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Covid-19 boosts police power and brutality in Kenya

Kenyans fear the securitisation of the government’s coronavirus policies as impoverished citizens bear the brunt of widespread police violence and the loss of their livelihoods.

Kevin Otieno, 24, was hurrying back to his home in the neighbourhood of Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, which is about 6km from the city centre of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. It was the second day since the announcement of a nationwide dawn-to-dusk curfew aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19, the highly contagious disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

It was mere minutes after 7pm – the start of Kenya’s curfew, which lasts until 5am. Otieno had just reached his home and was about to enter when he was intercepted by three police officers. 

“They started to beat me,” Otieno said. “It was very bad. They thoroughly beat me.” One of the officers slapped him in the face, he said, while the other two beat him with a rungu, a wooden stick or cane, and a nyaunyo, or whip. 

He was able to escape the police and run away. “I’m still in a lot of pain. I have bruising on my left arm and back and I have some internal injuries.”

Otieno’s experiences are common throughout Kenya since the country enforced a curfew on 27 March. Scenes of police brutality have been shared widely on social media – from residents of Mombasa being tear-gassed and beaten to journalists being assaulted. A 13-year-old, Yasin Moyo, was shot in the stomach on the balcony of his family’s home in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, 20 minutes after the curfew took effect. 

The police have killed at least 14 people since the start of the curfew, according to Stephen Musau, the head of inspections, research and monitoring at Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA). 

As countries around the world resort to strict measures to contain the spread of Covid-19, police and security forces are being handed unprecedented powers to enforce restrictions on movement. For Kenya’s residents, particularly those living in slums and shack settlements that already face widespread and often unchecked police misconduct and violence, this concentration of power in the police forces is frightening. 

Youths living in fear 

Kenya has 363 confirmed cases and 14 reported Covid-19 deaths. Observers have noted that the deaths from the coronavirus are equal to those who have died at the hands of the police in Kenya. 

Despite President Uhuru Kenyatta apologising for the police’s excessive use of force, activists and rights groups say this brutality has continued unabated since the curfew was imposed.

“I’m afraid because when the police are given this much power they can easily just kill us,” Otieno said. “They’re not considering the wellbeing of the citizens. They only want to beat people up and show us their power. Giving the police this amount of power poses more dangers than the virus. They might kill more of us than the virus will.” 

Otsieno Namwaya, a Nairobi-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the police were brutalising people hours before the curfew went into effect. Now they are “moving around during the day, walking from house to house, or market to market, dispersing and beating people and, in some cases, extorting money from people”, he said. Police have also broken into homes and shops and looted food across the country, Namwaya has noted. 

Police brutality is nothing new to Nairobi’s urban youth. “Our relationship with the police has always been negative,” Otieno said. “They harass us. They kill us without explanation. They have never been good to us.” 

Between 60% and 70% of Nairobi residents are estimated to be living in slums or shack settlements. These areas lack basic government services and housing and infrastructure are poorly maintained, with entire families living in just one or two rooms. 

Police violence and extrajudicial killings in Nairobi’s low-income neighbourhoods have been an issue for many years. Last year, the police killed at least 107 people in Kenya, the majority of whom were youths from shack settlements. 

Oversight a mere ‘nuisance’ 

Unchecked police violence was a key concern for Kenya when the country adopted a new Constitution in 2010, resulting in the National Police Service Act in 2011. It states that lethal force is only justified when its use is unavoidable to protect life, and requires the arbitrary or abusive use of force to be punished as a criminal offence. 

Police officers are also required to report for investigation any incidents that lead to death or serious injury to the IPOA, which was established to provide civilian oversight of Kenya’s police force. 

However, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, in all cases documented by the group the police did not report the killings of civilians and in some cases prevented victims or their family members from filing reports. 

The IPOA, meanwhile, has been treated as a “nuisance”, particularly since 2013 when Kenyatta was elected president, said Namwaya. Kenyatta has systematically attempted to “empower the police’s use of force”, even issuing shoot-to-kill orders in the past. 

“In Kenya, the biggest problem is not rogue individual police officers misusing firearms, it’s state-sanctioned murders and abuse,” he said. 

Kenyatta’s systematic empowerment of the police to use excessive force and his weakening of accountability institutions are “giving a police force that has already been abusive even more power to abuse”, Namwaya explained.

This process has informed the police’s handling of the nationwide curfew, he added. “The police have been beating, shooting and killing people because they know they will get away with it, because they always have.” 

Defeating the purpose of guidelines

The police’s behaviour while enforcing the curfew is also antithetical to the precautionary guidelines promoted to slow the spread of the disease. 

“The biggest problem is that the police are moving around arresting people, lumping them together with everyone else,” Namwaya said. “It’s making these self-quarantine and social distancing measures completely meaningless. 

“I think some of the strategies the government is using are not even about preventing the spread of coronavirus. They are more like civil unrest strategies. I think someone in the government or in the police has forgotten the real purpose of putting these policies in place. It’s become a question of beating people up. It’s not about the virus anymore.” 

John Githongo, a prominent Kenyan intellectual, activist and former journalist, said Kenya centralising its Covid-19 policies on police enforcement makes the officers “frontline responders”. 

“In African urban hotspots, when you use security personnel as your front lines, they become vectors as well. They will start falling ill without the personal protective equipment you see with nurses and doctors, and they become a danger to the very people they’re supposed to be policing,” he said. 

Harking back to colonial-era policing

Justine Ondiere had timed his journey to the market perfectly to make it back to his home in Kibera a few minutes before curfew. But a group of four police officers stopped him and several others on the street. 

“They started asking us a lot of questions, like ‘Where are you going?’ or ‘Where are you from?’,” the 25-year-old recounted. “Then they started beating us before we were even able to open our mouths and answer their questions. 

