Key issues that the Maraga task force on police reforms should address

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As part of its work to improve terms and conditions of service for police and prison officers, the task force led by former Chief Justice David Maraga began taking views from stakeholders on Monday. Stakeholders include current and retired officers, members of civil society working on police reform, communities, and professional organisations.

The task force presents another opportunity for a candid conversation about policing in Kenya since the 2007-8 post-election violence (PEV) when the various commissions of inquiry and task forces recommended structural changes that became manifest after the 2010 Constitution was passed. Numerous improvements have been made since then. Officers and stations are more approachable; civilian oversight and other institutional changes have been made.

Before 2010, many had argued that the police and most law enforcement instruments had been created by the colonial administration and hadn’t been recalibrated for the new era. They were initially used to protect colonial administrations but were later used to preserve regimes after independence. Due to this, the police were only accountable to the president as a tool of regime protection.

African policing is often a matter of presidential preference, according to scholars like Alice Hill. According to her, police are happy to be used this way as long as the president ignores their attempts to make money through corruption, extortion, and protection money collection. The attempt to reform the police this time around is a result of the president’s own initiative, not a crisis such as the 2007 PEV. Notably, President Ruto has publicly stated that extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances are widespread, which previous regimes had vehemently denied despite numerous reports, including those by UN bodies. It is encouraging to observers that there is perceived political will because, as head of state, the president and his regime can transform Kenya and leave a legacy affecting a vital institution.

The task force will examine our officers’ terms of service and welfare. Mental health issues have emerged in the past few years, especially after a sharp increase in murder-suicides involving police officers. There are also problems with remuneration, housing, life insurance, performance management and career progression, and recruitment. Improvements in these areas, however, should be accompanied by accountability, the end of corruption, and adherence to the constitution.

Earlier efforts, like police vetting, stalled, and the task force should investigate why. They should examine why public hearings that previously exposed the systemic rot in the police stopped when it came to vetting traffic police officers. What information did the NPSC believe Kenyans should not know? Furthermore, why did the National Police Service Commission pardon 300 officers who had been recommended for dismissal in 2019?

Another vital area to look at is community policing, a constitutional and statutory requirement under our laws. Policing cannot succeed without involving and working with the people. Sadly, the only version of community policing that Kenyans know is Nyumba Kumi. It has been criticised for viewing citizens as mere informants rather than essential stakeholders. In addition, the task force should look for ways to work with human rights defenders, community social justice centres and civil society to revitalise community policing. We should abandon regime policing and embrace a democratic policing model that engages the community.

Last but not least, police should be empowered to manage their resources, just like the military. There must, however, be accountability measures in place.

First published in The Standard on 03rd February 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Demas Kiprono is a human rights lawyer and a Campaign Manager at Amnesty International Kenya. He writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]