Police brutality: The familiar and recurrent evil


By Terry Moraa*

"One of the officers struck me on the hand with a club. Another one hit me on the buttocks. While I was trying to recover from the blows, another one hit Pendo on the head with a club. The blow was so hard that the baby did not even cry."[i]

Such is one of the devastating stories of police brutality. The Kenya Police had its beginnings in the periods between 1887 and 1902. Kenya Police Force was initially an ambit of white settlers which led to inhumane acts including torture and arbitrary arrests. By the time Kenya attained its independence in 1963, the Police Force was a key agent of state- endorsed violence.[ii] Tremendous changes have ensued since. The Constitution of Kenya 2010 created the National Police Service whose objects and functions, among others, are to comply with constitutional standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms and to strive for the highest form of professionalism and discipline among its members.[iii] In addition, the Independent Police Oversight Authority investigates deaths and serious injuries caused by police action.[iv] Despite the remarkable change from a 'police force' to a 'police service', the narrative of police brutality has remained unchanged.[v] Clear disparities persist between the prevailing realities and the mandate to protect life and property.[vi]

The conduct of police in Kenya has been a crucial human rights issue since the tragic historic events witnessed during the 2007 – 2008 General Elections. Between 2013 and 2015, over 800 innocent youth were killed in parts of Eastlands including Mathare and Dandora because of being attributed to being criminals.[vii] During the 2017 election period, several deaths and injuries as a result of police brutality were reported. Eight-year-old Stephanie Moraa died after being shot during the protest.[viii] Over these elections alone, police brutality claimed 92 lives.[ix] Human Rights Watch Report documented sexual violence against women and girls in the 2017 elections. In one of the interviews conducted, a victim wretchedly recounts:

"A police officer kicked me on my upper back with his booted feet. I couldn't move. He raped me and left. Another one came, kicked me on the stomach and back, and raped me. I thought I would die. I was in serious pain. My back pains a lot. My business was destroyed, and now I do casual work washing for people. But most of the time it is difficult. I have problems bending."[x]

The disparities have manifested themselves as police brutality cases witnessed including the election periods, in the execution of the COVID – 19 curfew and in protests. Emmanuel Mutura Ndwiga and Benson Njiru Ndwiga, the two Kianjokoma brothers, were students, just like many of us, who hoped for a better future. The sad recurrent evil of police brutality shattered their dreams. They met their death in the hands of police on 1 August 2021 while heading home at the height of curfew enforcement. The painful search by their parents led them to the morgue. Their father sadly recounted:

"The OCS told me 'those boys died'…He said it is very unfortunate and showed me photos of the boys on his mobile phone where I identified them. Benson must have suffered a lot. The entire head was deformed. He had bruises and I can recall on the leg, a bone was protruding out…For Emmanuel, it was only the head…I remember the brain was coming out."[xi]

During the COVID – 19 pandemic, the police served as a 'pandemic' while containing one. The events of 1 August 2021 where our fallen brothers from Kianjokoma were killed during the enforcement of the COVID – 19 curfew left many dampened and still linger in our hearts.Heated discussions full of anger and frustration dominated Kenyan public spaces. During the first nine weeks of curfew, at least fifteen people were killed by police.[xii] Thirteen-year-old Yasin Moyo was shot and died in Kiamaiko area as he was reportedly standing on the balcony with his siblings watching police enforce curfew.[xiii] A Police Service whose motto is 'Service to all' saw many people jumping in the river, getting hit by cars just to run away from the police.[xiv]

Protests have seen many wounded and killed while exercising their right to assemble, picket, demonstrate and petition granted under Article 37 of the Constitution. Reinhard Otieno was shot on 15 August 2022 by police officers while protesting.[xv] The 2023 protests to lower the cost of living also left several people injured and dead as a result of the police using disproportionate force.[xvi]

Sometimes, there is no uproar in most police brutality cases, for instance in the Eastlands killings, it is assumed that some youth are criminals and it is right to kill criminals. Delayed justice to victims, lack of accountability, including prosecution of police involved, seem to permit tacit approval of police brutality. It then becomes a recurring evil.

When we do not speak out to demand that police are held accountable for their brutalities, we become complicit. When the Germans did not speak out against the Nazi imprisonment, persecution and murder of millions of Jews, they became complicit in those atrocities. This led Martin Niemoller to author the poem "First they came…"[xvii]

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak for me

The poem reminds us to raise your voices against evils in the society, including police brutality.

