From Jaramogi to Matiang'i: Tales of Kenya's dark past of impunity involving police power

When police tried to raid former Kakamega Senator Cleophas Malala's home. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The silence was deep. No one moved. No one sneezed. Not a single soul coughed. He slowly lowered his glasses and scanned the congregation. His eyes settled on the front row. “After my preaching today, my life is in danger. But I do not fear man. I can see the secret police are here. Caleb Atemi of the Nation newspaper, I know. Amos Onyatta of the Standard newspaper, I also know. But for those pretending to be journalists, may God forgive you.”

I have never seen so many notebooks disappear between people’s legs. The Special Branch, an evil police unit, was in attendance at the Anglican Church of Kenya, St Stephen’s Church in Kisumu. Bishop John Henry Okullu, an outspoken cleric, had delivered a hard-hitting sermon on leadership. He had challenged President Daniel Moi’s order to end public debate on multi-party politics.

“How can we stop a debate that has not even started? The ruling party Kanu has been competing against itself. The debate must go on,” he told a stunned congregation which included Opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

We quietly left the church with Bishop Okullu holding Jaramogi’s hand. Onyatta and I followed in tow. Confused, the fake journalists fumbled around. Jaramogi walked slowly. Then, leaning on his walking stick, he turned towards us and said: “When you see me walking slowly, just know that am learning to walk again.”

Harrowing experience

Kenya’s first vice president told of his harrowing experience under the police during his numerous house arrests. “The police would stand everywhere in my house. I would be forced to sit only in one corner. If I wanted to go to the toilet, I would require permission from their superiors. The police have badly been used in this country, “said Jaramogi, while walking towards his red Peugeot 405. This was in 1990. Today, our policemen are still being used by those with money, influence and power. Even a transformed Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI) is caught up in political intrigues. No wonder that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) dismissed the police file on former Interior CS Fred Matiang’i.

The DPP told the DCI: “Upon independent and thorough analysis of the evidence ... and a review of the statements of the witnesses, the DPP found that the evidence provided was not sufficient to sustain the above charges against Dr Fred Matiang’i and his advocate, Mr Danstan Omari.”

Police had raised heat and high drama around Matiang’i as though he was facing treason. They were probably settling political scores. Even while under Matiang’i as CS, they overzealously harassed perceived enemies of the State. 

President William Ruto promised voters during his campaign tours that his administration wouldn’t use the police to settle scores. He promised the country an independent police service. But the Matiang’i issue raised suspicions.

Since the days of Jomo, the police have served not the citizens they are meant to protect but the rich and those in power. The poor have remained on the receiving end of brutal sticks and smoking guns.

In the era of Jomo and Moi, Special Branch officers were planted in every public and private office to spy on others. We had them even in the newsroom, as photographers, reporters and drivers. Those eyeing Jomo’s seat used the police to harass and intimidate opponents.

Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, one of Jomo’s ministers was seen as a potential successor. “The police put him on their radar. My husband didn’t know that some of his drinking mates were Special Branch,” said Kiano’s African-American wife, Ernestine. She told me during a book interview that the police even had access to her bedroom and library. “One day I found our library door open with a portrait of the North Korean Communist leader on the table. We never owned such a portrait and it was politically criminal to do so then. I was the only one with the key. The door hadn’t been broken or tampered with,” she recalled.

“Then one day, a young Luo man from the Special Branch visited me. He told me, ‘Madam, we planted the portrait of Kim II-sung in your library. Your husband was to be assassinated but they decided to destroy him through alcohol’. He handed me a list and disappeared after telling me that I would be deported from Kenya.”

A chill ran down her spine. Among those on the assassination list were Kiano, Pio Gama Pinto and Tom Mboya. That was in January 1965. In February, Pio was gunned down. She was later deported and watched in horror the news of Mboya’s assassination.

When Moi was VP, he survived harassment and intimidation from leaders and police from the Rift Valley and Central Kenya. Then, in March 1975, populist legislator JM Kariuki was picked up from Nairobi’s Hilton Hotel by senior General Service Unit officers in broad daylight. He was driven to his death chambers. His body was found days later in Ngong Forest. Just like Mboya’s death in July 1969, JM’s sparked a wave of protests and violence.

While the murder of the rich and powerful can spark protests, the poor suffer in silence. According to International Justice Mission (IJM), it is easy for a corrupt or incompetent officer in Kenya to falsely accuse, imprison, or kill an innocent person who can’t afford to pay a bribe. Without a lawyer, the innocent wait for years. Fortunately, there are more agencies today, keeping a keen eye on the police. Families are now speaking out on extrajudicial killings, demanding investigation and justice.