“They were beating me for a few minutes before I was able to struggle out of their grip and run past them towards my home. I’m a very fast runner and this is what saved me,” Ondiere said. 

“People in Kibera fear the police just as much as they fear coronavirus. I’d say the fear is split 50-50. If the police have this kind of power now … Trust me, this is going to turn very bad. We’ve seen it before and it’s nothing new. In Kibera, the police are not your friends,” he added. 

Githongo said Kenya’s policing style rests on the systematic “criminalisation of the poor”, a practice that stems from the colonial era. Before Kenya gained its independence in 1963, it was a “sort of quasi-apartheid state”, Githongo explained, with a small settler community that was protected by an “aggressive anti-poor police force”.

The police service is made up of several components, including regular and private police, criminal investigations and a paramilitary unit called the general service unit. These were created to “manage the movement of African labour for the settler economy”, Githongo said.

“The Kenyan police used to be able to stop you at any time and ask you where are you going and demand your identity documents. Basically, even if someone was just going for a walk they could be arrested for not having any clear purpose for being outside.”

Now there is more accountability among Kenya’s police force owing to the establishment of the IPOA, the vetting of senior officials and citizens’ effective use of social media to demand government action on police misconduct. But the police force has “maintained characteristics and behaviour that goes back to the colonial years”, Githongo said. 

However, instead of protecting a small group of British settlers, the police’s behaviour towards citizens, particularly in Kenya’s cities, is “designed to serve a small, privileged elite class that behaves like it’s above the law, while managing the rest of society”, he noted. 

“The police serve the rich and therefore the poor are seen as the enemy.” 

This anti-poor mentality of the country’s policing institutions has translated into the state’s Covid-19 policies, according to Jerotich Seii, a prominent Kenyan activist. She refers to the “elite gaze”, an ideology that “patronises and homogenises people who come from lower socioeconomic brackets”. 

This means seeing impoverished people as “undisciplined, violent and as people who must be told what to do”, she said. Seii has noted that this view by Kenya’s elite has influenced a “language of enforcement that is used to coerce [Kenyans] into compliance with regard to screening, testing, self-quarantine and treatment.” 

But these policies could easily backfire. “Threats of arrest and jail only inspire fear, fake news and knee-jerk and even violent reactions,” she said.

Hitting informal earners the hardest

Police violence is just one of a plethora of fears that impoverished Kenyans are facing during the global pandemic. The dusk-to-dawn curfew has dealt a blow to residents who depend on the informal economy, which sees much of its activities come alive during the evenings in Kibera and other low-income areas. 

The informal sector employs scores of Nairobi’s residents, with some estimating that more than 80% of Kenyans are employed in the informal sector. 

Seii said this sector is in fact highly organised by those working in it and workers have specific hours, ranging from 4.30pm to 8.30pm, when they make the most of their profit selling to Kenyans during their commutes home from work. 

According to Vincent Odhiambo, a Kibera-based human rights defender and chairperson of the Kibera Social Justice Centre, Kenya’s nationwide curfew has hit Kibera particularly hard. Population estimates for Kibera range from 170 000 to two million people. 

“Most of the population here is getting food day to day, and now this is becoming a serious challenge for us,” Odhiambo said. “Most of the people in Kibera are unemployed and the rest have now lost their work because of the coronavirus.” 

“Life is very hard here,” he added. “People are starving. There’s no food. Even if charities come into the slum to distribute food, you will see men fighting with women because everyone is trying to get food.” In recent weeks, food aid distributions in Kibera resulted in a major stampede; residents fought each other to get packages of food and some fell and were trampled. 

The government announced that it would begin to distribute food to Kenya’s slums to assist the urban youth who are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 restrictions, along with cash transfers for the elderly and vulnerable. However, according to Namwaya and Odhiambo, this assistance is yet to be seen on the ground. Food distribution programs are, however, being organised by governors, members of parliament, and private institutions and individuals, Namwaya said. 

A necessary pact with citizens

According to Githongo, the securitisation of the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the biggest risks that countries around the world are facing, even more so where it is sophisticated and involves increased surveillance and tracking of citizens’ movements.

These policies can spell disaster for countries where citizens have low trust in their governments, Githongo said. “Especially in highly unequal societies with histories of violence, like we have in Kenya, the chances of violence and even more dramatic disruptions in response to these Covid-19 policies become quite high. 

“One of the major concerns that people have is that when these kinds of powers are appropriated by a state due to a crisis, these changes can become resilient. Even if the pandemic has petered off in six months to a year, some of these changes will remain in place,” he said. 

Seii, meanwhile, has urged that vulnerable communities in Kenya be included as partners and not enemies in the state’s Covid-19 response.

Odhiambo said he and others in Kibera have worked diligently to sensitise residents to the seriousness of the virus and assist them in understanding the importance of social distancing and personal hygiene. 

“The mood in Kibera is just very worried,” Odhiambo said. “Everyone is scared of the coronavirus and we’re doing everything we can to urge everyone to follow the government’s directives. But now the government here is taking advantage of the situation and harassing the residents of Kibera.” 

Seii warned that Kenya’s heavy-handed approach of enforcing its Covid-19 policies risks creating conditions in which citizens will outrightly resist these public health measures. 

Necessary socioeconomic and public health preparations must be put in place to ensure the curfews and lockdowns are safe and humane, Seii said. “The government must stop talking about safety nets and emergency response and actually implement them. 

“Ultimately, issuing directives from an ivory tower is a failing proposition in the race to curb the spread and mitigate the impacts of Covid-19. Humanitarian emergency response is about people, the love of life and its preservation.”

This article was originally published by New Frame.


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