Over the last month, suspected enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of foreign nationals have burst one of Kenya’s worst boils. Reinvigorated political will, new appointments and new data may offer a glimmer of hope for several families of people who have disappeared or died in police custody over the last few years.
The public criminal justice system works like personal hygiene. Boils grow as the centre fills with pus. Eventually, the boil develops a yellow-white tip, and a gentle squeeze releases the pus. Media houses, religious leaders, human rights organisations, and oversight state agencies have demanded an end to the pus of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances for several years.
Speaking up and acting out has not always been safe, popular, or mainstream. Last week, the President himself issued instructions to disband the Police Special Services Unit. The elite and well-resourced anti-crime police unit has been implicated in the suspected enforced disappearances of Indian nationals Zulfiqar Khan, Zaid Kidwai, and Kenyan driver Nicodemus Mwania. He also appointed former Police Internal Affairs Unit Director Mohamed Amin upon the recommendation of the Police Service Commission. Amin now heads the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, an agency he would have monitored from the IAU.
Internationally renowned investigative journalist Ashraf Sharif’s killing has triggered another international incident for the young Kenya Kwanza administration. Within days, Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif spoke with President Ruto, established a commission of enquiry, and a team of Pakistani investigators are in town to do their own investigation.
The speed at which investigations were completed and police officers arrested is abnormal. It does, however, offer a glimmer of hope for the 150 families whose loved ones have disappeared or died in police custody. This week, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority report reveals new leads on the 38 bodies found in the Yala River over 2021 and 2022. Most of the dead were last seen in Nairobi, and thirteen people had been missing for six months prior to their recovery. A third have signs of torture, and the cause of death suggests the same killers were involved. The report also lists 88 individuals whose circumstances remain unknown for over a year.
39-year-old Ethiopian businessman and Kenya resident Samson Tecklemichael is one of them. Tecklemichael was abducted by state officers in broad daylight on 19 November 2021. In three weeks’ time, he will have been away from his wife and young children for an entire year. Combined civic advocacy, media exposure and state leadership are needed now for all the cases cited in the IPOA report and the Missing Voices database. It is this that successfully caused the release of advocate Professor Hassan Nandwa and Taimur Kariuki Hussein after two weeks and five months in Anti-Terrorism Police Unit custody in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
While action on individual cases is paramount, so too is exorcising the mindset, culture and protection afforded to officers to break national laws. Interior Cabinet Secretary Prof. Kithure Kindiki can start by accelerating the ratification and domestication of the United Nations International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. The Presidential appointment of a Judicial Enquiry is desperately needed now. Both the State House and the National Assembly must interrogate the reform credentials of Police Inspector General nominee Japhet Koome and exonerate or find him liable for command responsibility for police abuses over the last decade.
The Attorney General can also operationalise the Prevention of Torture Act (2017) and the National Coroners Service Act (2017). We can also request a ceasefire in the current IPOA and IAU tension on who leads investigations into police-related killings and disappearances. The two are complementary and can be compared to internal and independent auditors’ work. When the former is effective, the work of the latter is simpler.
While squeezing this pus from the otherwise fine work done by our police officers, we must also address the systemic hygiene issues that produced the boil so visible to the nation.
Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]