The brutal killings we have seen and heard of, from the murder of Baby Pendo to killing of the two Kianjokoma brothers, are ascribed to unprofessionalism by the police. Police should respect human rights and act with professionalism at all times. We hope that the wheels of justice will turn for the victims of police brutality.

The following sentiments expressed by Yvonne Adhiambo in her book Dust resonate profoundly:

"After Mboya, Kenya's official languages became: English, Kiswahili, and Silence. There was also memory."[xviii]

This quote finds resonance in the aftermath of the loss of the Kianjokoma brothers; for in their passing, memory too perseveres.

*The author is a fourth year student at Kabarak University School of Law

[i] Kamau Muthoni, 'Baby Pendo's mother now pursues State for compensation' The Standard <https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/nairobi/article/2001346612/baby-pendo-s-mother-now-pursues-state-for-compensation> on 4 August 2023.

[ii] Faith Kasina and Gathanga Ndung'u, 'Kenya and Its Unreformable Police Force', 11 March 2023 <https://www.theelephant.info/features/2023/03/11/kenya-and-its-unreformable-police-force/> on 4 August 2023.

[iii] Constitution of Kenya (2010), Article 244(c), (d).

[iv] Independent Police Oversight Authority Act (No. 35 of 2011), Section 6.

[v] Martin Mavenjina, 'Police Brutality in Kenya', Kenya Human Rights Commission <https://www.khrc.or.ke/2015-03-04-10-37-01/blog/603-police-brutality-in-kenya.html> on 4 August 2023.

[vi] National Police Service Act (No. 11A of 2011), Section 24, and 27.

[vii] Ramadhan Rajab, 'Report sheds light on extrajudicial killing of 800 Mathare youths' The Star, 30 November 2017 <https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2017-05-30-report-sheds-light-on-extrajudicial-killing-of-800-mathare-youths/> on 4 August 2023.

[viii]Raquel Muigai, 'Inquest Into 2017 Killing Of Nine-Year-Old Stephanie Moraa Indicts Police', Citizen Digital, 24 April 2021, <https://www.citizen.digital/news/inquest-into-2017-killing-of-nine-year-old-stephanie-moraa-indicts-police-10529198> on 29 June 2023.

[ix] Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Still a Mirage- A Human Rights Accounts of the 2017 Fresh Presidential Elections, 4.

[x] Human Rights Watch, They Were Men in Uniform; Sexual violence against women and girls in Kenya's 2017 elections, 19.

[xi] Bernice Mbugua, 'How Kianjokoma brothers search ended in morgue', Peoples Daily, 8 November 2022 <https://www.pd.co.ke/news/how-kianjokoma-brothers-search-ended-in-morgue-157120/> on 7 August 2023.

[xii] Human Rights in Focus, 'Nine weeks of bloodshed: how brutal policing of Kenya's COVID curfew left 15 dead' 23 October 2020 <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/oct/23/brutal-policing-kenyas-covid-curfew-left-15-dead> on 4 August 2023.

[xiii] Bethlehem Feleke, 'A young boy was killed by a police stray bullet during a coronavirus curfew. Now his parents want answers' CNN Style, 28 April 2020 <https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/28/africa/kenya-police-coronavirus-curfews/index.html> on 4 August 2023.

[xiv] Bethlehem Feleke, 'A young boy was killed by a police stray bullet during a coronavirus curfew. Now his parents want answers' CNN Style, 28 April 2020 <https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/28/africa/kenya-police-coronavirus-curfews/index.html> on 4 August 2023.

[xv] Cyrus Ombati, 'Police better coordinated in 2022 poll — IPOA', The Star, 21 August 2022< https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2022-08-21-police-better-coordinated-in-2022-poll--ipoa/> on 4 August 2023.

[xvi]United Nations, 'Kenya: OHCHR 'very concerned' over disproportionate use of force against protesters', UN News Global Perspectives Human Rights 14 July 2023 < https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/07/1138742> on 4 August 2023.

[xvii] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 'Martin Niemöller: "First they came for..."', Holocaust Encyclopedia < Martin Niemöller: "First they came for the Socialists..." | Holocaust Encyclopedia (ushmm.org)> on 4 August 2023.

[xviii] Yvonne Owuor, Dust, Knopf, 2014. 

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