New Internationalist

In Your Face

Issue 282

In your face
Kenya’s police act more like an occupying army than a civilian upholder of the peace.
Cathy Majtenyi reports on a police force out of control.

An altercation with Nairobi’s dreaded police was the last thing on Duncan Karonjo Mureu’s mind as he and several friends got out of a matatu (taxi) near his home on the evening of 23 March 1996. The 35-year-old musician and father of two was looking forward to a night of camaraderie at a bar in Zimmerman Estate, a middle-class residential neighbourhood of houses and low-rises in the north area of the city. Strolling toward the bar, the group of friends stopped off at a kiosk to greet a hawker they knew who sold hard-boiled eggs. The four drunken police officers who were munching on the hawker’s eggs weren’t glad to see them. The police started pushing around one of Mureu’s friends.

Hands in his pockets, Mureu made the mistake of asking why. Immediately showered with fists, feet and rifle butts, he was left for dead. Though taken to the hospital, Mureu was discharged by a doctor who said his injuries were not serious. Re-admitted several hours later with a fractured skull, he died the next morning of a blood clot to the brain. A murder charge against one of the officers is before the courts. The case could take months to resolve. The other three officers are still on active duty. Mureu’s friend, John Mwangi (not his real name), is not holding his breath. ‘The police have become very powerful,’ he says. ‘People don’t like to be at loggerheads with the police. Tomorrow they may come back and harass you some more.’

Mureu is one of over 35 people killed by the police in the first three months of 1996. Human-rights groups note with alarm a dramatic rise in arbitrary arrests, beatings and shoot-to-kill incidents committed by the police. According to records of the Nairobi-based Kenya Human Rights Commission, extra-judicial killings by the police almost tripled, from 45 cases in 1994 to 120 cases last year. There were 101 cases of police brutality in 1995 as compared to 42 cases in 1994. Arbitrary arrests sky-rocketed from 392 in 1994 to 2,104 in 1995.

‘Shoot-to-kill seems to be the law of the land, especially in the last few months,’ says human rights activist Njeri Kabeberi. ‘It can be used against political people who are then passed off as robbery suspects.’ The Nairobi police operate with virtual impunity, despite a Criminal Code requiring a public inquest for deaths in police custody and strict use of firearm controls under the Police Act.

Police killing, beating and harassment date back to colonial days. East Africa’s first organized security force was formed when the Imperial British East Africa Company hired locals in 1887 to protect stations along the caravan route from Mombassa to Uganda. They were known as askaris (armed guards), a term still used to describe police officers and security guards today. The police were all trained with a key function: to protect the government in power. This practice continued after Kenya’s independence in 1963. The current government of Daniel arap Moi deploys the police to break up political meetings, arrest and detain members of the opposition, keep tabs on activists, shut down treasonous publications, demolish kiosks and squatter homes owned by the poor. Intimidation ensures that police are not held accountable for their actions.

Day to day, the Kenyan police maintain an in-your-face presence, particularly through the toa kitu kidogo (‘give me a little something’) practice. ‘The police can stop you anywhere, any time and ask for your ID,’ says Adongo (who declined to give his last name). ‘If you don’t have it, they ask for a bribe.’ Adongo recalls how he and two friends were walking toward a matatu stand when they were surrounded by a group of police who demanded to see their identification. One of Adongo’s friends showed his Kenyan driver’s licence, which proved unsatisfactory. The officers hit him and tried to force him back to the police station. Terrified, Adongo’s friend began screaming for the officers to shoot him rather than take him away. As the police loaded their guns in compliance, Adongo and his other companion proffered a bribe. For the staggering sum of KSh200 (approximately $2) the police allowed Adongo’s friend to live.

