Our police culture is beyond costly reforms, disband and start afresh

Protester is arrested along Juja road where residents of Mathare were protesting the high cost of living on July 12, 2023. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Keeping hope alive in the darkest of times is no easy task, but the presence and witness of old, battle-hardened soldiers at significant moments, brings heart to the weary and inspiration to the young.

How heartening it was to see 87-year-old John Khaminwa and 76-year-old CJ Emeritus Willy Mutunga spend long hours in the cold corridors of Central Police Station, Nairobi last weekend demanding the release of 35 young protesters arrested during the Saba Saba commemorations.

That the two veterans of the democratic struggle were tear gassed out of the police station spoke volumes on how the rule of law has degenerated into the law of the jungle in little over a decade since promulgation of the 2010 Constitution. Had the country experienced the political will required to respect and implement the Bill of Rights, the two elders should have been spending Saturday last writing their memoirs or enjoying the company of their grandchildren.

Instead, for the umpteenth since independence the two veterans had to answer the call of duty to defend the innocent at ungodly hours. The Saba Saba celebrations were organised nationally by civil society actors and social justice centres to commemorate the heroes and heroines of 1990 who defied the treacherous and dictatorial Kanu regime which denied them the right to assemble and protest.

The 2023 protesters met with same resistance, brutality, teargas and violence as their predecessors experienced, indicating nothing has changed in the intervening years and the Kenya Kwanza regime is replicating the misdeeds and crimes of the Kanu era.

Worse still, on Friday last five people died during protests - two in Migori and three in Kisii - according to the Police Reforms Working Group (PRWG). In the same statement, PRWG detailed how 70 of those arrested in Nairobi were denied medical assistance for over 48 hours. They revealed how police standing orders were disregarded and their code of conduct discarded once again during the Azimio protests on Wednesday past when more protesters were slaughtered.

According to the government established Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) nine protesters met their maker on Wednesday: four in Mlolongo and one each in Kitengela, Emali, Sondu and Migori.

All the evidence suggests the police were given a carte blanche to use illegal means to quell the protests. Meanwhile, Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome was predictably missing in action, yet evidently sharing orders from above with his foot soldiers on how to deal with the protests.

The events and evidence of the past week have removed any doubt that may have persisted about the remotest possibility of reforming the police force. The reform programme initiated in 2007 has failed abysmally and become a money guzzler leaving the force more corrupt and brutal than ever. During the period 2013-7, the UNODC contributed 7 million dollars towards the reform programme and overall, it is estimated that Sh81 billion has been swallowed up without making any significant impact.

We live in a police state and deploy a force whose first commitment is to serve the government of the day. A few years ago, the Independent Medico Legal Unit research showed Kenyans are four times more likely to be gunned down by police than by thugs.

The obvious, if radical, solution, then, is to disband the police force and start afresh. Reform has failed miserably as the force is irredeemable, and resistance to change entrenched at every level of operations.

According to research from the University of Cape Town, Kenyans feel less safe with police around them. Then why hire these armed folk when they are a threat to our own security?

That is not to deny there are some committed and decent cops on the beat. But the problem is the police culture, established by the colonial and repressive state, maintained and entrenched for the past six decades.

Don't fall for the false belief that there are a few bad apples; the rot goes much deeper. Enough is enough; don't spend any more taxpayer's money on reforming a service that doesn't serve. Disband and start afresh.