Reform the service rather than hide rotten apples in the police

Police officers march during a past Madaraka Day celebration. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

Prime Cabinet and Foreign Affairs Secretary Musalia Mudavadi dismissed the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights concerns with police brutality in Addis this week.

While African leadership is sorely needed today, this and other incidents require us to ask, are we ready to do the work needed to provide policing leadership globally? 

Mr Mudavadi’s statement to the 44th ordinary session of the African Union’s Executive Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers defended Kenya’s human rights record and the integrity of the police service. Noting that police brutality and use of excessive force do not arise here, he affirmed citizens freely report allegations of police impunity to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority.

Amnesty International Kenya, IMLU and the Missing Voices Alliance report available in the public domain empirically document at least 30 protestors unlawfully killed by police officers in 2023.

There were 136 extra-judicial executions, at least 7 enforced disappearances and over 100 cases of assault on citizens and police officers. 91 of the cases investigated by IMLU revealed 41 per cent involved extra-judicial, summary, or arbitrary executions and 59 per cent, torture, cruel and inhuman treatment.

There is no evidence that police officers have been arrested or convicted for these serious crimes against citizens. Admittedly, diplomacy is the art of persuasion. Seasoned policymakers and diplomats know the tightrope they walk between spin and substance, fact and fiction. The daily choices they make are simple. Control the public narrative or do the work necessary for the reality to authentically generate the narrative. The national police leadership and their commanders have their own PR choices, Public Relations or Police Reforms.

Suspect in the murder of Margaret Mbitu in Boston, US, Kevin Kangethe was re-arrested in Ngong town while the Prime Cabinet Secretary was speaking in Addis. The fugitive had allegedly bribed Muthaiga police station officers a week ago and fled only to be re-arrested after a tip from his own family. That several police officers obligated to protect one of the most prestigious neighbourhoods in the capital would be susceptible to his bribe and it was his family that gave him up is highly significant.

In another part of the capital city, another diasporan’s excitement at being home for the first time without his US-based parents was abruptly cut short. Initially accused of walking to dinner without a national ID, a conversation familiar to most young people in most informal urban settlements ensued.

Pay a bribe and we release you or, go in overnight for possession of bangi. The young man refused and slept in a cell. He leaves his homeland bitter at the way he was treated. 

The data and these experiences backed by the National Taskforce on Police Reforms report tell anyone interested in listening that we are still far from transforming a corrupt and violent policing culture.

More encouragingly, after over a year of closed doors to human rights organisations, the Interior Ministry and National Police Service may be warming up to policy dialogue. Recent consultations on the National Police Service Draft 2024-2028 Strategic Plan and Maraga report implementation signal a change of approach. It remains to be seen whether this leads to a more transparent and collaborative relationship that brings state and civic reformists together to uplift the professionalism and accountability our laws demand and, our people deserve. 

Washington and Addis-based statements are no match for the reality in Kenyan cities, towns and villages. If all it takes to demolish a ministerial statement is a simple “Kenya police brutality” search online, our diplomats will be let down by their speech writers every time and the façade of progress will keep police officers and policymakers hostage to deep public mistrust. This, obviously, is not in anyone’s interest.

Chief Inspector Walter Nyamato Nyankieya died in a Washington DC hotel this week while attending consultations on the legally distressed police deployment to Haiti. This columnist offers deepest condolences to his family and colleagues. May he rest in peace.

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