Friday, June 12, 2020

Running out of time

The night that the nighttime curfew went into effect, many Kenyans were assaulted by police officers for violating the terms of the curfew. The curfew had been imposed to prevent Kenyans from congregating in groups in entertainment joints and thereby increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus disease, Covid-19. The first week of the nighttime curfew also saw the shooting death of a child when a policeman fired in the air while attempting to enforce the terms of the curfew. The first month of the nighttime curfew saw one of the more absurd events: police and county officials forced a bereaved family to bury their loved one in the dead of night without even allowing them to hold a wake in his name. Commentators loudly condemned the actions of the police, though there were a few who echoed the Health Cabinet Secretary's stand: if you violate the terms of the curfew, regardless of the reason, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Kenyans' relationship with members of the National Police Service is built on well-travelled history. Kenyans have been policed with brute force for decades. And when they are not being policed, they are being extorted by police authorities. On the rare occasion that the police and the people are on the same side, the kumbaya moment rarely lasts. There are thousands of honourable police officers, and a few of them have come to the public's attention through their extraordinary acts and achievements. But as an institution, the National Police Service does not live up to the ideals of a "service" but the opprobrium that the impunity of a "force" has covered it like the stench from a skunk pervades a room.

As Kenyans have battled Covid-19 and the police, some police officers have distinguished themselves by descending to new depths of cruelty. The case of Mercy Cherono which, without social media, would not have come to light is only the latest. How she was assaulted is redolent of the anti-Black violence meted on Black Americans by police forces of the United States. No one could possible agree that it is normal for police officers to tie a suspected criminal offender to the back of a motorcycle and drag them along the ground in the name of "enforcing the law" regardless of what the offence is. The police are not supposed to be a weapon for carrying out revenge fantasies before the pubic prosecutor and, if convicted, the prisons service get their hands on the offender. What those policemen, and the bystanders, did was cruel, vindictive and totally in keeping with what policing is in Kenya in the absence of any real reform.

Cruel and violent events in the United States have shone a light on what policing looks like when it is separated from human rights and protection of the people. Kenya is no exception. From the moment Mwai Kibaki's Government was forced to agree to a timetable for constitutional reforms, the question of how to reform policing was a core component of those reforms. The securocracy resisted reforms tooth and nail. When the Constitution was promulgated in 2020, the securocracy had won. What we got was the facade of reform without any real change. Police training has incorporated modern tools but its essential nature remains the same: it is a weapon for browbeating the people whenever they think the they can challenge the authority of the mighty state. Mercy Cherono is the latest victim of policing in Kenya.

We have been failed by the institutions that are supposed to hold the agents of the State to account. The National Assembly and Senate of Kenya have engaged in supremacy battles with each other, with the Judiciary and with the national Executive with nothing to show for it but bruised political egos. But the people they purport to represent have not received the attention their vote entitles them to. The National Assembly, the one entity with the power over the national purse, keeps forking over billions of shillings to an institution that has violated our rights with impunity without a care in the world. In Hon. Yatani's trillion-shillings Budget, the National Assembly has the opportunity to stamp its authority: withhold funds for policing until true and meaningful reforms are undertaken. If the members of the National Assembly continue to shirk their constitutional duty, one day, when the people burn this bitch down, they may begin with the House that was supposed to offer them succour before they go after the Boys in Blue.

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