Police Brutality: The Intersections of Class, Cultures of Silence and Policing in Kenya

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By Job Mwaura

The events of last month in Kenya where two young men from Kianjokoma in Embu County were killed by police have left many people dispirited. On social media platforms, just like in offline spaces, the loss, frustration, and rage could be felt in the heated discussions that dominated Kenyan public spaces. As the number of murders and violent encounters with the police go up, Kenyans have had to contend with an escalation of police violence and brutality. At one point in the discussions on social media, there was a demand to name and shame these killer police officers, some of them well known in the public domain. Obviously, the naming goes beyond shaming and is an attempt to bring about justice and accountability. Here are some of the comments made on Twitter about a notorious killer police officer:

Huyu jamaa ameleta usalama sana bro, ata akuje huruma crime imekuwa juu sana (This guy has improved security a lot and should even come to Huruma where crime is very high)

 This guy is doing his work, [he] does not arrest civilians unnecessarily, just deals with violent thugs who would otherwise terrorize and kill hardworking civilians. He is protecting civilians actually

 This guy has brought security in Eastleigh by elimination method. He targets only the ruthless gangs who have been killing people for mobile phones. He dissolved them and made them disappear in the thin air. If you are sympathizing with gangs, you are bad news

Going through these sentiments, I was struck by the casual sanctioning and legitimation of police violence by the Kenyan public.

As I was doing my doctoral research a few years ago, I visited Mathare Social Justice Centre, a grassroots community based organisation in the heart of Mathare slums in Nairobi, which has done a lot to document enforced disappearances and murder of young people in Mathare and other neighbouring slums by the police. Many young men from Mathare had been killed by known police officers attached to nearby police stations. Most of these youths were innocent while others were summarily executed after being suspected of committing various crimes. The parents and relatives of these young men have been grieving and each time another young man is killed by the police, re-traumatization happens. For a long time, they have not had their questions answered nor received justice despite the numerous reports to the police and The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA). A stone’s throw away from Mathare slums is the bustling business district of Eastleigh. This famous district is majorly owned by the Kenyan Somali businesspeople and is loved not just by many Kenyans but by people in the East African region for its affordable goods. The business community has often felt threatened, either by the government forces or threatened by criminals from the eastern side of Nairobi. Often, they have sought protection from certain police officers – who have in turn killed suspects who get caught within the district or those hunted down in Nairobi’s slums like Mathare. As a result, this has become majorly a class war with some elements of ethnic animosity. On one hand, some of the affluent owners of malls in the business district of Eastleigh support the elimination of criminals just like many other middle class and affluent communities in Kenya. On the other hand, poor communities in Mathare are losing their young men who are suspected of criminality. This is a narrative that I picked on Twitter last month in the wake of the killing of the Kianjokoma brothers by the police in Embu County, Kenya. Yet again, this is the reflection of what is happening in the country. But how did we get to this point?

Kenya is now like a jungle with no respect for the law. This is evident among most communities right from individuals and family units all the way to the top leadership in the country. There is widespread impunity. Many citizens do not want to follow the law. Many others want the shortest route to getting what they want. For instance, when motorists are involved in accidents with motorcyclists on the road, motorcyclists gang up against motorists, beat them up and destroy their vehicles. We have normalised this behaviour which is now becoming deeply entrenched in our culture. Many Kenyans no longer care about others, their feelings, and the truth. They have lost humanity and they do not care what others feel.

When innocent youth are killed in Mathare, Dandora or Kayole, there is often no uproar because there is an assumption that they are criminals and that killing criminals is okay. There therefore seems to be a normalisation and legitimisation of violence against assumed criminals. This silence and sanctioning of violence against the urban poor stands in sharp contrast with the public outcry that is normally witnessed when people from affluent families are killed. The four young men killed two weeks ago in Kajiado county are a stark reminder of the normalisation of the killing or the harming of individuals who are suspected to be criminals. This culture of silence and class dynamics is making it difficult to fight police violence and extrajudicial killings

When we do not speak out and demand that the police be held accountable for atrocities they commit, we become complicit. When the Germans did not speak out against the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and the murder of millions of Jews, they became complicit in those atrocities. This led Pastor Martin Niemöller to author the famous poem titled “First they came . . .” which reads:

 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.

Over the years, this poem has stood out as a warning and as a reminder that when we do not speak out against evils in our society, we become complicit.

The impunity of the Kenyan police can partly be traced to cultures of silence – which often pass as tacit approval of the violence – and the historical relationship of black and disenfranchised bodies with the police force as an institution. The senseless murders we have seen and heard of in the past few years, from the murder of city lawyer Willie Kimani, to Collins, a young man who was killed by the police in Mathare, and to many others who have lost their lives especially during the COVID-19 curfews are all attributed to the cultures of silence, impunity and policing in Kenya. In addition, the political class has set a precedent that it is possible to commit murder and get away with it. To this end there are several leaders who currently have ongoing court cases because of murder. But again, we still question why it took so long for killer police officers of the Kianjokoma brothers to be named and arrested, yet, as Yvonne Adhiambo writes in her book Dust “After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili, and Silence. There was also memory.”

The institutional failures and the lack of trust in the Kenyan justice system have not made things any easier. When two young, unarmed men were killed in Eastleigh in 2017 by a police officer in full glare of the cameras, there was celebration in some quarters and silence in others. But the big question we should have asked was why the two young men were not arrested and taken to court and charged with the crimes they had committed. Our silence came first. The argument that suspected criminals taken to court should not be discharged or released on bail is denying individuals their constitutional rights. Harming individuals suspected of being criminals or taking the law into their own hands is losing trust with the justice system. The justice system should carry the burden of making citizens trust it. Citizens cannot trust it if for instance, they continue to see individuals accused of corruption not being brought to book.

Let me sum up by noting why police violence and extrajudicial killings will not end unless we change the culture we have adopted. First, police violence will not end unless we continuously speak out against it, even when those from poor communities are affected. Secondly, police violence will not end if we continue to believe that individuals suspected of committing crimes are better killed/eliminated than taken to court and charged. Thirdly, police violence will not end if we do not change the culture of impunity that we have continued to cultivate everywhere. Fourthly, police violence will also not end if we do not trust our justice system and if the justice system will not work hard to make sure the public trusts it. Lastly, police violence will not end if there is no change in the oppressive and punitive culture of policing in Kenya.

THE END

 *Dr. Job Mwaura is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa.

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