Police response to protests calls for quick reform

By Sarah Nyakio

Kenya has experienced a significant increase in protests across all 47 counties during the period from January 1 to July 18, 2023. These demonstrations have served as a reflection of the mounting dissatisfaction among the public over various issues. However, the response from law enforcement has been consistently brutal, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries among the demonstrators. The Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) has diligently monitored these events and documented troubling cases of torture, extrajudicial killings, and other forms of violence perpetrated by the police against protesters. The urgent need for police reform in Kenya has never been more apparent, as it is crucial to protect the rights and lives of the nation’s citizens.

IMLU’s findings have revealed a distressing pattern of violence perpetrated by law enforcement during these protests. Out of the 91 documented cases of torture and related violations, a shocking 41% were extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions, involving fatal police shootings. Additionally, 59% of the cases involved torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment resulting in gunshot injuries. Such excessive use of force and blatant disregard for human rights by the very authorities tasked with maintaining law and order is deeply concerning.

One particularly noteworthy series of protests was organized by the Azimio movement, which took place in two phases, on March 20, 27, and 30, and later on July 12, 2023. These demonstrations spanned many counties of Kenya. In response to the Azimio protests and others like Sabasaba, IMLU documented and processed 68 cases of torture and violations, all of them involving the police’s use of lethal force against protesters. Shockingly, 40% of these documented cases were extrajudicial executions, while 60% involved instances of torture, inhumane treatment, or punishment. This data paints a grim picture of the rampant abuse of power during public demonstrations.

The impact of this police violence has been felt throughout various regions of Kenya. Nairobi City, the nation’s capital, witnessed the highest number of cases, with 34 documented incidents of torture and violations during protests. Additionally, other counties such as Kisumu, Migori, and Kajiado also experienced multiple casualties and injuries due to the use of deadly force by the police. These statistics underscore that the issue of police brutality is not limited to specific regions but rather pervades the entire country, affecting citizens across different communities.

In light of the continuous reports of police killings and violence, the urgent need for comprehensive police reform in Kenya cannot be overstated. The government must take immediate action to address this grave issue and ensure that law enforcement agencies fulfil their duty to protect and serve the public, rather than resorting to excessive and deadly force.

Fundamental aspects of this reform include investing in rigorous training for law enforcement personnel, emphasizing the principles of de-escalation, non-violence, and respect for human rights. Additionally, the establishment of an independent oversight body is vital to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings.

Strengthening community policing initiatives can also play a crucial role in fostering trust between law enforcement and the public. Building positive relationships will contribute to a safer and more secure society, reducing tensions during protests and other challenging situations.

Moreover, the government should revisit and update relevant laws to ensure they align with international human rights standards. Establishing legal frameworks that protect the right to peaceful assembly while preventing the misuse of force is essential.

Lastly, transparent communication is of utmost importance. The authorities must engage in open dialogue with citizens during protests to address concerns and negotiate peacefully, thus reducing the likelihood of violence.

In conclusion, the prevalence of police killings and violence during protests in Kenya demands immediate attention and action. Comprehensive police reform is crucial to protect the rights and lives of citizens. Prioritizing training, accountability, community policing, legislative reforms, and transparent communication will pave the way for a law enforcement system that respects human rights and upholds the rule of law. Collaborative efforts between the government, civil society, and the public are essential to bring about positive change and foster a safe and just society for all Kenyans.

First published in the Daily Nation