How Ruto’s promise of non-partisan police service is quickly being eroded

By Irũngũ Houghton

Fuelled by a volatile cocktail of political and economic grievances, protests were met with increased police violence across several counties this week. We know from other countries that mass public protests can be managed within a fraction of the deaths, injuries, and destruction we have seen recently. What is not happening, my late nephew would ask?

According to Inquest, an NGO that independently monitors policing in the United Kingdom, 1,863 deaths can be attributed to police officers between 1990-2023. There have been less than 3 deaths each year for the last nine years and no deaths in 2023 so far. Contrast this against the more than 30 deaths in Kenya over the last three months.

Two years ago, two thousand pro-Trump supporters stormed, vandalised, and looted the US Capitol, the equivalent of our National Assembly. Five people died before, during and after the 6 January 2021 protest. Only one of them was the result of fatal shooting by Capitol police. Over 1,000 arrests were made and 476 pleaded guilty to serious crimes. Five other people committed suicide within seven months of the dramatic incident.

On 8 January 2023, 5,000 pro-Bolsonaro supporters travelled in 100 buses to storm, vandalise, and loot the National Congress in Brasilia, Brasil. 2,182 arrests were made, fifty or so protestors and police officers were injured but no deaths recorded. The comparatively lower casualties and chaos in both the USA and Brasil cases must convince us another form of policing the right to assembly is not only possible, but also desirable and urgent.

Philosopher-Scientist Albert Einstein would remind us, the clearest form of insanity is repeating the same action over again and expecting a better outcome. So far, the police playbook has been to refuse notifications from protest organisers and pre-emptively arrest them when they can. The use of tear gas against protesting crowds has extended to homes, schools, and marketplaces. Two infants suffocated and died in Kibra in March and a whole classroom of Kawangware students had to be hospitalised last month.

Arrests appear to be selective and politically motivated. While one man protestor Julius Kamau was swiftly swept off his feet, Trade Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria or Parliamentarian Samuel Arama have yet to be even questioned for threatening other politicians with death or brandishing a personal weapon at protestors. Increasingly, police officers seem to have run out of clean uniforms or are deliberately being deployed in their own clothes, disguised as protestors or journalists and fully armed. This playbook is accelerating fear, apprehension and even anger in several urban poor settlements.

Police across the United Kingdom, Brasil and the USA have some of the highest levels of racial profiling and class-based discrimination across the world but like Kenya, their laws emphasise public order, human rights, and crime prevention. We can learn from their attempts to de-risk protests, encourage de-escalation tactics and community dialogue even at a tense time like this. Citizens need a public explanation and a closer oversight of the laws and procedures guiding the use of informers and undercover officers. Failure to do this, opens the door for police officers to wrongly assume they will have indemnity for committing crimes.

The Kenya Kwanza administration publicly promised us an independent national police service that would not resort to extrajudicial killings, secret police squads and human rights abuses. This important promise is wearing thinner by each protest. Let’s not also tire of calling on the Kenya National Commission of

Human Rights to remain vigilant in their monitoring and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority in their investigations until we see a change of policing strategy.

Let the citizens journalists also truthfully document and share publicly any actions that depart from the only legal standard that guides police officers during intense times like this. Is the force being used against protestors necessary, proportionate to the threat faced and reasonable?

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