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Comment & Analysis - August 03, 2009

Kenyan Task Force on Police Reform Hears Fierce Complaints in Public

Herds of game grazing on the African savannah, the red-clothed Masai herdsmen, and lush tea and coffee farms certainly constitute one reality of Kenya. This is what attracts many thousands of tourists annually. Other realities exist, though, that many visitors understandably prefer to ignore and which, unfortunately, also cause far too many Kenyans to look the other way. Deep tribal divisions, unfettered corruption, increasingly violent crime, and an entrenched political class are also realities in Kenya.

Some of these more troubling realities are now receiving new attention, albeit slowly and sometimes grudgingly, thanks to a government-appointed National Task Force on Police Transformation. It is an eighteen-person civilian task force headed by a retired Kenyan judge, and I am serving on it as an international expert and vice chairman.

Its establishment follows the wave of postelection violence and chaos in early 2008 which resulted in more than 1,300 deaths, and in which some police are alleged to have participated. There is currently widespread public disenchantment with the state of policing.

The task force has the mandate to produce recommendations for the fundamental reform of the Kenyan Police. While the force has attracted lots of public attention and often robust participation, not everyone has confidence in it. Many have voiced doubts about “yet another inquiry with little prospect of change,” and others have warned against it becoming another “gimmick commission.”

The task force has toured the country’s eight provinces and met with a wide cross section of Kenyans in boardrooms, administration offices, and at public meetings in local town halls. These town hall meetings provided a mixture of theatrical drama and serious debate in a refreshingly open manner.

Dignitaries and local community members spoke from the heart and were sometimes brutal in their critique of the current situation in Kenya, a judgment that also has emerged in vibrant daily newspaper columns. It has been encouraging to be witness to freedom of speech and freedom of the media in operation in a developing country like Kenya.

Report from Garissa

Garissa is a small, dilapidated frontier town, the capital of the vast North East Province that borders on Somalia. It is flat, hot, and dry, with a small population, mostly of nomadic clans that move around with their goats and camels. For our task force meeting, the town hall was packed.

“Sack the National Commissioner!” shouted one woman wearing a black veil. Others provided well-reasoned assessments of policing as they saw it. Reports of police corruption, harassment, abuse, and ineffectiveness featured prominently, sometimes interrupted by ululating women.

Some of the fiercest critics of the police were often those who at the same time pleaded with greatest urgency for better working conditions for police officers. They explained––often graphically––how the local police had to perform under impossible conditions: appalling housing, inadequate or no equipment, arbitrary transfers, low salaries, and no medical insurance or support. They also reported that nepotism is rife in the senior officer corps.

Pandemonium broke out when a local Garissa businessman of Somali origin called for the resignation of the National Police Commissioner but then laid into the local Somali population for fueling police corruption. “Somalis are corrupt!” he shouted repeatedly, evoking loud shouts of protest from men and women, with some walking out in disgust.   

Report from Mombasa

Members of the task force arrived in the old colonial town hall in Mombasa to a packed house. One by one, residents revealed their complaints against the police. A recovering heroin addict claimed: “They support drug traffickers… I have seen them protecting peddlers who sell drugs.” A Muslim cleric decried the lack of accountability by the police, the impunity within Kenyan society, and the lack of prosecutions. “Something is wrong!” he said.

During separate meetings with police members of all ranks, junior officers sometimes requested that the task force meet with them in the absence of seniors. They came with heart-rending stories, which were in line with the reports of their plight given at public meetings.

One junior officer warned: “If you don’t feed your dog, it will go and stay with your neighbor. If you then step on its tail, it will bite you, even though it is your dog.”

A senior officer lamented: “It is a sad fact that in Kenya, one can summon hundreds of people without notice to lynch a suspected pickpocket, but not one Kenyan is willing to testify in court to advance the course of justice.”

Conclusion

Something is indeed wrong in Kenya, and it requires urgent addressing by the government and the Kenyan nation as a whole. Corruption at all levels, though denounced by all, is endemic and appears to be a practice that fuels cynical fascination about how smart those are who get away with it, rather than evoking anger at how it is eating away at the foundations of Kenyan society. Tribalism is a curse for the country and is fostered by figures in public life who use it for populist political mobilization.

The criminal justice system seems incapable of coping with high crime rates, and vigilantism is increasing.

The Kenyan government has high expectations of the National Task Force on Police Reform. If its recommendations are far-reaching, bold, and imaginative enough, they may foster a resolve to tackle other fundamental problem areas in Kenya head-on.

Kenyans tend to be optimistic. Let’s hope that in the future such optimism can increasingly be based on real successes in addressing key social and political problems.

 
 

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