This week the National Police Service decided that it was a crime for citizens to film officers doing unsavoury things. And the Director of Public Prosecutions appeared to agree with them. At least that’s what his silence over the prosecution of Sophie Njeri for “obstruction in the execution of duty” after she filmed an incident where five cops were attempting to forcibly eject a woman from a matatu after she refused to give up her seat for them.
The video clip she uploaded online was widely shared on social media sites and captures her solidarity with the other woman being roughed up by the cops, and her commendable refusal to back down in the face of threats of similar treatment. It is the sort of behaviour government used to claim to want passengers to demonstrate on public transport – to stand up to matatu crews behaving badly. The authorities obviously never imagined that they would be the target.
It is important to remember that this is not the first time we have seen citizens stand up to police in this way. Sixteen years ago, in the aftermath of Kibaki's election as President on a largely anti-corruption ticket, Kenyans, believing that times had changed, began effecting citizen arrests of traffic police extorting bribes from motorists and matatus. However, the euphoria did not last. It was quickly punctured by the realisation that Kibaki, despite his tough rhetoric, was uninterested in fighting graft and that the new administration was just as corrupt as its predecessor.
The parallels today are difficult to miss. As was the case in 2003, the government is full of fulminations against corruption. President Uhuru Kenyatta and the DPP, Yusuf Haji, have been earning plenty of kudos for their tough talk and for the many prosecutions that have been undertaken. And like Kibaki’s empty talk, today, the government has few convictions to show for its troubles. Many of its other loud declarations have turned out to have little substance. Lifestyle audits using polygraph machines, which President Kenyatta had announced last year with great fanfare, are yet to materialise. Another promise to audit the true source of his own family’s wealth, which many have good reason to believe was stolen from Kenyans by his father, has turned out to be little more than empty talk.
The official reaction to Sophie’s arrest and prosecution thus speaks to an administration that is more concerned about preserving, rather than dismantling, the colonial police state and the hierarchies of power that we inherited from the British in 1963. The system was not created to defend the likes of Sophie, but to police them; it was not built to protect her from the abuse of power, but to protect the government from citizens like her who dare to stand up to its abuse. To do that, the people must be thoroughly cowed, taught to know their place and not allowed to question the exercise of authority by agents of the state, regardless of how arbitrary or wrongheaded it is.
The police know what the deal with the political class is. They are allowed their opportunities to extort bribes in return for protecting the system of looting that is the state. This is why there have been no prosecutions pursued by the DPP from the revelations of the police vetting exercise of two years ago, which showed that the cops had been transacting millions of shillings that they could not account for. Clearly, the police know that the chances that they will be held to account for their actions are very small.
But there is another danger that they should beware. When the people completely lose faith in the service, then no amount of intimidation will be enough to keep them in check. The example of the four mechanics who roughed up officers, including a senior policewoman, in Nakuru in December should be a cautionary tale. While not condoning their actions in any way, that incident does show that the police can find themselves on the receiving end of a discontented and distrustful population.
The only way this can be fixed is via comprehensive reform of the police and the wider justice system so it serves citizens not rulers. Sadly, that is yet another issue which the President likes to mouth off on but actually does little other than tinker at the margins.