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From Old Town, Mombasa, to Vigilance House: The evolution of Kenya police

COAST
By Willis Oketch | September 5th 2021
The first police station in Kenya in Mombasa Old Town. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

The Kenya Police have operational procedures that may not be apparent to the public.

For instance, it is a tradition in the force to use the word 'Roger' to indicate a message has been heard and understood. 

Despite Captain Rodgers being in the limelight in 1896, Kapur Singh from India was the most celebrated police commander. He left a mark that cannot be erased anytime soon.

He was brought to Kenya in 1895 by the British and played a major role in the rigorous training still being felt in the police service.

According to the National Museum of Kenya (NMK), Kapur Singh worked diligently and became a respected senior police officer. He later retired, and his son Stabachan Singh took over.

We traced the history of the police force to NMK in Mombasa, where it was first established over 100 years ago.

Leven House in Mombasa Old Town has been renovated with a Swahili design.[Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Head of Mombasa Old Town Conservation (MOTCO) Abdulswamad Ali says before foreigners arrived in Kenya, there was no police service in the region.

He says even the Arabs, Persians and Portuguese who were the first to arrive in Kenya never introduced it.

But the arrival of the British colonists in Kenya in the 1880s marked the introduction of the police service.

Ali says when the British stamped their authority by first establishing a Colonial Office and zoned East Africa between them and the Germans.

For the British to have control over the region, they had to establish the first police station at Mombasa Old Town, the first in East Africa.

Ali says that the establishment of the police force in the region can be traced back to 1896 when the British imposed external control to help them expand their economic interest without investing their resources.

To control the business and protect their business, the British Foreign Office in the UK ordered the local Colonial Office in Mombasa to establish the first police station at Old Town near the Government Square.

The British first recruited 150 local watchmen.

“Most of those recruited to serve as police officers had been employed by the Italians to guard their shops and residential houses,” says Eng Ali.

The police constables recruited were under the command of British police inspectors and were expected to protect trade routes, trade centres, stocks and their staff.

A tunnel in Mombasa Old Town. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Indians, Somalis, Swahili and Comorans were later recruited.

According to NMK records, the Indian police instructors trained the recruits. The Indians had acquired the British style of training police officers.

The rigorous and harsh training to instil discipline in the service has remained persistent for the last 125 years. Even with the introduction of reforms in their curriculum, some of them remain brutal, with the public remaining speculative of what the training entails.

Generally, the duty of these officers was to protect the territorial and economic interests in the Kilindini Harbour area,” reads the NMK report.

And with the fast development of the Kilindini Harbour and the increasing traffic by road and rail, a bigger police command post was built at Makupa police station in the first decade of the 20th century. The station is still in use.

It was built after Central Police, which was the third police headquarters.

The model of the Makupa police station was replicated in other stations in the country as Kenya developed.

At the beginning of the 20th century, police officers protected the railway line from Mombasa to Uganda and the trains.

Most police stations built along the railway line are still in use.

Old Port police station, Central police station, Makupa police station and railway police station in Mombasa are among the old stations.

As the force evolved, the colonialist enacted Palm Wine Regulation in 1900 to stop palm tapers and those selling it from doing so in Mombasa.

It was considered a threat to the performance of those employed in European companies.

The Palm-Wine Regulation Act considered the oldest law in the country, required palm wine tapers and sellers to acquire a license from District Commissioners.

The other function of the police was to inform the British colonies about what Africans were doing in slums.

Police officers collected the hut tax imposed on Africans and those who did not pay taxes were arrested and taken to work in European homes and businesses.

Police booths, manned by two policemen, were installed to control the inhabitants in various villages.

Most of the officers worked as Tribal Police. They arrested vagrants in the slums and protected the settlers from attacks after dispossessing Africans their land.

After 1902, more police stations were opened, and police stations along the Kenya-Uganda Railway line were turned into a colonial police force known as British East Africa Police.

The police headquarters at Old Town was moved to the new Central Police Station in 1915 on Rodgers Road (now Samburu Road).

Africans in the force were also allowed to climb the ladder to inspectors, and in 1911, the Tribal Police was unarmed and deployed to work with the District Commissioner to police rural areas.

They were trained on night patrols in the urban areas, the recognition of property crimes, the enforcement of labour laws on settler farms, the execution of death sentences and the protection of European property and persons.

In the urban areas, the police were to strategically keep Nairobi safe from the disorder perceived to emanate from Africans residing in the Nairobi slums of Eastlands.

However, in 1947, an emergency company was set up to deal with labour unrest, which took place at the Mombasa Port. 

The leaders were arrested by the British imperialists, a move that sparked unrest. Over 100,000 workers in Nairobi joined the Mombasa Port strike that lasted for nine days.

Mombasa fire station was set ablaze, forcing the government to mobilise the army, which helped the police to break up the strike.

And in 1948, Kenya Police Reserve was formed to assist in times of emergency.

To contain the rising violence in the country, a Police Dog Unit and General Service Unit (GSU) unit were established.

In 1949, the Police Air Wing was introduced to ease communication and evacuation of sick settlers.

During the same period, new traffic regulations and a traffic court were introduced in Nairobi following an increase in road accidents.

When Mau Mau rebellion intensified a state of emergency was declared in 1952 and the colonial army took over.

Various police groups were roped in the fight against the rebellion led by Mau Mau fighters.

The groups' home guards, volunteer military groups, British military and 200 police signal stations were set up. They were equipped with vehicles and wireless communication.

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