Kenya: Death and Brute Force During the COVID-19 Pandemic

On March 25th 2020 Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, outlined guidelines for the enforcement of a nationwide dawn to dusk curfew. Soon after, tweets making light of the statement flooded Kenyan Twitter, with some summarizing a much darker, humourless truth: “It is not what the President said, it is how the police understood it.”

The dusk to dawn curfew, which covered the hours between 7pm and 5am (they have since been amended to a 9pm-4am curfew), began two days later. Journalists were on the ground across the country to see how the police, who had been given the mandate to enforce the curfew, would act. It wouldn’t be long before Kenyan humour would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Among the journalists covering this first day was Peter Wainaina, a cameraman working at the coastal city of Mombasa for the Nation Media Group, East Africa’s largest media company. He filmed as battalion after battalion of administration police in riot gear poured onto the streets of Mombasa near the Likoni ferry, an important thoroughfare used by thousands of people every day. He filmed as police batons were drawn more than one hour before curfew hours set in. He saw police rain kicks and blows on women and men, forcing them to lie in puddles of rainwater, and on top of one another.

“While we were filming some of the officers lamented that we should leave, because what they were doing was not right. Whatever was happening could have turned chaotic on us,” Peter recalls.

Before he knew it, an officer had stepped out of the wall of jungle green uniforms.

“One of the younger officers followed us (as we backed away) for more than 100 metres. Then he started hitting my head and kicking me. I had to keep my cool because if I did anything it could have been worse”.

His colleague would film part of this episode, but not much else. They had to leave the scene as aggression grew. The rest of what happened on that evening was captured by a host of Kenyans filming from rooftops. If the goal was for people to reach home safely, having socially distanced themselves and followed government protocols, then the violence of that afternoon eviscerated any hope of a safe and peaceful beginning to the nationwide curfew. Deaths would follow soon.

On the evening of March 30th, in Nairobi’s Kiamaiko neighbourhood, 13-year old Yassin Moyo was watching from the balcony of his parent’s apartment as the police enforced the curfew. In poorer parts of the city, police were establishing a habit of firing their guns in the air to scare people into their homes. One officer, Daniel Ndiema, took out his pistol and fired a round into the air. That bullet hit Yasin in the stomach. His mother, Khadija, heard gunfire and told her children to “lie on the floor”. Yasin screamed back: “Mama, I’ve been shot!”.

He would die before reaching the hospital, as his parents struggled to negotiate past numerous roadblocks set up by the police. After the shooting, the police sent a protocol officer to commune with Yasin’s parents, promising investigations into the matter. Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta would also apologize for the actions of the police force at the onset of the curfew. Ndiema now faces murder charges. However, cases of brutality were pegged as crimes perpetrated by individual officers, and not at the behest of the Police service itself.

“Some of these police officers are young and drunk on the little power that they have,” Charles Owino, the Police service’s official spokesman said of the use of force by some officers, just days after Yasin Moyo’s killing. The trail of deaths linked to the police in the weeks after Yasin’s killing speaks to a far deeper problem.

On April the 1st, 23-year-old Eric Ng’ethe, a bartender at the coastal town of Diani was serving customers past curfew hours at his workplace. Police officers burst into the bar, lobbing teargas canisters and assaulting anyone they found. An officer is said to have hit Eric on the back of his head with a club. He was arrested, but it is alleged that he died while in the custody of the police, who would later take his body to the Kwale county morgue. The officers claimed that they found his corpse by the roadside.

On April the 7th, John Muli, a 27-year old car wash attendant in Nairobi was found past curfew by the police and savagely beaten. He died in hospital the following day. His post-mortem report said that his intestines had ruptured, causing his death.

On the night of May the 24th, Paul Juma Ooko, an apartment building caretaker in Nairobi’s Huruma neighbourhood, was called outside to deal with a dispute between residents of the apartment block in which he lived, and a guest. It was past curfew. Someone called the police to the scene. His younger brother was in their apartment when he heard a single gunshot go off. He ran outside to find his brother shot in the thigh and bleeding profusely. They took him to Kenya’s largest referral hospital, the Kenyatta National Hospital. He died four days later, on May the 28th in ward 6C.

COVID-19 exposed the lie of reform within Kenya’s Police service.

