The death of 22-year-old Benson Njiru Ndwiga and his 19-year-old brother Emmanuel in police custody in Kianjokoma has once again highlighted the excessive use of force and violence by Kenya’s police when enforcing COVID rules. Police say that the brothers, both college students, died after jumping out of a moving police vehicle after they were rounded up for flouting the nationwide curfew time of 10 pm, which the government extended on 30 July after a nation-wide spike in COVID-19 Delta infections.
But an autopsy revealed that the brothers, who went missing on 1 August, died as a result of broken ribs and head injuries caused by a blunt object.
The death of the two young men sparked protests in Embu County, where a police post was attacked and a police car was set on fire. A campaign on Twitter under the hashtag #JusticeForKianjokomaBrothers was trending when the two brothers were buried in Kianjokoma during a tear-filled ceremony last Friday.
Human rights organisations and civil society groups have regularly condemned the use of violence by the Kenya police, not just when enforcing curfews, but at all times. Extrajudicial killings by the police, especially of young men living in urban informal settlements, are rampant. Police killed 803 Kenyans between 2013 and 2016, of which 50 were young men living in Nairobi’s Mathare slum, according to the Mathare Social Justice Centre. These and other killings by police inspired Kenyan musician Juliani to compose Machozi Ya Jana (Yesterday’s Tears), a song in memory of a lawyer, his client, and a taxi driver who were murdered in June 2016.
Reports of police beating and harassing people who are outdoors during curfew hours have been widely reported in the media. But widespread condemnation has not resulted in a significant change in police behaviour. In April 2020, Human Rights Watch claimed that at least six people had died from injuries inflicted by the police in the first 10 days of the first curfew imposed on 27 March 2020.
Public outcry over these killings have not reduced incidents of police violence; on the contrary, the death toll keeps rising. It appears that the COVID-19 pandemic has offered the police another opportunity to inflict indiscriminate violence on civilians. Two months after the March 2020 curfew began, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) reported 15 deaths from police brutality. According to Missing Voices, an initiative of 18 Kenyan civil society organisations who collect, verify, and publish data on police brutality, 157 people were killed and 10 were disappeared by the Kenya police in 2020 alone. Death at the hands of a police officer is most prevalent in Nairobi.
IPOA was established in 2011 to provide oversight over the police, which is deemed as among the most corrupt institutions in Kenya. But the oversight authority seems to lack the teeth to carry out investigations that lead to convictions. Of the thousands of cases of police misconduct it has received since its inception, very few have resulted in convictions.
Analysts say that police brutality in Kenya is a legacy of the country’s colonial past when state-sanctioned violence was the norm, and when police were expected to preserve colonial settler interests, not the interests of the majority African population. Post-independence governments have also relied on the police to suppress dissent and silence the opposition. Police violence against civilians peaks during elections. At least 12 people were killed and more than 100 were injured by police during the 2017 general elections in Kenya.
Human rights and civil society groups in Kenya are trying to hold the police accountable for the death of the Ndwiga brothers. So far no one has been arrested, even though IPOA has called for the arrest and prosecution of the six police officers implicated.
Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist who is working with the ONE Campaign’s COVID-19 Aftershocks project.