Explainers

Policing The Virus

by Wakini Njogu
30 July 2020

In the first weeks of Kenya’s dusk-to-dawn curfew against Coronavirus, police killed more people than the virus, and by the time we inched towards the second month marker the killings and brutality had become so brazen that President Uhuru Kenyatta had to step in and apologise to Kenyans. Wakini Njogu examines the relationship between poverty and policing, and pokes holes into the unfortunate militarisation of the fight against Covid-19.

 

Asha Jaffar, a journalist and community worker, was getting home after gathering a database for her food drive in Kibera when she encountered policemen 100 metres away from her home. It had been raining heavily that evening, yet she had no means of getting home without risking her health. At about half-past seven, 30 minutes after the start of a nationwide dawn-to-dusk imposed by the State to control the spread of coronavirus, Asha boarded a motorbike to home, and that is when she ran into a group of about ten General Service Unit (GSU) officers.

 

Without giving her a chance to explain herself, they started whipping her on the back, making her fall from the motorbike.

 

“Two officers continued whipping me even after I fell, while the motorbike rider fled from the scene,” Asha recalls.

 

After beating her for close to two minutes, the officers finally inquired why she was out during curfew hours. She explained to them who she was and where she had been caught up, then they shooed her away. The encounter left her with bruises on her body and back pains.

 

While such cases of the militarisation of the fight against coronavirus appeared to be the preserve of Kenyan authorities, the sad reality is that such brutalisation of innocent civilians caught on the wrong side of Covid-19 regulations had been reported across Africa.

 

In South Africa, Mia Malan, Executive Director of Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, notes that the army was mainly deployed in poor townships, and not in middle-class areas. South Africa, too, was quarantined in stages, with different restrictions applying to different class zones. Stages Five and Four came with a ban on the sale of alcohol, which didn’t prevent people from drinking from their own homes if they had stocked up.

 

“What happened in townships is that the army would go around and if they, for instance, saw someone having a glass of wine in their yard, then they would become very brutal,” Mia says.

 

In Nigeria, Joshua Olufemi, a journalist and the founder of Dataphyte, paints a similar picture. “Armed forces or security structures have never had a reason for any sort of nationwide lockdown or state of emergency before. So it was more or less part of a lack of capacity to manage such, and of course, their natural element to abuse every opportunity that is given to them to maintain in law,” he says.

 

Dataphyte created a timeline on the various reports of violence in the country during the lockdown period.

 

In Kenya, Human Rights Watch reported that at least six people died from police violence during the first 10 days of the dusk-to-dawn curfew, imposed on March 27, 2020. This number was higher than the number of people who had died at the time of the virus, who were a paltry four.

 

Missing Voices, a group of organizations working towards ending enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Kenya, notes that 707 people have been killed by police or reported missing since 2007, 58% of whom were shot dead. Of all the reported cases, only 26 police officers have been charged in connection with these killings.

 

Men are most likely to be killed by the police in most cases, accounting for 64% of the murders or enforced disappearances. By June 2020, 95 people had been killed by the police, 18% of them in Covid-19 curfew related restrictions. May recorded the highest, with 24 deaths.

 

President Uhuru Kenyatta issued an apology on April 1 for the policing excesses, but this did not stop the violence. Among the victims of that police violence was a 13-year-old boy named Yassin Moyo, who was playing on the balcony of their third-floor apartment when he was hit by a bullet fired by a police officer who was enforcing curfew regulations on the street below.

 

A common thread in this police harassment trend across the continent is that most of the cases were reported in low-income neighborhoods and informal settlements. In Kenya, for instance, this happened mostly in Mathare, Kibera, and Korogocho, all of them slum settlements.

 

This, however, is not new. “The police force was established to protect the property of the colonialists,” says Kamau Wairuri, a researcher in African studies at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. “The idea was that the African person was likely to be a problem for the installation of the colonial power and colonial infrastructure.”

 

After Kenya gained independence, the same structures were inherited, and so the State viewed those who disagreed with the regime as problematic, and dealt with them in a violent manner. People who live in informal settlements, especially young men, are projected as a threat to the safety of the affluent and their properties.