The fear expressed by Adongo’s friend at the prospect of going to jail isn’t surprising. Once convicted, offenders enter a prison system referred to as ‘the death chamber’ by one high-court judge. Home Affairs Minister Francis Lotodo reported last October that 819 prisoners that year had died of malaria, dysentery, aids and other communicable diseases. By July 1995, Kenya’s 78 prisons had a population of about 50,000 – though the facilities are designed to hold 21,000. With no resettlement programs or halfway houses, prisoners on their release are shunned and often return to a life of crime.

If they manage to dodge the bullets and fists, suspects find themselves in a court system riddled with bureaucracy, corruption and inconsistency.

Sentencing for crimes against property is much harsher than for those against people. At the end of March this year, a man who killed his wife in a domestic dispute was sentenced to one year in prison by a court in Kisii. A 60-year-old clinical officer who allegedly raped a 13-year-old girl was acquitted after paying the girl’s mother a large sum of money (he was re-arrested, however, following a public outcry). Meanwhile, in October last year, a man was sentenced to death by a Karatina court for violently robbing another man of a torch, wristwatch and KSh1,300 ($13). His case was one of three death sentences – all for robbery – handed down in the last three months of 1995. While Kenya still has the death penalty, there have been no executions since 1985.

These examples also show how lightly the system treats crime against women. Delegates at a National Commission on the Status of Women seminar in mid-March called for a special police unit dealing with domestic violence against women to be created, as well as stiffer sentencing.

Yet a large segment of Kenyan society thinks its cops are tops. A national abhorrence of property crimes finds many in a love-hate relationship with the police. They condemn police bribes and other annoyances but look the other way and even actively support the police if they feel they are serious about fighting crime. In mid-November last year, following a dramatic rise in the number of armed carjackings and home invasions, there was a flood of protest from the normally low-key expatriate community of Nairobi. The Government sprang quickly into action. Police Commissioner Shadrach Kiruki announced the formation of the Flying Squad, a crack anti-crime unit aimed largely at carjackers. The anti-corruption squad was beefed up. Crime hotlines were set up in all major urban centres across Kenya. A new Tourist Police Unit was put into operation. This action, however, is in response to the outcry of the economic élite in Kenya – the vast majority of citizens, needless to say, do not own cars.

Not that the general population is completely helpless. A cry of mwizi (thief) from someone whose purse is being snatched or whose cattle are being rustled means almost certain death for the perpetrator. Even the suspicion that someone is a thief or a murderer can attract a mob of outraged vigilantes who have been known to grind the suspect into a pulp. The Kenya Human Rights Commission reports an astounding increase – from 54 cases in 1994 to 138 cases in 1995 – of this kind of mob violence. Women who go against social norms are also targets for mob justice. At the end of January, for instance, a Westlands hairdresser who was shopping in downtown Nairobi was stripped naked and beaten by a crowd of male hawkers. Her crime? She wore a mini-skirt. Following that incident, the Sunday Nation published a list of how women can avoid giving the impression that they are ‘a lady of easy virtue’.

Atieno (who declined to give her last name) knows the dangers of appearance all too well. She is often mistaken for an Ethiopian or Somali refugee. Last April, police stopped her and asked for identification. Unsatisfied with her passport, they took her to a police station, beat her, charged her with prostitution and threatened to send her back to Ethiopia. Atieno had to give them KSh200 before being released. ‘I always look behind my back,’ she says. ‘I’m not looking out for criminals; I’m looking out for the police.’

In this war-against-crime mania, public and police feed off each other. Kenya’s police are infamous for their swoops in which hundreds of ‘aliens’ are arrested to flush the area of criminals. People want to feel vindicated. For the average Kenyan, every material possession is won with hard work and ingenuity. Good jobs are hard to come by. Structural-adjustment policies ensure that no social safety net will catch people who fall into the cracks of unemployment, disease or accident. Poverty is commonplace and severe. In this climate, people hold dearly what little they have. Ironically the same conditions also form an ideal breeding ground for crime. In a society where a precious few reap staggering economic and political rewards, people on the knife-edge of survival have little to lose by turning to crime.

Cathy Majtenyi is a journalist who has written on the police for the Nation in Nairobi.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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