Police must go beyond tear-gas, clubs, bullets as poll nears

A police officer forcefully restraining a student at JKUAT during a riot in 2014. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Key Cabinet Secretaries spent Valentines’ morning with diplomats and gave their reassurance that the General Election would be free, fair, and non-violent.

The meeting offered an opportunity to review the electoral environment, recent policing guidelines, and investment in national security over 2022. Should everyday Kenyans be worried?

Last week’s column identified several real-time risk factors that included last-minute controversial changes to electoral laws, political incitement, dirty money, and undemocratic party primaries.

Sabina Chege and Musalia Mudavadi further muddied waters from different sides of the political spectrum by separately alleging the 2017 polls had been rigged and OKA principals had been invited to rig the upcoming elections this week.

As IEBC investigates and ODM lawyers defend Chege from possible misconduct, it is worth noting that the integrity of the August 2017 polls is a matter of judicial record. The Supreme Court annulled them for failing the constitutional threshold, numerous irregularities and demanded a second, divisive and costly election.

Election security management is also fundamental to the upcoming elections. Violent demonstrations as well as the failure to peacefully manage the right to protest, excessive lethal force and unlawful killings by police caused 1,000s of deaths, injuries, rape and property destruction before and after the 2007 and 2017 polls.

A man pleads with a police officer after he was cornered during a demonstration in Kisii town, May 2015. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Most violence occurred in informal poor settlements in both party strongholds and contested swing constituencies with historically toxic community-policing relationships.

Last month, the National Police Service released a 178-page Elections Security Management Manual for Police Commanders as part of its partnership with the IEBC and UKAid under the Election Security Arrangement Project.

The manual clearly breaks down the elections cycle and states the mandate and role of commanders in operations design, management, and reporting. Commanders will be held accountable for the impartiality of their officers, upholding human rights and treating Kenyans equally under the law.

Conspicuously absent is how commanders manage gender-based violence, officers’ mental health, fatigue and welfare, and collaborate with key agencies. The manual requires officers to work with NCIC on incitement, report complaints to the Internal Affairs Unit and cooperate when the ODPP orders investigations.

It is, however, silent on police legal obligations to the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, or how to collaborate with influential human rights organisations networked with communities nation-wide.

The omissions are frustrating. Since the last elections, the police leadership and key stakeholders have been developing manuals on the use of force and firearms (2018), public order management (2018) and gender-based violence standard operating procedures (2021).

Operationalised together with the commanders manual, they would position the National Police Service and the nation much more confidently and effectively to deal with this elections cycle.

The current Commanders manual does not guide, therefore not protect, commanders and officers from the legal consequences of unlawfully obstructing freedom of assembly, the right to protest and fatalities caused by the excessive use force and firearms.

Anti-riot police officers in action during a protest in Kisumu, October 2017. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

While no assembly or protest is strictly ever spontaneous, many demonstrations have no clear organisers. How will commanders manage these if they have not built trust and open channels with communities and their leaders?

Clearer guidance is still needed on what is a “proportional response” to public disorder and violence and what precautionary actions de-escalate confrontation with mobs.

How can we go beyond the predictable cycle of tear-gas, clubs, bullets, and “apartheid” style water-cannons? How do officers provide medical care and that illusive P3 form?

Ignoring the binding legal obligation to notify IPOA about any incidents that lead to injury or death is risky as tens of officers have already found. There is a degree of realism that the police leadership need to bring to the complexity of 2022 polls and the tremendous responsibility we are placing on our 100,000 officers.

Perhaps, while we have the time, should criminal justice agencies look again at the limited guidance and support being given to our police commanders? 

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