In Summary
  • African nations have been speaking out against police brutality at a global level;
  • But Kenyan communities have yet to see their government act on police violence at home

When worldwide protests against police violence erupted following the death of George Floyd in the US in May, Kenyans found the protesters’  anguish all too familiar. Civil society groups quickly spoke against police excesses. African groups issued statements condemning racism and police brutality in the US, drawing parallels with state sanctioned police violence in Africa. African nations have been speaking out against police brutality at a global level, but Kenyan communities have yet to see their government act on police violence at home.

In fact, the problem is getting worse. Activists working in grass roots justice centres in informal settlements in Nairobi warn that if the death toll from police violence in Kenya continues at its present rate, 2020 may be one of the deadliest years on record. The situation is bound to get even worse given the trend. Human Rights Watch documented six deaths by police officers within the first few days of the Covid-19 curfew.

According to Missing Voices, a civil society managed website for collecting data on police brutality, more than 700 people have been killed or suffered serious injuries due to police violence since 2007. And this still does not describe the full extent of the problem. Most of the police officers accused of violence are well known within the communities, but activists, survivors and families of those killed rarely find justice.

Although the Independent Policing Oversight Authority has tried to pursue justice  for police excesses, the conviction rate remains dismal—just six convictions since 2013. The authority  appears overwhelmed and often lacks the much-needed support from government. The government provides no mental health support for affected families. The justice centres offer valuable support to victims and their loved ones.

The centres, about 26 across the country, were formed and are run by activists who wanted to speak out against injustice in their communities. The centres have been helping victims and fighting police brutality. 

This is not a case of a few errant officers. It’s a systemic issue, with government  failing to protect its citizens

Community members call the justice centres when someone has been killed, disappeared, arrested or beaten by police. Their staff are often the first to arrive at the scene of an incident, and the first to speak to family and witnesses to gather preliminary evidence.

At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, justice centre members swiftly took steps to address the  pressing concerns in their communities after the government announced a curfew and restriction on movement. Most people living in these communities earn a daily wage and the restrictions prevented them from working. 

The centres led fundraising drives to establish handwashing spots, collection and distribution of sanitary towels, and food donation systems. They also monitored the police response in enforcing the curfew. When police turned violent, the centres stepped  in to document the incidents and keep records of those killed and beaten.

The police have downplayed credible reports of unlawful killings by their officers, mostly in rural areas or in informal neighbourhoods in urban centres. They have even asked activists to also look into cases in which  citizens have attacked police. But even with the centres,  the affected communities have little power over the police. This is not a case of a few errant officers. It’s a systemic issue, with the government  failing to protect its citizens.

The centres are led by passionate activists who are supported by donations. Many of these activists have been threatened. A year ago, the body of a passionate and charismatic activist, Caroline Mwatha, was found in a morgue in Nairobi.  She had been missing for about a week, and her family and rights activists had led a campaign on social media and around the city trying to find her. The unclear circumstances leading to her death caused concerns among  human rights defenders.

Caroline was one of the founders of the Dandora Community Social Justice Centre, which, among other activities, had been investigating and documenting  police brutality. The centres’ members are community activists who carry out their work at great personal risk.

The centres have been doing the work the government should be doing to protect its citizens. As Kenyans call for an end to police brutality, it is important to support community justice centre activists who have years of experience in understanding and combating the problem of police brutality.

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