Activist’s death calls attention to rot in police

The death of Nairobi human rights activist Caroline Mwatha is yet another blotch on our national conscience. Ms Mwatha worked with the Dandora Community Social Justice Centre, an advocacy group that documented cases of extrajudicial killings by police, and lobbied for professionalism and accountability in the Kenya Police Service. Her death is a great loss to her family and friends. But it is also a reminder of the many ways in which we are all complicit in all manner of injustices committed by the Kenyan state in our name.

Mwatha epitomised bravery. It is common knowledge that in many parts of Kenya, police officers routinely break the law in their dealings with suspects. As a reflection of their poor training and supervision - and yes, frustration with the judicial system - some officers take matters into their own hands and play police, judge and executioner of suspects. Individuals like the late Mwatha were brave not only because she dared to challenge the forces of impunity within the state security system, but also among her community members who often endorse the execution of suspects.

In the absence of a fair justice system that metes out swift justice, crime-ridden communities in Nairobi and elsewhere often resort to extra-legal means. The lynching of suspected petty thieves sadly still happens in our communities. And many police officers, especially in urban areas, get away with extrajudicial murder. Sometimes they do this out of sheer malice and lack of professionalism. But at other times, this happens because of frustration with seeing criminals who kill and maim, escape swift justice. Because of the structural failures of our justice system – including case backlogs, poor investigatory capacity among the police and officers at the Office Director of Public Prosecutions, and corrupt judges – individuals in the system try to achieve desired results any way they can. Invariably, this results in violation of human rights.

So what is to be done? The first step should be to acknowledge the structural problems that individuals like Mwatha work to rectify. Throughout Kenya, young men and women find themselves facing economic roadblocks. Our families are not as strong and coherent as they used to be. Our schools are failing our children. Addressing these problems will require complex policies designed to strengthen the economic position of our households, provide a functioning education system, and create jobs at a faster rate. We cannot keep our heads in the sand on this matter.

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In addition to the structural changes needed to address the root cause of insecurity plaguing parts of our major cities and towns, we need to be more serious about police and judicial reforms. The Kenya Police Service should be put to task about its entrenched practice of executing suspects. The Kenyan judiciary should be put to task for condoning a system that does not deliver swift justice. That is the least we can do for Mwatha, a true hero for the forgotten and downtrodden among us.

As I write this, a part of me knows Mwatha’s death will not move the needle an inch. We have become inured to entrenched impunity in critical institutions of state. Our politicians will barely register that a brave and selfless Kenyan has passed on. May God rest Caroline Mwatha’s soul in eternal peace. May her family and friends find comfort.

As for the rest of us, may we be constantly reminded of the human cost of our complicity in a system that kills its best. In our name, government officials are presiding over the deathof children due to theft in the health system. Countless young men and women are condemned to lifetimes in abject poverty due to the indifference of the same people. May more of us be like Mwatha in our commitment to justice.

- The writer is an assistant professor at Georgetown University

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