Kenyans have long accepted the torrid nature of the police service, with the 2014 Transparency International (Kenya) East Africa Bribery Index Report ranking them as first in Kenya on a composite index (resulting from five different indicators of the survey: likelihood of bribery, prevalence of bribery, average size of bribe, share of national bribe and impact of bribery. The range of the index is between 0 and 100). They scored 68, up from 60 the previous year. Second was land services at 55.
Having experienced horror at the hands of the Lands Office, the fact that the police service was 13 points above them on the scale was shocking, until I thought about it carefully. Harassment and brutality by the police is a common occurrence in Kenya. To the extent that it has become like a droning background noise that one gets so used to, it’s almost as if it isn’t there. Except that it is.
Many of us have had the police arrest us at spots on the road they have deliberately set up to shake us up for bribes. We have been arrested for merely being out at night. We have had the police accept bribes of KES 500 – 1000 from matatu drivers who have no business being on the roads, with no regard for the 14 – 48 people who may be in the matatu. They have allowed sexual harassers and assaulters to get away scot free even when they could have done something. The police have also been known to mete out brutality against those they believe are lesser than; those whose pain they think they can get away with causing; whose lives they consider disposable.
Kwekwe Mwandaza was one such person. At 2 am on August 21st 2014, Kwekwe, aged 14, was shot dead while she slept at her home in Mwawewu Village, Kinango (Kwale County). Eight police officers raided their home looking to arrest her uncle, George Zani, an alleged murder suspect. The officers claim that she attacked them with a panga, suggesting that they killed her in self-defense. Apparently, she injured one police officer (whom they could not identify) and damaged a gun. They with their guns, against a child with a panga. Her two cousins who were in the house at the time gave a different version of events, recounting how the officers broke their door and threw teargas inside. As the family choked, they opened fire. Kwekwe died in her bed according to her then eight year old cousin George Mgandi. She had attacked no one.
She was buried hurriedly at her father’s homestead without her mother’s consent, yet her mother was her guardian since she and Kwekwe’s father separated. Her body had to be exhumed for a post mortem, which happened only after much protest from lobbyists and her family. The two officers were later arrested and charged for her murder after orders came from the Director of Public Prosecution’s (DPP) office.
In February 2016, Kinango Divisional Criminal Investigation Officer (DCIO) Veronicah Gitahi and Constable Issa Mzee were found recklessly negligent for shooting in darkness without establishing who the victims were, and found guilty of manslaughter. They were both handed 7 year jail sentences. Justice Martin Muya, who handed out this sentence, considered it to be a statement against police impunity and misuse of guns against innocent civilians. The State, in one of its few displays of integrity, however plans to appeal this sentence because it finds it too lenient (the State had charged the two officers with murder).
Indeed, statements such as these against police impunity and brutality towards civilians are desperately needed. On January 19th 2015, pupils at Langata Road Primary School protested against the grabbing of their school’s playground by “private developers.” Some adult well-wishers joined the protest, and when the police came to disperse it, they thought it was appropriate to throw teargas at innocent children who were holding a peaceful protest. The officers also brought dogs. Several children were injured in what was an unnecessary and excessive use of force by the police.
On February 15th 2016, Kelvin Macharia, who was 16 years old, was shot outside a chemist in Embu as the police tried to disperse a crowd that had gathered to lynch a pastor who had been found sleeping with a local businessman’s wife. Kelvin was taken to Embu Level 5 Hospital, where he died as he waited to be attended to. One wonders why the police had to use live bullets to disperse the mob – was this excessive use of force necessary?
Because of the banality of brutality and harassment by the Kenyan police, perhaps we do not often enough think about the irreparable effects it has on our society and our way of life. We live our lives knowing that we are one tragedy away from the fates of Kwekwe and Macharia. You could be in your bed sleeping, or outside a chemist waiting for your medicine while you meet your death at the hands of the police. No one is safe – even your privilege can’t save you from a stray bullet.
The psychological damage on the families of those affected, those present at the scenes of these incidents and the nation at large is untold. These people experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety attacks, substance abuse or even suicidal tendencies, and given the state of mental healthcare in Kenya, their needs tend to go unmet, yet it is agents of the State who have inflicted this pain, so the State has an obligation to provide for those needs.
The resources that end up being spent on investigating these cases could be put to better use, especially in a country that is in Kenya’s economic state, and the damage to property that Kenyans have worked hard to own is entirely unavoidable, if only the police treated all Kenyans as deserving of human dignity, and not as disposable bodies.
To counter this breaking of our spirits and our bodies, it is important that it be imparted upon the police the importance of non-violent approaches (unless there was none at all they could use, and even then, they should use minimal force). It cannot be that it is acceptable for the police to teargas and kill innocent children, or anyone else for that matter. They must also be taught ethics, which would serve to guide them as they do their work.
We must clearly define what meets the threshold for police brutality and punish it accordingly. In Kwekwe’s case, the officers involved insisted that their shooting was necessary, and that the force had not been excessive. It is time we accepted that police brutality and harassment in Kenya is a big issue, and took conscious steps to solve it. The consequences of police brutality and harassment should also be dire (such as long jail sentences), and applied uniformly regardless of the stature of the victim. This will deal with the notion that some Kenyans are disposable. We must uphold the humanity and the rights of all Kenyans, chief of which is the right to life – a right that police brutality directly interferes with.