Rogue officer

In 2015, Josephat Mwenda, a boda boda rider was out eking a living for his family. As he rode his motorbike in Nairobi, a police officer suddenly stopped him. An argument ensued and the police officer shot him. The rogue officer seems to have done what he habitually does. He placed unsubstantiated and false charges against Mwenda, including drug possession, gambling and resisting arrest. But the story didn’t add up. Mwenda’s family raised hue and cry. IJM, a global organisation that protects people in poverty from violence, took up the matter. IJM partners combat global police abuse of power and trafficking and slavery against women and children. According to IJM, one in three people in Kenya experienced police abuse or harassment in 2018. Since 2001, IJM has helped 256 women and men gain freedom from illegal detention. Three police officers have been convicted for violent crimes in IJM cases. In 2014, the DPP adopted a new system of screening and sieving weak police cases with no evidence from moving forward. In 2015, the DPP recruited 540 new prosecutors. IJM trained them all.

IJM says of Kenya police: “Historically, police officers have had the freedom to bribe, abuse, falsely accuse and imprison, and even kill citizens with little fear of any consequences. An astounding number of citizens have disappeared or been murdered at the hands of the Kenya police.”

Over 500 killings by police in Kenya were documented between 2019 and 2021. In 2021 alone, the Missing Voices Coalition recorded 219 cases of police killings and enforced disappearances. Prior to 2016, few police officers had ever been convicted for murder in Kenya. But in the past five years; “at least 45 officers have been convicted on murder or manslaughter charges demonstrating that the Kenyan Justice system is capable of delivering justice in cases of police abuse of power,” says IJM.

Willie Kimani, an IJM investigator and human rights lawyer, took up the Mwenda case. He dug into the shooting incident pushing the police against the wall. Then, one afternoon in 2016, Kimani, Josephat Mwenda and a driver Joseph Muiruri were abducted while leaving the court room. The three were subjected to brutal torture before being strangulated. A week later, their bodies were discovered in a river over 100 kilometers away.

IJM filed a murder case in court. After six years of trial delays, three police officers and a civilian were convicted for killing the three. Evidence included DNA samples, a chilling confession by one of the accused, CCTV footage and mobile phone data analysis. The case attracted 46 witnesses and 117 pieces of exhibits.

“The evidence is overwhelming that the first accused Fredrick Leliman attended to ensure that the deceased persons were captured, detained to await night fall, murdered and their bodies dumped or flung into the river to make it difficult to recover them,” said Justice Jessie Lesit at the Milimani Court in Nairobi.

Fredrick Leliman, the first accused received a death sentence while Stephen Chebiret, the second accused got 30 years. Sylvia Wanjiku, the third accused was given 24 years. Peter Ngugi, the fifth accused, got 20 years. Ngugi confessed that after the killings, the bodies were put in gunny bags, stashed in two car boots and dumped in River Athi at Ol Donyo Sabuk in Machakos County.  

Hannah Kimani, Willie Kimani’s widow said the verdict was; “a source of comfort to our hearts, even though it may not bring Kimani back.”

Benson Shamala, Country Director of IJM Kenya said: “Today, justice has been served. It has been a long journey.”

Gary Haugen CEO of IJM said: “When our colleagues and friends were violently murdered in 2016, we could have decided that the dangers of continuing this work were too high. But instead, six years later, I am proud that IJM and partners have made such significant progress in ensuring police accountability.”

In March, 2006, hooded men raided the Standard Group offices that housed The Standard newspaper and KTN studios at Nairobi’s I&M Building. They were members of the Kanga Squad, an elite team answerable to the CID Director. The Kanga Squad was an amorphous unit that hunted down dangerous criminals like carjackers, bank robbers, drug barons and organised gangs. It was heavily equipped and provided with top range vehicles. Kenyans woke up to dramatic and horror footage on NTV, some of it obtained from CCTV cameras at I&M Building. Former crime editor Stephen Muiruri says in his book that the raid was meant to forestall publication of two articles. One claiming that a top politician solicited campaign funds from Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 1997 while the other talked about a possible snap election occasioned by Kibaki’s ill health.

Plot against the Standard

“Those are the articles that The Standard wanted to publish,” a top CID officer told Muiruri after the raid. The officer said he was summoned for a top-level meeting at State House, Nairobi and given the two articles written in extremely bad English. The articles were allegedly leaked to the National Security Intelligence Service (NIS) by a mole at The Standard.   

The State House meeting was attended by top leadership and security chiefs. The CID were instructed to stop publication of the alleged stories. Police boss Major General Hussein Ali, who was in charge of homeland security in Kenya, was left out of the meeting chaired by Kibaki. The President listened as top government officials told him how the media plotted to bring down his government. He nodded in approval.     

