Savage beating of lone protester makes police reforms laughable

Protester arrested outside Treasury building. [Brian George, Standard]

Last week, a protester against the high cost of living was arrested outside the Treasury building. Some hours later, pictures of his bloodied face circulated on social media in what appeared to be yet another instance of police brutality.

No astute observer should be surprised that the police are capable of such action. If anything, the incident underscores the superficiality of police transformation from force to service. It exposes a system so long accustomed to brutality that even where tensions can be de-escalated by dialogue, violence is the instinctive response.

Yes, many Kenyans may be inured to official violence. They may even dismiss the savage beating of a lone protestor as deserved. But as the pinch from increasingly high food prices and lack of petrol in fuel stations begins to be more personal, it is likely that spontaneous protests along the same lines may erupt. As they say, nothing inspires more than an empty belly.

Yet bludgeoning the hungry is not the answer. Nor is the blame game by a section of the political elite who want to pass the buck. The President can ill afford to sit this crisis out, hoping to kick the can further down the road until it is eventually picked up by his successor. The time for action is now!

It will take a great deal of nous to navigate the maelstrom that is the tragic coda of the Jubilee administration. Having ruined the economy, fissured the country’s delicate ethnically charged politics and presided over grand corruption, only a change of attitude can save the country from what would be a calamitous end.

To be fair to President Uhuru Kenyatta, he has displayed more forbearance to dissent than any of his predecessors. He has withstood astringent attacks on his style of leadership without reprisals that visit harm on his detractors. As a friend recently pointed out, in times past, criticisms such as those that this column has levelled against the government would have earned one a stint in the notorious Nyayo House torture dungeons. Whether the president is fettered by the Constitution or is just thick-skinned, is a matter of conjecture. But suffice it to say Kenya is a much more open society under his administration.  

Which is why it galls when vestigial remains of the rule by fiat pop up occasionally. The misadvised beating of a hungry citizen exercising his fundamental rights and liberties, guaranteed by the mother law, is one such instance.

Another is the ridiculous edict by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) that required every citizen with a mobile phone number to physically present themselves to their mobile service provider for fresh registration.

The CA bullied and blustered its way, threatening steep fines and jail-terms for anyone failing to meet a deadline that was just weeks away. What chutzpah! What cockamamie! The edict has since been rescinded but not before tens of thousands of frightened Kenyans have wasted valuable time queueing to avoid sanction.

With national elections just months away, officialdom needs a change of attitude.

Dumbing down Kenyans and talking down at them will only inflame passions that are already too heightened by an insensitive and uncaring administration. Citizens have demonstrated that where there is a disjuncture between fundamental rights and official brutality, they are only too willing to recourse to the protection of the courts. This was recently evident when the ridiculous Covid vaccine mandates that barred the unvaccinated from visiting malls and access to public services were dispensed with by the courts. It was also seen when the Building Bridges Initiative’s attempts to illegally amend the Constitution were dismissed by the apex court.

All public officers should be put on notice. Once their tenures lapse, they ought to be personally liable for their own excesses whilst in office. Those who steal from public coffers or beat, maim and kill citizens in the name of public duty will be followed assiduously and made to atone for their misdeeds within the ambit of the law.  

Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst.