Making international headlines in recent years is the prevalence of police brutality in western countries like the United States of America, where members of law enforcement kill an alarmingly increasing number of black people. This is a problem Africa experiences too. It is one of the highly violent by-products of colonialism. Kenya is a country that has one of the highest rates of police-caused deaths. What is it about Kenya's police system that allows impunity to increase at such a rate?
"Police brutality and impunity are nothing new in Kenya. They're a legacy of British colonial rule when the role of the police was to protect the interests of the administration – not to serve the interests of the general populace." Douglas Lucas Kivoi states in an article for The Conversation. In countries like Kenya, where the colonial footprint is still evident, policing is synonymous with brute force. Yearly, innocent lives are lost, and families are left devastated by a system that thrives on violence.
A few isolated incidents show the kind of treatment the Kenyan police enacts to citizens. In 2019, five officers assaulted a defenceless male student during a protest on the Jomo Kenyatta University main campus. The student, Allan Omondi, sustained severe injuries and was arrested despite his condition.
As if the already destabilising effects of the Corona Virus were not enough, Kenyan law enforcers embarked on a nine-week spree of bloodshed, leaving 15 dead. March 27, 2020, was the day the Kenyan government put in place the 'dusk-to-dawn' curfew to control the spread of the virus. "Kenya's police have a reputation for being heavy-handed even without the excuse of enforcing a nationwide curfew. But no one anticipated the brutality that was about to take place." The Guardian reported Officers unleashed terror on commuters at the Likoni ferry terminal, releasing tear gas and accosting innocent bystanders. Images of bodies piled on top of each other circulated the net.
Kenya's police brutality issue lies with the lack of definition regarding the various functions of the sectors within the police body. The now merged Kenya Police Service and Administration Police Service have a combined total of about 26 formations and units ranging from traffic policing to border control and critical infrastructure protection. The Directorate of Criminal Investigations deals with murder, fraud, and human trafficking cases. Despite creating The Independent Policing Oversight Authority and National Police Service Commission 11 years ago as a step toward reform, the apparent intersections among the three sectors aid to the problem at hand.
Bereaved mother of two sons, Victor and Bernard (aged 22 and 24), Benna Buluma spoke out at a rally in Saba Saba in 2018. Police killed her sons at a protest in 2017 as they were merely making their way home. The rally had other mothers of victims in attendance. Buluma's courage to stand up and speak has created a movement called the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network (MVSN), which boasts 70 members since its inception in 2020. The network is a source of support for the mothers with Buluma coming to their aid whenever tragedy strikes. She strives to continue her work until there is a difference in how law enforcement treats Kenyans.
Missing Voices Kenya, an association of organisations that deal with these kinds of deaths, has reported well over 1,200 deaths by the police and 275 disappearances since 2007. Last year they recorded 187 killings and 32 disappearances. The report highlighted how the police primarily targeted men aged 18 to 35 who reside in informal settlements. The country's capital Nairobi has the most cases of police killings, and Mombasa is the most affected by enforced disappearances. However, women are not exempt from the violence as the report stated 'Although females are not as susceptible to being killed by police, Missing Voices noted an increase in female victims in 2021 in comparison to 2019 and 2020."
The situation in Kenya is worsening yearly. The legislation allows for these violent members of the police to continue unleashing terror on the country without fear of any punishment. The government's attempts at reforming the police body have been futile because the problem runs deeper than just the system. Reform has to happen within the police and within the officers' minds. They believe that enforcing such violence and evoking fear within communities is a part of their jobs, and that is where the issue lies. What they are taught at training has been ingrained in them and will continue to be passed down until instructed otherwise. Kenyans deserve to have a system that benefits the poor just as it aids the rich.