“The fight against crime, then, is a fight against young men from the informal settlement,” says Kamau, pointing out that even when the rate of crime goes down, the fear of the vice doesn’t follow the same pattern. As a result, when the elite call on the police to be tougher on crime, that does not necessarily mean apprehending the actual criminals and taking them through the criminal justice system.


In 2017, Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) released a report addressing extrajudicial executions in Mathare. Several patterns were identified; the victims average age was 20, all male, and the youth victims were conducting regular everyday activities (for instance while at work, on their way to see family or even on the way back from school) when they got shot. In addition, several cases involved mistaken identity, with the victim wrongly identified and still shot dead. The report further identifies that a common practice among police officers is to state in reports that their victims were caught with a “homemade gun and four rounds of ammunition”. They even posted pictures of the victims in WhatsApp groups to “warn” others.

 

Wambugu Wanjohi, who runs a law firm in Nairobi, received at least one complaint during the first weeks of the curfew and subsequent cessation of movement, not only on physical police brutality, but also on harassment, either of persons or their property.


“We managed to solve some of these cases by having conversations with police officers and negotiating their release and the release of their property, but some were so complex that we referred them to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority,” he says.

 

On March 15, Chief Justice David Maraga announced the shutting down and scaling down of court services. To avoid congestion of prison cells and human traffic in court, especially in criminal cases, suspects of criminal offences were dealt with at the police station level. As a result, Wambugu explains, there were massive violations of the rights of suspects in custody, most of whom were forced to pay bribes and endure inhuman and degrading treatment from the police officers to secure favorable terms.


“Police officers cannot play the role of judge, jury and executioner,” Wambugu says, adding that the biggest challenge any authority will have in prosecuting offences against police officers is the collection of evidence, as most police officers find it difficult to investigate one of their own or testify. Police officers often threaten their victims or their families.

 

According to a survey by Afrobarometer in May 2020, only 34% of Kenyans trust the police, while 60% trust the army. Asha doesn’t trust the police. After her assault, she filed a case through Amnesty Kenya, but she has never followed up because she doesn’t believe that justice will be served.
“When I told my friends about my ordeal, they laughed,” she says. A few of her friends have been harassed before by the police and have never taken legal action.

 

The Independent Policing Oversight Authority was established in 2011 to provide for civilian oversight over the work of the police in Kenya by not only investigating police misconduct but also investigating deaths and serious injuries caused by police action.

 

 

Data visualisation by Juliet Atellah

 

Still, the numbers presented above do not give a true reflection of the extent of police extrajudicial executions and harassment. A large number of people have never heard of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, or have knowledge on how to access them.


As a result, urges Kamau, “we need to really start pushing for the government to acknowledge that there is a systemic problem, join the civil society organisations that have been calling for this for years, and actually get the politicians involved to change the laws in Parliament”.

 

But a major problem with police accountability is that whenever cases are brought up with the suggestion that there is a systemic problem, authorities are quick to dismiss it by stating that “not all officers are rogue”.

 


The state should also invest more in the judicial systems to ensure speedy and just convictions involving the police.

 

“A lot of the cases that actually go anywhere depend on the efforts of civil society and human rights defenders on the ground to collect the data, monitor, and then advise the victim on where to take cases,” observes Kamau.


In June 2020, Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji approved the arrest and prosecution of Duncan Ndiema Ndiwah, a police officer who is believed to have been involved in the fatal shooting of Yassin Moyo.


“The police violence against young men is a good anchor, because that’s where most of the cases are,” says Kamau. “We need to not forget that there are many other marginalised groups such as refugees and migrants, sex workers and street vendors who have been victimised by the police as well. And that requires us to start seeing this as a systemic problem that needs a systemic approach.”


At the beginning of June, police in Mathare gunned down John Muriithi (Baite), a homeless man. One more victim of the militarisation of Kenya’s Covid-19 curfew. A wave of protests followed that killing, but then, just like Baite, it soon breathed its last.


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