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End complicity in handling crimes during virus period

By Irungu Houghton | May 30th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Minneapolis and Eastleigh attracted attention this week. While they are under lockdown and have some similarities, Minneapolis is up in flames and Eastleigh is relatively peaceful. They offer key insights on how not to manage a pandemic. 

With a population of 226,000, Eastleigh is one of Nairobi’s largest, most entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan estates. The concentration of Kenyan Somalis and influx of Somalis from neighbouring Somalia has earned it the nickname of little Mogadishu.

Minneapolis has roughly double the population of Eastleigh. It is the State of Minnesota’s largest city. Nearly 20 per cent of the population is black and of them, 74,000 are of Somali origin. The Somali-American community own more than 600 businesses worth nearly half a billion dollars. Eastleigh and Minneapolis are currently under a Covid-19 lockdown.

Walking through Eastleigh last weekend researching this article, I was curious to hear how the lockdown was affecting residents socially, economically and politically. The estate has been on lockdown since May 7. Movement in and out of the area will remain restricted until June 6. Police brutality in the early days of the curfew has reduced, especially in areas where community leaders have joined policing patrols. Initial suspicions that locking down Eastleigh, Old Town Mombasa and Mandera were driven by anti-Islamic profiling reduced after the post-lockdown visit and assurances by Interior CS Fred Matiang’i. 

With many relatives in the diaspora and places like Minnesota, most residents are aware of the risks of contracting Covid-19. However, most Muslims excused themselves from the mass testing. Fears that taking nose and throat swabs might induce vomiting and prematurely break the Ramadhan fast kept most Muslims away.

The lockdown boundaries were set without recognising that Section 3 and Biafra residents depend on the rest of Eastleigh for their livelihoods and markets. Unless the boundaries are redrawn, they will remain disconnected and displaced. Getting in and out of Eastleigh’s roadblocks costs between Sh50 and Sh100 for non-critical and non-essential service providers, I am told. Probably inspired by this lawlessness, Constable Brighton Muganda decided to open his own roadblock and amassed Sh1,750 in bribes before he was arrested. Post lockdown, public health education and mass testing are still almost non-existent. Much of the blunders could have been avoided or managed with closer consultation with local community.  

Minneapolis faces the same pandemic and lockdown as Eastleigh. However, unlike Eastleigh, Minneapolis is in flames. Thousands have come onto the streets to protest the recorded brutal murder of a black civilian, George Floyd, by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin. Shockingly, it has been discovered that Chauvin has 18 prior complaints against him. Some 170 businesses have been destroyed, US President Trump has threatened to shoot protesters and 400 National Guards have been drafted, but the four officers have neither been named nor charged with murder. 

Tragically, about the same time Floyd was being suffocated, the number of Minnesotans who died from Covid-19 surged towards the 1,000 mark. The state’s 60-day stay-at-home order is now in complete disarray. Medics have started to warn about the dangers of street protests causing a new spike in infections.

Unlawful police violence is the most unsophisticated tool in the arsenal of any state. This week, social media was awash of gory photos of infants tear-gassed in their homes and men sexually abused or beaten to a pulp. Two-month old Hasanat Shamsu, barber Samuel Waitherero, vendor Mark Oreo and others deserve justice. They are a small number of the 251 complaints raised against the police service since March 15. Twenty-eight people have been killed by police, and human rights organisations are handling 202 cases of gender-based violence. 

Only 14 unnamed officers have been disciplined. The State must lift the veil of secrecy around these disciplinary actions. Anonymity does not protect their victims. It emboldens other officers to think there will be no consequences for their actions. Like Americans, we too must face the charge of personal and public complicity in the presence of violent criminals in and out of uniform. In September 2018, the president and Interior CS declared that commanding officers would be held responsible for the actions of their officers. Little has happened to match this declaration.  

-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. The views are personal. Email: [email protected]


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