IG Koome missed a point on how officers should respond to crisis

By Irũngũ Houghton

A rare national television interview with the Police Inspector General, a Tharaka Nithi County inquest and the re-opening of a Kisumu County based social justice centre reminds us that everything that happens in Kenya remains connected in one way or the other.

Following a 15th April public interest suit filed by the national medical union (KMPDU), and nine human rights organisations, Police Inspector General Japeth Koome broke his media fast with an exclusive interview this week. The organisations seek a High Court declaration that the Officer had offended the nation’s highest law by instructing officers to prevent the constitutional right of health workers to picket for the adoption of the 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement. 

The organisations seek to hold him and commanding officers personally liable under the doctrine of command responsibility. They demand that he personally compensate KMPDU Secretary General Dr. Davji Atela for the head injuries incurred after recently being shot with a tear gas canister.  The High Court has ruled that the civil suit is valid. In under fourteen days, the police boss is required to respond. The suit is timely given current state-union tensions and the failure so far, to resolve another long strike. 

Two hundred kilometres away, the family of Eugine Muriithi (17) were in a Chuka court on Thursday for the start of the judicial inquest into the teenager’s death. Eugine died in suspicious circumstances on 24 July 2023 after the Kanjiunduthi Boys High School administration called in the police to respond to students who were protesting as part of the nation-wide anger over tax hikes and the cost of living. 

The postmortem declares the cause of death as asphyxia. The photos of the lifeless teenager’s body show considerable bruises to the head, neck, stomach, and leg. Close to 2,000 people have signed a petition calling for whoever may have assaulted, killed, and moved his body from the school to be prosecuted.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, and the Police presided over the re-opening of the Nyando Social Justice Centre in Kisumu. The ten-year-old center has been a resource to women and men seeking protection from gender-based violence and other human rights violations. Five days before but 500 kilometres from where Eugine was killed, the Centre was burned down after eyewitnesses reported seeing incendiary devices being thrown into the compound on 19 July.

This attack and the abduction and subsequent release without charges of Kisumu based Boniface Ogutu Akach who was documenting police violence were widely seen to be an attack on human rights defenders at the time. IPOA is currently investigating. In this context, the Police Inspector’s studio comment that he does not wish to be popular missed the point. State officers may not need to be popular, but they do need to be pre-occupied with how their services can be more rights based and public centred.

Numerous war studies establish that the consequences of physical destruction and pain last much longer that acts of violence. The 2023 protests were mass casualty and mass trauma events. The mental and physical damage live on in the survivors, victims’ families, law enforcement officers, you, and me.

Rather than fuel confrontation, uncertainty and fear around the current health strike, leaders could promote a sense of safety for all and respect for the rule of law. Presently missing from the Health Ministry and the Police Service is the public confidence that the attitude, skills, and resources are collectively present to overcome the current crisis engulfing our medical centres, morgues, and communities. 

How difficult would it be for the Inspector General to discuss face to face with KMPDU leadership how security could be provided and the peaceful Eldoret and Nairobi demonstrations this week be replicated until a way to uphold the 2017 CBA can be found.

The sudden death of Chief of the Defence Forces General Francis Ogolla and nine other colleagues shocked Kenyans. As we memorialise their professionalism in service of the nation perhaps all State Officers can find new ways of responding to old challenges in their honour.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]