Police shootings and a mad-dog force are the legacies of impunity in Kenya
On Friday the 31st of March, a Kenyan police officer brutally shot dead two gang members in Nairobi’s Eastleigh district. Footage of the incident has sent shockwaves through the national and international media. Yet, police killings have a long history in the country and the only surprising thing about this killing was that it was caught on film, in broad daylight.
While many viewers have expressed shock at the use of deadly force by the officer in question, it is not an isolated incident. Kenyan police officers have been killing suspected gang members as part of their strategy for over a decade. Responsibility for the policy of extrajudicial killing can be laregly laid at the feet of General Mohammed Hussein Ali, who was given the job of Kenyan Police Commissioner in 2004. Coming from a military background, the General was brought in to deal with Nairobi’s gang problem for his hardline approach and belief in using “all available means” to get the job done. Together with John Michuki, then Minister for Internal Security, he pushed for a shoot-to-kill approach to gang violence in Kenya, which had rising in frequency and severity, in part due to the resurgence of the banned Mungiki sect.
Although government sources have always denied this policy (Michuki was transferred shortly after issuing his off-the-wall, zero-tolerance order), numerous leaks from the police and other sources have effectively confirmed that it’s still common practise. Officers have implied complicity, by justify extra-judicial killings on the basis of the country’s dysfunctional court system. When asked by The Guardian about the logic behind this policy, one anonymous police source explained his thinking:
“Why do I have to take you to court while I know you are a robber, and indeed have killed police officers, knowing fully well that you will certainly come out and bump me off?”
This does not mean the practise is widely supported. While the most recent shooting was done with a firearm in broad daylight, officers typically opt for secluded spots and often aim to mask their actions, making use of strangulation, drowning, and blunt weapons to suggest that the killings are the result of gang violence and to mask their tracks.
Once you scratch beneath the surface, there are endless examples of this kind of police killing taking place, especially in the capital. Nairobi’s morgues regularly take in the bodies of anonymous young men who have fallen victim to this tactic. And, while it is impossible to link all these deaths to the actions of police and security forces, leaks do get out and prominent cases can always be found.
The disappearance and murder of Kimani Ruo is one such example. Ruo was acquitted of being a suspected Mungiki gang member by the Nairobi Law Courts, but, on the day of his acquittal was re-arrested upon leaving the building. Ruo was then taken by police to a secret location, beaten until he confessed his Mungiki membership, and then driven into the countryside where he was strangled with a rope by police officers.
The behaviour of the police when dealing with gang members has always provoked a mixed response from the Kenyan public. While some label it unacceptable, others claim that the gang members deserve it and get what’s coming to them.
Yet, there is a growing number of Kenyans who feel compelled to challenge police tactics. The Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) is an autonomous national human rights institution. It was established and funded through an act of the Kenyan parliament in 2002 and since then, the group has led investigations to document the hundreds of disappearances and summary executions carried out by state agents.
In a report published in 2008 by lead investigators Kamau Kingara and John Paul Oulu, at least 300 individuals were named as having disappeared or been killed at the hands of security forces. They also documented a further 200 people, whose identities were never established having been booked into mortuaries as “unknown”. Even more alarmingly, the pair cited further evidence that police were running extortion rackets related to these killings; arresting individuals and then demanding money from their families to secure their release.
The KNCHR laid the blame for this killing on Police Commissioner, Mohammed Hussein Ali. Upon presentation of the report, titled the cry of blood, to the Kenyan parliament, the commissioner retorted with name-calling, jibing that KNCHR is a “meaningless busybody”. He argued it was engaged in baseless accusations against the police and lacked the expertise to carry out investigations.
Even the most bulwark supporters of the Kenyan police’s actions may think twice about what happened in response to this investigation. On the 5th of March 2009, less than a mile from State House in Nairobi, Oscar Kamau Kingara and his associate John Paul Oulu were both shot dead. The two men were on their way to a meeting with the KNCHR, when the car they were driving was blocked by a minibus and another vehicle. Two men got out, approached Kingara and Oulu’s car and shot them through a window at close range. Eyewitness reports claimed that the driver of the minibus was wearing a police uniform, while the others were wearing suits.
There was an immediate outcry from both local and international groups, although nothing was done to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice. In response to the accusations made against it, the Kenyan Police force merely stated that “official inquests had been opened”. On 8th September 2009, Major General Hassan Ali was formally discharged from his position as police commissioner. He was transferred to the position of chief executive of the Postal Corporation of Kenya, and his legacy was highly praised by the Kibaki regime. No formal charges were ever brought against him. While Hassan Ali has gone, his policy of targeted killing continues, and the police show no restraint in how they exercise it.
The killing of suspects might seem like an easy solution to Nairobi’s gang problem, but, what the government has done in response to this threat is release a mad dog police force on the Kenyan public. The police act with impunity, lacking any form of legitimacy. Their actions undermine the Kenyan judicial system and damage the rule of law. With the killing of Oscar Kingara and Paul Oulu, the security forces have demonstrated that they will attack anyone who stands in opposition against them. With nothing holding them back, the Kenyan police force are a grave threat, not just to gang members, but to every Kenyan citizen.
Rupert Wilkinson is a former student of SOAS University and aspiring misanthrope. Follow him on Twitter @nutstothis or contact him for more information.