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Kenya’s current protests against the Finance Bill 2024 have thrown a glaring spotlight on the Kenyan police force, revealing a disturbing pattern of behaviour that harkens back to its colonial roots. The haunting images of officers wielding excessive force against peaceful demonstrators illustrate a long-standing disconnect between the police and the very citizens they are supposed to protect. Their conduct underscores the need to revisit not only their current practices but also their historical foundations. 

The Police Service has several critical functions. These include maintaining law and order, preserving peace, protecting life and property, preventing and detecting crime, apprehending offenders, and enforcing all laws and regulations. Their objectives as outlined in Article 244 of the constitution, include several key mandates. Police are tasked with preventing corruption while promoting and practising transparency and accountability. The Police Service is also responsible for training its staff to the highest possible standards in areas such as competence, integrity, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and dignity. 

From imperial mercenaries to colonial enforcers 

In 1887, the Imperial British East Africa Company (I.B.E.A.) first recruited officers to safeguard its stores in Mombasa. This was not a police force born to serve the public but rather to enforce British colonial rule. By 1906, the Kenya Police Service was legally constituted, and its structure and training mirrored military organisations, emphasising control over service. The force was dominated by British and Indian officers, relegating Africans to subordinate roles. This created a policing culture focused on suppression rather than community engagement, a legacy that casts a long shadow over modern practices.  

Between 1952 and 1960, policing efforts in Kenya were central to suppressing the Mau Mau insurgency. Social Identity Theory posits that group membership shapes our self-perception and behaviour. Early police officers likely adopted and internalised the “us vs them” mentality of the colonial regime, viewing themselves as separate from, and superior to, the populace they policed. This ingrained sense of “otherness” contributed to a lack of empathy towards citizens and a tendency to see them as potential threats, justifying excessive force. 

Training for Kenyan police officers has historically emphasised brute force over de-escalation and community engagement. Despite various reforms, a culture of impunity and lack of accountability continue to plague the force. Functionalist theory underscores the vital role of social institutions, such as the police, in upholding social order. However, this perspective often neglects the potential for these institutions to become dysfunctional.  

In Kenya, police training places a premium on obedience and maintaining order, often at the expense of critical thinking and de-escalation techniques. This approach fosters a culture of conformity, where questioning orders is discouraged, even when those orders breach human rights. Human rights and community-oriented policing take a backseat to maintaining order through fear and intimidation. This approach is a direct descendent of the force’s colonial-era training, which prioritised control over protection. 

A two-tiered system of justice 

The current protests highlight a stark reality: the Kenyan police serve a two-tiered system of justice. They can be seen as an instrument of state power, maintaining the status quo and protecting the elite. The Marxist perspective on state institutions argues that the police serve the interests of the ruling class by suppressing dissent and safeguarding their privileges. Social Dominance Theory suggests that individuals with power (such as police officers) are inclined to uphold and benefit from existing societal hierarchies. This dynamic is exacerbated by low salaries and poor working conditions, which can drive officers towards corruption, including accepting bribes to supplement their income. Such corruption allows those with the means to evade justice through financial influence and connections, perpetuating a narrative where the wealthy navigate the legal system with ease while the less fortunate face disproportionate police misconduct. This glaring inequality fosters a pervasive sense of injustice and resentment among the people. 

During the protests against the Finance Bill 2024 aimed at further taxing the working class, police brutality was rampant, with officers using tear gas, water cannons, and live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators. This response is part of a broader pattern of oppression targeting poor and marginalised communities.  

In slums and informal settlements, residents often report harassment and extortion by police, viewing them more as predators than protectors. Cognitive Dissonance Theory suggests that officers who engage in violent and corrupt acts experience psychological discomfort due to the inconsistency between their actions and their self-image as protectors. To alleviate this discomfort, they justify their actions by blaming victims or downplaying their misconduct.  

Eliminating the cycle of violence and mistrust requires dismantling the underlying mechanisms. 

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests that people learn through observation and imitation. When officers witness colleagues using excessive force without consequences, it normalises such behaviour and reduces inhibitions. Repeated exposure to violence and trauma can lead to “psychic numbing” – a psychological defence mechanism where officers detach emotionally from the suffering they witness. This dehumanisation not only protects them psychologically but can also contribute to further brutality. 

As Kenya grapples with the aftermath of the Finance Bill protests, the question persists: can the police truly serve as guardians of justice and protectors of the people? The legacy of colonialism looms large, shaping not only the structures and practices of law enforcement but also the societal divisions they perpetuate. The struggle against oppression, whether by colonial powers or modern elites, underscores the urgent need for systemic change. 

Moving forward demands more than reforms; it demands a fundamental shift in mindset and practice. Community-oriented policing, grounded in empathy and respect for human rights, must replace the current culture of fear and intimidation. Officers must be empowered not just to enforce laws but to forge genuine partnerships within the communities they serve. 

Ultimately, the path to a more just society in Kenya lies in confronting its past while forging a new future. It requires a police force that embodies the principles of transparency, accountability, and justice for all. Until then, the shadows of colonial enforcement will continue to darken the promise of a truly free and equitable nation.