The Kenya Police Service (KPS) has been in the news lately and not altogether for good reasons. The most recent incident, captured in a video clip, involved a confrontation between a motorist and some traffic officers. It ended with the motorist arrested after being violently restrained.
Opinion is divided over who bears the blame. There are those who feel the motorist should not have engaged in an altercation with the police. They think other avenues ought to have been explored following claims that the police had maliciously damaged his car. Others think that the police used disproportionate force to apprehend a clearly irate motorist.
The Kenya Police Service and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa) have weighed in. KPS appears to absolve the traffic officers from any wrongdoing, perhaps to maintain the service’s esprit de corps. Ipoa, on the other hand, has promised to investigate the matter exhaustively and bring to book any officer who bears culpability.
Questions arise: Why are incidents of fractious and often violent confrontations between policemen and civilians on the rise? Why do citizens feel they need to redress issues by taking matters into their own hands? The answers may lie in the fact that Kenyans are now a more enlightened and freer society. Many are acquainted with the Constitution’s Bill of Rights which guarantees their civil rights and liberties. Their push-back reflects this growing awareness that the police exist to serve and not to oppress.
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Although KPS is prone to some excesses, probably as an anachronistic carry-over from the colonial enterprise that spawned it, it must be appreciated that, for the most part, it operates under severely constrained environments. When it is not investigating, tracking, and apprehending terrorists, it is busting drug cartels or offering much needed security to the country’s marginalised in far-flung areas. And this, with limited resources. Even the new blue uniforms, symbolic of the transition from “Force” to “Service” are in short supply. Some officers have reportedly been forced to make to do with privately tailored outfits.
But a change of tack is needed in handling a less docile and more confrontational population. The State, through its agents like the KPS, may have the monopoly of violence. However, unlike in the old colonial days, this violence cannot be visited on hapless citizens at will. It must be guided by the law on when and how to use it. Then again, it must only be used as a last recourse where all else has failed.
What this column calls for is the exercise of restraint in the coming days. Because next year portends great economic difficulties, it is foreseeable that conditions that make for violent confrontation may prevail. There will be short-fuses and desire to settle issues with fisticuffs. And there may be times when political ideas will clash leading to frayed nerves. Such situations must not be allowed to degenerate to violence.
There are precedents of police officers who chose to exercise restraint over violence and that ended with positive outcomes for all. One such incident happened in 2008 during the infamous post-election violence. A lone police officer persuaded marauding youth not to destroy public property arguing that, after all, it belonged to them. They listened.
Another fairly recent incident happened during the faux-presidential swearing-in of ODM leader Raila Odinga. About 100,000 citizens gathered at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park despite the State declaring the ceremony illegal, even treasonous. But the fact that the KPS were restrained from action deescalated the tension and averted what would have been a gruesome loss of lives.
Perhaps what is needful in the coming year is former US president George Bush Senior’s form of gunboat diplomacy. This is where diplomacy is backed by the threat of force. The State must use all avenues to convince citizens it has got its act together. Citizens must hold themselves together exploring all peaceful means of conflict resolution knowing the State has force as a last recourse.
There will be instances where the monopoly of violence may be abused by KPS. It is for this reason that Ipoa exists. Let 2021 be the year when the police and citizens rise to the occasion and restrain themselves even in the face of extreme provocation. Happy New Year!
-Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst