up of EJE’s and ED’s cases in the community and then offer referrals to the right organizations. They have also been involved in publicizing their work and creating awareness about the government’s role in the protection of the dignity of human life as enshrined in Article 26 of our constitution.

Licensed to Kill

The Kenya Police seems to have been licenced by the state to do a mass cleansing of youths in the slums. In Nairobi Eastlands, “innocent till proven guilty” seems to be a preserve for the rich as the police kill without any regard for the law. More than fifty years after independence, our police force still borrows heavily from the colonial police service in its mode of operation.

During our struggle for independence, the colonial police used the media as a propaganda tool to create fear and panic among the natives. Whenever a fighter was captured or killed, the images of their mutilated bodies would be published on the front pages of the local papers to demoralize fighters. One of the images that were highly circulated was that of Dedan Kimathi lying on a stretcher handcuffed. This was to bring the Mau Mau to its knees as they believed that he was the main leader of Mau Mau. Today, social media has taken the role of the local papers. The killer police use Facebook pages to spread their propaganda leading to the self-exiling of youths due to fear. The police have become bold in their nefarious activities as they issue warnings on their targets on Facebook with the photos of the target which they then go ahead to actualize without any fear of repercussion. Just like the colonial police, they post the badly mutilated bodies with warnings to other youths involved in crime.

The government has invested heavily in arming the police force while still spending very little on social security programs, job creation and provision of social services which would drastically reduce the crime rate. The state has also neglected the well-being of its police officers as mental health issues and low wages demoralize the force from within amongst other challenges such as poor working conditions. These problems compounded have in a way contributed to the many suicide cases in the force, the increased cases of homicides among police officers, misuse of firearms and involvement in illegal activities such as robbery with violence and collaboration with criminal networks.

The threat the police pose to the public is immense and Kenyans seem to be sitting on a time bomb ready to explode when you imagine a fully armed police officer, underpaid by the government, working in poor and harsh conditions, traumatised by work, being oppressed by the seniors with no psycho-social support systems in the force and trying to survive the harsh economic conditions. These conditions create an environment for mental instability among the junior officers.

The role of women in the fight against extrajudicial killings 

Movements have always arisen up to deal with human rights abuse by the state. Women have been part and parcel of organizing and confronting the ills in the community as well as upsetting the status quo. Women in Kenya have participated in all aspects of the struggle, and they continue to do so to this day.

During the Moi regime when the government arrested young people and put them in prisons, mothers of those political prisoners and other women camped at Uhuru Park and piled pressure on the government to release the political prisoners. The government was adamant and this led to the women stripping and going on silent strike until Moi’s government started releasing the prisoners. The women fought for their sons until they were all released.

From the defiance of Mekatili wa Menza and Muthoni Nyanjiru against the colonial police during the invasion of our territories to Field Marshal Muthoni Kirima who fought alongside men during the Mau Mau years, to second liberation heroes such as Wangari Maathai, women led by showing bravery and defiance against the skewed system being enforced through the police. This baton has been passed to MVSN which continues to organize against atrocities being committed by the police in poor neighbourhoods. Being victims, survivors and witnesses of police injustices, these women chose to rise above their pain and setbacks and channel their energy and efforts by creating awareness in the community and supporting others who have been or who would have been victims. Instead of giving up, these women have transformed themselves from being victims to community human rights defenders in the different settlements they come from. They now stand as the vanguard of the communities against rogue police officers and the system that creates and supports them.

The Social Justice Movement has organized the communities against these injustices to try and force the state into accountability. Instead of initiating the investigations, the state has in recent times responded by intimidation, surveillance and a crackdown on human rights defenders. This use of excessive force was witnessed during the annual Saba Saba (July 7 2020) March For Our Lives by the Social Justice Movement when more than sixty activists, human rights defenders and members of the community were arrested for participating in this peaceful protest commemorating the activities of the second liberation struggle in Kenya.

The Kenyan police and stalled reforms

The National Police Service is not a service but a violent squad. The change in name from ‘force’ to ‘service’ did not solve its underlying issues. The police force that was inherited at independence in 1963 has largely remained the same in function, operation, and culture among other aspects. The police service was supposed to be citizen-centric in the way it handles complaints from the public. This is far from what Kenyans are used to in our local police stations. The reforms on uniforms and change of names haven’t brought about any transformation to the police culture in Kenya.

The Kenya Police Force needs radical surgery or a total overhaul and the system that created it. The many years of reform seem to have hit a brick-wall and the changes are no longer effective. The curriculum used by the Kenya Police College needs to focus more on instilling patriotism, dignity for human life and professionalism while the recruiters should focus on passion to serve rather than the physical prowess that are long outdated.

As Human Rights Defenders from Kenya, it is our prerogative to join hands with the rest of the international movements and apply pressure on our governments to defund our police forces and redirect the resources to the reduction of unemployment, provision of social services and creation of a social safety-net for vulnerable families. These efforts would go a long way in solving crime and insecurity since reforms is not a viable solution anymore.

Until we uproot the system that created this police force, it shall continue to be a ‘force’ rather than a ‘service’, the issue of mental health among the police shall continue to be a thorn in the side and cases of suicide among the force shall continue to rise. Until a radical surgery is applied, professionalism will be an alien vocabulary to our police officers; until we cut the stem that supports the moribund system that is the Kenyan Police, Kenyans and the citizens of the world shall continue to suffer in the hands of these police forces.

This article was first published by ROAPE.