Colonize and punish

Mass imprisonment and merciless policing were the preferred tools of control for European colonizers. Patrick Gathara explores the legacy left in Kenya.

Riot police hit protesters participating in a demonstration against lawmakers’ salary demands outside the parliament buildings in Nairobi in May 2013. THOMAS MUKOYA/REUTERS/ ALAMY

Prisons were among the first buildings the British built wherever they colonized. Arriving in Kenya in 1895, within 16 years they had built 30 prisons, with on any given day over 1,500 inmates. Over the next two decades, the numbers of both prisons and people inside them would more than double. By the dawn of the Second World War, Kenya was incarcerating a far greater proportion of its population than British colonies elsewhere in East and Central Africa.

Colonial prisons were, and to a large extent remain, places of brutality, social exclusion and abandonment. Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears. They brutalize people into submission and, along with the police and military, aim to scare the rest of society into compliance with the state.

The incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the ‘Pipeline’ (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with anti-colonial insurgents) inevitably led to the institutionalization of humiliation and torture. Sadly, since independence, the prison regime has only become harsher.

According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, prisons today are ‘characterized by overcrowding, congestion, poor diet, degrading clothing and bedding, lack of clean water, poor sanitation and infectious diseases’. This is in addition to the forced labour which the Attorney General has described as ‘an integral component of the sentence’. Kenyan courts have provided little respite, ruling that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the prison service to deny incarcerated people basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes and toilet paper.

This is a world of away from how things were before the British seized power. The idea of mass incarceration as punishment was novel at the time of colonization in Kenya. Pre-colonial justice systems ‘were victim rather than perpetrator-centred with the end goal being compensation instead of incarceration’, notes legal professor Jeremy Sarkin. Though pre-trial detention was common in places across Africa, only some centralized states, such as the West African kingdom of Dahomey, had permanent prisons. These were used to house people waiting for trial or sentencing, not as sites for punishment.

In indigenous systems, corporal and capital punishments were similarly not unknown. However, such brutal punishments were reserved for the worst acts of violence, while, according to Leonard Kercher’s 1981 treatise on the Kenyan penal system, ‘ostracism, religious sanctions and expulsion were … employed mainly against lesser habitual offenders who had outraged the conscience and exhausted [society’s] patience’. Colonial prisons combined these concepts of brutality, retribution and ostracism and applied them to even the smallest violations. In fact, Africans did not even need to break the law to be jailed. White settlers would collude with colonial authorities to imprison workers they considered lazy for up to six months with hard labour.

Prisons were among the first buildings the British built wherever they colonized

Still, the introduction of prisons met with little resistance, perhaps because they were initially poorly funded ramshackle affairs. There was little segregation of the prison community from the rest of society, with incarcerated people in some cases free to come and go as they pleased. However, these momentary escapes perhaps may not have made much difference as life outside the prison, under settler colonial rule, was increasingly coming to mirror the conditions within it.

When the police show up

Kenya’s first police-like force was also an imperial one. Whereas policing organizations set up to enforce the dictates of rulers and collect taxes in various incarnations go back at least 5,000 years, they looked and functioned quite differently to the police we know today. In the area today known as the country of Kenya, along with much of the rest of the African continent, they were quite unknown.

This does not mean that there was no violence or that societies did not develop means to enforce common rules of behaviour – just that they did not require a policing organization to do so. According to Florence Gaub and Alex Walsh: ‘Social discipline in a given community was managed by the community itself through informal processes – indeed, even today closely-knit communities only resort to the police when they cannot find a solution themselves.’

The East Africa Trading Company, which later became the Imperial British East Africa Company, established an administration with an armed security force in 1896 to protect its trading routes, trading centres, stocks and staff, especially the building of a railway to Uganda. This force officially became the Kenya Police in 1906, organized along military lines, staffed by recruits from India and governed by Indian statutes. It was little more than ‘a punitive citizen containment squad’, designed to keep the natives in line and enable the process of colonial looting.3

The police were party to this looting from the outset, and corruption was commonplace. In his book Looters and Grabbers, veteran Kenyan journalist Joe Khamisi cites Hugh Cholmondeley, a leader of the British settlers popularly known as Lord Delamere, describing the relations between the public and police in 1907 thus: ‘Time after time, I have had a native say they were stopped by an Indian policeman. When I asked them how they got away, they always said, “Oh, I gave him something”.’

Tactics borrowed from battling insurgencies in Palestine and Malaya would be deployed to brutally put down the Mau Mau uprising

Despite many attempts at reform, the Kenya police continue to be a tool for oppression and extraction by the ruling elite, more concerned with preserving, rather than dismantling, the hierarchies of power inherited from the British. As noted in the 2009 report of the National Task Force on Police Reforms, at independence in 1963 Kenya ‘had the same police units, the same police structures and many of the same police officers in place. This made it inevitable that the culture of supporting the regime in power would be perpetuated and carried over into the new post–independence era.’ In the decades since, the police have continued to be little more than ‘the enforcement wing of government oppression against resistance groups… unaccountable to anyone outside the ruling regime’.

Corruption and extortion continue to be widespread and endemic, as does brutality. Extrajudicial killings, especially of young men living in urban informal settlements, are rampant with 803 people murdered by police between 2013 and 2016. More recently, during April and May 2020, the police killed 15 people and seriously injured over 30 across the country, while claiming to enforce a curfew brought in to curb the spread of Covid-19.

British soldiers examine a cyclist’s papers at gunpoint in Nairobi, 1953, during the Mau Mau Uprising. RON HARVEY/EVERETT COLLECTION HISTORICAL/ ALAMY

Imperial boomerang

Studying the history of policing shows that Britain circulated practices and personnel between colonies, as seen in the use of Indian police officers and rules in Kenya. ‘Modern police history begins not in Britain itself, but in Ireland,’ Britain’s first colony, wrote Charles Jeffries, who served as Deputy Under-Secretary of State for Colonies until 1956. Until the 1930s, Ireland (and then Northern Ireland) was a training ground for colonial police officers and when the Royal Irish Constabulary was disbanded in the 1920s, many of its officers were sent around the world to places such as India and Palestine.

Tactics borrowed from battling insurgencies in Palestine and Malaya would be deployed to brutally crush the Mau Mau uprising of 1952 in Kenya. Across all its colonies, whenever Britain saw its power being challenged, it used increasingly violent and oppressive methods against the people it had colonized.

The Mau Mau uprising fundamentally changed Kenya’s already brutal prison system. The British detained hundreds of thousands of people in detention camps and militarized villages. Thousands of people were tortured, and the British state tried to cover up the scale of the horror. The prison became cemented within the popular imagination as a place of physical desecration and social death.

As JM Moore notes, the lessons from the brutalization of Kenyans and others in British colonial gulags also found their way back home to be used against working class and racialized communities.5 This feedback loop is an aspect of the ‘imperial boomerang’, the thesis that repressive techniques used to control colonial territories were eventually deployed domestically.

‘The convict in the metropole is now like the convict at the colonial periphery, suitable for disposal rather than recycling,’ writes Moore.

In Kenya, and much of the colonized world, police and prisons have remained, to a large extent, as the Europeans created and ran them. They are still punitive tools for citizen containment, institutions that function to protect the interests of a small but powerful elite, rather than to dispense justice. Their loyalty is not to the people, but to the rulers – a stance captured in the Swahili slogan attributed to police trainers in popular lore: mwananchi ni adui (the citizen is an enemy). These aspects of criminalized justice will increasingly become familiar to folks on the Old Continent as the imperial boomerang keeps returning home.

Patrick Gathara is a journalist, columnist and political cartoonist based in Nairobi, Kenya.