All of these killings, save for Paul’s, are being investigated by Kenya’s independent policing oversight authority. Paul’s family reached out for help to raise funds to clear his medical bills. They are afraid of pursuing the matter any further. They are clear as to why.

“There will be no justice,” his brother Moses shoots back at my question, almost as if it were obvious.

The grave has been the unfortunate end for dozens of young people, mostly men, who were confronted by the police in the early days of the curfew. Both in the numbers of deaths and their dispersal across the country, these deaths spoke to a deep-rooted problem of police violence. Pulling that thread leads you back to the very foundations of policing in Kenya.

“When Kenya’s police force was formed in 1902, the initial police force was only there to protect the European community. It didn’t actually police the African areas”. David Anderson, a professor of African Studies and the author of Histories of the Hanged, one of the most comprehensive exposes of the crimes of the British Empire, explains that the kind of policing witnessed in Kenya today was as a result of an entrenched understanding about who to police. Over the span of Kenya’s 67-year colonial period, professional policing was the preserve of the white settler or colonial officer, while rough and ready tactics were acceptable for Africans.

When a state of emergency was declared by the colonial government in 1952, the kind of violence and impunity with which the police had acted would be supercharged. Arbitrary arrests, mass incarceration, torture and the murder of tens of thousands of Kenyans by the state were commonplace in Kenya. The police, as an institution, was a key agent of this violence. Independence would come a decade after the emergency, but those habits were now a hardwired part of policing in Kenya.

“The police commanders who by 1963 were all Africans, had been recruited and trained in the 1950s and most of those who ran the police force in 1964 and would run if for the next 40 years were men who had come through the Mau Mau period. So, they had earned their experience in Kenya’s most violent moment,” he adds.

Apples don’t smell that bad when they are rotten but fish smell pretty bad, and that is what is happening to the police.

The year 2010 would be pivotal in Kenya’s history, in that it heralded a sea-change of sorts – with the promulgation of a new constitution that put to bed laws that had existed since the pre-independence era. Part of these changes focused on the police. Kenya now has an Independent policing oversight authority, which, by law, is supposed to investigate all deaths where the police had to use force. There have been changes, at least on paper, to how the police’s chief officer, the inspector general, is appointed – with parliament being given the role of vetting nominees to the post. But, on the ground, a change in culture has been rejected, by and large. COVID-19 exposed the lie of reform within Kenya’s Police service.

Over a dozen more deaths and injuries attributed to the police would take place before June 25th, exactly three months to the day that President Kenyatta announced the curfew measures. This anniversary would be marked by a horrifying murder. It would happen in the sleepy Rift Valley town of Lessos. Lazarus Tirop, a 39-year old father of four had set up at his usual stoop by the side of the town’s main road, ready to get on with his work. He was a cobbler. Police were on patrol that day. According to eye-witnesses, one of the officers on the beat stopped a bodaboda operator (the local term for a motorcycle taxi operator) on the basis that he wasn’t wearing a mask. This confrontation began to escalate. Tirop sought to intervene. The officer turned and shot Tirop in the head, killing him instantly. Residents who witnessed this murder would take to the streets in a day of rage that saw them set fire to the local police chief’s home. The officer who pulled the trigger is also facing murder charges, but the refrain that it is just a few bad apples was the Police’s response to this incident.

“I would actually equate it to rotting fish. Apples don’t smell that bad when they are rotten but fish smell pretty bad, and that is what is happening to the police.” This strong indictment of the Police service came from Noordin Haji, Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions. By law, he must work with police officers to secure convictions in the cases that he chooses to pursue, but the problem of systemic violence within the Police service is unavoidable.

“Without ruffling feathers, the police are one such outfit. Hopefully, we will be able to change it.” Haji’s hopes float on a river of tears cried by the families of those killed and brutalized by the police.


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John-Allan Namu

John-Allan is a Kenyan investigative journalist and the co-founder of Africa Uncensored. He has been a journalist for 14 years, based out of Nairobi, from where he has reported on issues and events in Kenya and the region. He has interviewed high-level politicians and power brokers from across the region, and investigated crimes committed in the highest reaches and lowest rungs of African society. John-Allan is the 2015 and 2017 joint journalist of the year Annual Journalism Excellence Awards, a 2015 Global Shining light award finalist, and the 2009 CNN African Journalist of the Year. He is a 2009 CNN fellow and a 2017 Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellow. He holds a BA in Journalism from the United States International University – Africa.