police killings point to systemic rot and failing justice system

Barely a month after taking office, President William Ruto of Kenya ordered the dissolution of a special police unit placed at the center of a growing investigation into a wave of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. At least nine officers from the Special Services Unit are facing charges related to the July 2022 disappearance of two Indian men and their Kenyan driver. The Indians were in Kenya at the invitation of Ruto’s presidential digital campaign team.

Police killings of citizens are shockingly common in Kenya. Those who pay the most are mostly poor people, young people and men suspected of criminal acts or terrorism.

Since 2017, 1,264 cases of executions and 237 enforced disappearances have been documented by the Kenya Police Reform Task Force, a civil justice advocacy group. Another player in the social justice movement is the Mathare Social Justice Centre, which has been documenting these state-sanctioned killings in Mathare, a low-income area north of Nairobi, since 2014. Other centers have followed suit in d other neighborhoods in Nairobi where illegal police killings occur regularly.

Yet these and other records are incomplete for a number of reasons. First, they tend to focus on a specific locality. Second, they only include cases that multiple sources show are linked to the police. “Police-related” means, for example, that the victim was last seen with police. In most cases, these victims were found later in the morgue or never again.

The special police unit is not the only culprit. This is the third special squad of the Criminal Investigation Branch to be disbanded under a cloud in the last 13 years. Other security and law enforcement agencies implicated in extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances include the Armed Ranger and Game Park Units, the Kenya Defense Force and the Counter Terrorism Police Unit.

Since 2005, I have researched police violence and extrajudicial killings in Kenya, particularly in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kwale. I work closely with grassroots organizations.

Given the evidence of police killings of citizens over the decades, some social justice activists I spoke to recently ask “why now?”.

Police killings are systemic in Kenya and have been since the late 1990s, so the breakup does not appear to be motivated by a quest for justice. Instead, it seems more likely that he is driven by a desire to replace the influential officers of the old regime with new and trustworthy ones. This is a tactic that Kenya has experienced before.

Police violence is systemic

Investigations are rare unless there is overwhelming public outrage whipped up by the media, or the victim is well-known or well-connected.

It could explain why justice was won for lawyer Willie Kimani, his client and their driver after they were kidnapped and executed by police in 2016, while thousands of other complaints went unanswered.

It could also explain why the disappearance of Ruto’s campaign staff is being vigorously pursued – involving more than 100 police officers at any given time.

In Nairobi’s slums, it’s business as usual. Social justice activists are documenting a growing number of cases of dead bodies showing clear signs of torture. There are no direct testimonies to verify police involvement in each case, but there are reasonable suspicions. This suspicion stems in part from the fact that several of those who died were on police “death lists”.

The death lists, according to social justice activists, are names and photos released by the police and their paid informants. These lists of crime suspects circulate mainly in WhatsApp groups and sometimes even on Facebook. Many are killed after finding themselves on these lists.

Even in cases where there is ample evidence, “killer cops” are rarely prosecuted.

Criminal violence by the police also takes place in other towns, on the coast and in remote rural areas of Kenya.

It points to a structural rot within the police department, of which the Special Services Unit is a symptom rather than a rogue element.

Real police reform

Extrajudicial executions by the police rarely arouse widespread public outcry outside of urban centers and poor rural areas where they mainly occur. They have been normalized in public discourse.

Despite mounting evidence, only a small fraction of documented cases make it to court. With such a low success rate, activists are finding it increasingly difficult to convince witnesses to come forward.

This explains the high level of cynicism about potential police reforms among social justice activists I spoke to recently. There is not much to read in the replacement of one Director of the Criminal Investigations Branch by another. As noted, it is not uncommon for a new president to replace senior officers within the police cadre. Moreover, the replaced director was not a friend (12:55) of the new president.

A real move towards justice and peace could begin with the disbanding of all police units involved in the violence over the years. The entire service could be redesigned.

Second, all perpetrators should be brought to justice instead of redeployed.

Finally, a reformed police service should be fully transparent and held accountable by the communities it serves. Only then will the police work with local communities on security issues instead of following the bidding of political and business elites.

This article was co-authored by Samuel Kiriro (Social Justice Movement Kenya and director of Ghetto Foundation Kenya) and Perpetua Kariuki (Social Justice Movement Kenya and liaison with Missing Voices)