Varsity student assault shows police brutality is still alive and kicking

JKUAT students riot along Thika superhighway over the killing of some of their colleagues near their hostels. [Boni Mwalii, Standard]]
The assault of JKUAT student Allan Omondi is a stark reminder that police violence remains a big problem in Kenya. However, while the case attracted significant attention, it is important to remember that there are many other victims of police violence, including minors such as Baby Pendo.

For years, human rights organisations, among them Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), have documented hundreds of cases of police violence.

The advocacy that follows the publication of such statistics and commission reports on abuse such as the Waki Commission, has resulted in legal changes and establishment of State-sanctioned police accountability mechanisms.

However, focus has mainly been on assault cases that result in fatalities. Cases involving other forms of police brutality have been largely ignored.

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Mr Omondi's case is therefore important because it presents a publicly visible opportunity to test the interest and capability of agencies that deal with cases of police brutality that Kenyans experience on a day to day basis.

In this regard, the quick response by Cabinet Secretary for Interior Fred Matiang’i, the Inspector General (IG) of Police and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), is laudable.

Their response indicates that the formal State mechanisms of police accountability can, in some circumstances, provide a meaningful intervention in cases of excessive and unjustified police violence.

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Preliminary investigations

In a statement shortly after the attack, the IG instructed the Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) to investigate the matter and recommend action within 24 hours. IPOA dispatched officers to do preliminary investigations. They subsequently announced that they would conduct a full investigation into the matter.

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The social mechanisms of accountability have played a critical role in ensuring this case is not ignored by the relevant agencies. In particular, Kenyans on Twitter were a strong source of advocacy, and not only demanded accountability but also that Omondi be released from police custody.

It matters that they could directly reach the Cabinet Secretary, the IG and IPOA. It is instructive that Dr Matiang’i made his statement on the matter, including reporting that he had discussed the matter with the IG, on Twitter.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, this case has already proven to be different from many others before it. For sure, as unnerving as Omondi’s assault is, it is hardly the most grievous that Kenyans have witnessed.

Recent police killings such as those of Baby Pendo, Carilton Maina and even Willy Kimani are still fresh in our minds. This raises an important question: Is the Government now more committed to police accountability or is something else going on?

Interpret violence

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Rather than signalling an improvement in the efficacy of our police accountability mechanisms, my guess is that this case tells us more about how we interpret violence; what violence we consider acceptable and unacceptable and against whom.

Omondi is a university student. As a result, his "humanness" is not in question and he therefore easily fits into the frame of "innocent – and perhaps even helpless - victim of police excesses."

Other victims of police violence – even where they are caught on camera – are not afforded the same concern. In cases where victims can be branded criminals, the citizens' response is often muted and police can easily get away with it.

In fact, silence accompanies most killings of young men in Nairobi’s poorer neighbourhoods.

For sure, we have come a long way. That we have institutions that hold police officers to account is a critical step. It matters that the IG had the IAU to rely on for an investigation and that IPOA could, on its own motion, investigate the matter.

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The decision by the IG to interdict the officers signals a commitment to resolve the matter.

It is critical that usual hindrances such as police interference with investigations or the disregard of cases after public attention dwindles would not be allowed to deny Omondi the justice he deserves.

However, much more remains to be done to ensure other victims of police brutality, including from the most disadvantaged and marginalised groups of the society, are accorded the same regard by State institutions.

Mr Wairuri is a PhD student at University of Edinburgh examining police accountability in Kenya.

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JKUATIPOAStudents riot