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State should end neglect, violence to ease tensions

By Irungu Houghton | June 27th 2020

A set of isolated incidents and new data indicate growing tension between government officers and the public as we race past the first 100 days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kenya has done comparatively well to focus government agencies and the public on the measures needed to flatten the curve to date. Keeping a whole of society approach requires another phase of open listening and deeper learning by government. 

Earlier this month, mourners violently engaged police officers attempting to bury Ohangla musician Bernard Onyango “Abenny Jachiga” in running battles. Three days ago, two Kenya Power engineers attempted to disconnect Umoja estate residents in Nairobi over unpaid bills.

Outraged by their mission, residents forced them to flee for their dear lives. The very same day in Lessos, Nandi County, police officers found themselves besieged and attacked by boda boda riders and the public while attempting to effect arrest. Conflict is not the only indicator of rising stress. Conflict is only the peak of deeper, more powerful tension. Mounting anxieties around food, rent and income are as important as individual moments of service denial or excessive violence. 

According to this week’s InfoTrack survey, as many as 47 per cent of us now depend on food donations or financial assistance from family and friends. Some 54 per cent of employed Kenyans have seen their salaries reduce and 75 per cent are slowly slipping into indebtedness.

Three in every 10 Kenyans are finding it difficult to sleep. The InfoTrack survey needs to be read together with recent Nation NewsPlex Deadly Force research findings. There have been 97 complaints against the police. At least 15 of these involve the death of a civilian.

Approval rating

Two of five civilians were unarmed. With these statistics, it is not surprising that the service has a 34 per cent public approval rating. If hunger and sleep deprivation are classic drivers of frustration and anger, unreasonable and unlawful use of force are also classic drivers of lawlessness. 

As the secondary economic impact of Covid-19 begins to bite, we should safeguard against a creeping complacency and follow health guidelines as laid down by the Health ministry. This should apply even more strictly to elected officers. Monday’s Jubilee PG meeting photo opportunity, for example, was an open invitation to all 47.6 million Kenyans to abandon physical distancing. 

Understanding the very real tensions, elected and appointed State officers should treat the public with respect and role-model the behaviour they expect from them. In this vein, we should acknowledge the speed of the National Police Inspector General's statement in ordering the arrest and suspension of police officers involved in the Lessos incident.

His statement is consistent with recent ones and actions by the Interior CS, Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the IG that police officers will be held personally liable for human rights violations during Covid-19. 

Elsewhere in Kisumu, it was also reassuring to see Police Division chief Simon Kattam and senior police officers return to Jachiga’s family to offer condolences, contributions and an apology for their role in the undignified midnight burial.

This simple action and implementation of Health ministry's June 15 policy ban on night burials reduces unproductive tension between grieving families and the Police Service. 

The third signal that the Police Service leadership may be finally changing tack came with the launch of a fortnightly #EngageTheIG tweet chat at the beginning of this week. Despite knowing that dialogue is a precondition for changing public opinion towards the police service, but that it will not be sufficient in the absence of a human rights approach to policing, I welcomed the initiative. 

Public opinion on an issue is never static. The strongest opinions are usually minorities on either side of an issue.

The majority of the people in the middle just want to express themselves, be understood and leave with a belief that something is being done to fix the issue. While dialogue is important, ultimately changing public attitudes on an issue requires changing the environment that feeds strong opinions and resentment. 

Drastically reducing State neglect and violence, increasing public dialogues and holding individual officers publicly accountable is the key to reducing rising tension and conflict over the next 100 days. 

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

Covid 19 Time Series


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