Only 15 loyal officers of the Kanga Squad were handpicked for the Standard raid. They were joined by two Armenian brothers - Artur Sargasyan and Artur Margaryan. Under the guise of helping the CID set up a secret police unit to deal with drug trafficking, the dubious duo was clandestinely given the rank of deputy commissioner of police, and armed with guns from Kenya Police armoury. The Arturs, who came up with the idea of wearing hoods, coordinated the raid. All officers who participated in the raid surrendered their cell phones before the act. The original plot, says Muiruri in the memoir, was to bomb the entire I&M Building. But the officers developed cold feet and opted for the “softer” op­tion of raiding the premises, dismantling computers, switching off KTN and burning newspapers rolling off the printing press in Industrial Area. The newspapers didn’t have any of the alleged stories. The squad seized printing equipment, computers and a newspaper delivery van.

The Internal Security minister, John Michuki later told the media that was pressing for answers about the raid: “If you rattle a snake, be prepared to be bitten by it.” He declared the raid as “a government opera­tion over national security.”  

Tales of police atrocities in Kenya are countless. One afternoon, the police stopped a bus along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, ordered terrified passengers out. They isolated seven who they executed in full public view. The Nation headline read; Police shoot seven dead in cold blood. The seven had been killed by an elite squad.

In July 2007, two armed policemen on an extortion mission in Mathare were killed by suspected Mungiki gangs. The GSU was mobilised to hunt down the killers. More than 100 civilians were executed.

The two officers had gone to Mathare to collect protection fees from women chang’aa brewers. They were ambushed by Mungiki youths, who also collect protection fees from Mathare residents. Two AK-47 police assault rifles were lost.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) and other Nairobi-based NGOs have documented harrowing tales of more than 1000 youth, arrested by undercover detectives ending up dead. Kwekwe Squad, which was formed in 2005, was the top suspect in the string of high-profile murders.

A police driver attached to the Kwekwe Squad, Constable Bernard Kirinya, quit his job and exposed the murderous acts of his colleagues. In a damming confession, Kirinya recorded a video with KNHRC describing how his colleagues executed 58 Mungiki suspects in a single day.

In the one-and-a-half-hour video, Kiriinya described how police kidnapped suspects, executed them before planting firearms on their bodies. His betrayal angered his colleagues. He went underground for months. The undercover squad caught up with him outside the Sarit Centre in Nairobi’s Westlands one October afternoon in 2008. He died in a hail of bullets.

In December 2008, KNCHR released the Kirinya confession video to the public. KNCHR stepped up pressure on the police involvement in gross human rights violations. It said 1,500 youths had died at the hands of police.

Then, in 2009, Prof Philip Alston, the United Na­tions Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, visited Kenya. He flew into Nairobi to investigate the rising cases of killings by State agents. Briefing the international media at the UN headquarters in Gigiri on February 25, 2009, Prof Alston asked President Kibaki to sack police boss Major General Hussein Ali under whose watch special death squads were established.

He gave the example of Dr James Ng’ang’a, the 29-year-old son of former Gatundu North MP Patrick Muiruri, who was shot dead on January 24, 2009 after a bar scuffle in Westlands. According to police records, Prof Alston said, the victim was a bank robber and a member of the Mungiki sect. “The police officer responsible for the shooting filed a report that a bank robber and Mungiki member had been killed, thus invoking the magic formula designed to ensure that no one would question the need to shoot the suspect dead,” he said.

Police inspector Dickson Munene and his friend Alexander Chepkonga were charged with murdering Dr Ng’ang’a. High Court judge Mohammed Warsame, after listening to dozens of witnesses for months, found the two guilty. On October 12, 2011, he handed them a death sentence. On February 28, 2014, Chepkonga was set free by the Court of Appeal. Munene’s conviction and death penalty were upheld by the Appellate Court. On June 14, 2018, the High Court ordered the State to pay the family of the former MP Sh15 million as compensation for the cold-blooded murder of his son.

On March 5, 2009, two Kenyan human rights activists who provided damming evidence to Prof Alston over executions by police were murdered on State House Road near the University of Nairobi. Oscar Kamau King’ara, the director of the Oscar Foundation, and his Programme coordinator, John Paul Oulo, were shot at close range in their car.

A few hours before their killing, the government had publicly accused their organisation, which runs free legal aid clinics for the poor, of being a front for the outlawed Mungiki. The Oscar Foundation made its name investigating police abuses. It has reported 6,452 “enforced disappearances” by police and 1721 extrajudicial killings since 2007.

While the police showed no interest in finding the killers of the Os­car Foundation officials, Mungiki spokesman David Njuguna was also killed under a hail of bullets in broad daylight on Nairobi’ busy Luthuli Avenue on November 5, 2009. Njuguna was killed while the International Criminal Court (ICC) was conducting investigations into Kenya’s post-election violence during which Mungiki and the police were implicated in the retaliatory killings in Naivasha under State patronage. From the story of Jaramogi and Fred Matiangi to the impoverished residents of informal settlements, the horror tales of the Kenyan police read like a Hollywood series.

The Standard
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