BY NGUNJIRI WAMBUGU
I spent several hours detained in Nyeri police cells last Saturday night. I had joined some young people at a ‘local’ in Nyeri as we discussed a volleyball tournament that was to be held the next day.
At 10pm a clearly drunk middle-aged man walks in and immediately starts verbally and physically harassing some of the young men in the pub. I quietly ask one of the people I was with who he was and they told me he was a police officer from the local police post. I then address the officer and politely ask him whether there is a problem we can help him with. He immediately turns to me and angrily asks who I am, and why I am trying to ‘kumtisha’ (challenge him). I told him that I was not challenging him; I was just asking, as a civilian, why he was harassing my young colleagues.
He walks out; comes back later with a colleague (also clearly drunk). He is now holding a police radio and he radios the number plate of my car saying that the driver of that car has threatened him and he needs reinforcement. Before long a police land cruiser comes and several uniformed police officers get out and ask me to follow them to the police station. I do so, intending to make a formal complaint against the two drunk fellows. I also carry along the owner of the pub and three of the young people as my witnesses to what had happened. The two drunk officers do not accompany us.
When I get to Nyeri Central Police Station my witnesses are chased away. I am then immediately booked and frog-matched into the police cells, without being told why. I ask whether I have option of bail and I was told bond is not given at night. As I am being walked to the cell I hear one officer telling another one that I had threatened to get their colleagues fired; and held an illegal night meeting!
As I was lying on that cold floor later looking up at the dirty ceiling I understood why President Kenyatta’s security efforts keep failing. A small clique of terribly rotten eggs are gradually turning local communities against the entire police force because when two or three officers keep getting away with harassing members of the public, word goes around that police can do anything and not get held to account for it. Members of the public; who are the most crucial link between a well-meaning government security effort and actual implementation to achieve a secure environment; then opt to keep away from the police. In such a situation the public will never volunteer any information to the police on anything. This gap in information flow is how our fight against terrorism is failing.
The solution to this is a deliberate public campaign from the security agencies to identify and punish those few amongst them who misuse police authority. The (majority) good police officers must realise that the rogue minority within them is making them not only get a bad reputation, but also have a difficult time doing their work because they are alienating the general public from them. Police cannot effectively police civilian populations without public cooperation.
Police officers must also accept that gone are the days when Kenyans could be pushed round; and this is not just in Nairobi. Kenyans now know enough to question them if they seem to be harassing other Kenyans who might not be able to stand up for themselves. This has nothing to do with disrespect or intimidation. Not everyone with a big car is Alfred Keter!
Finally, they must also ensure that whenever a member of the public claims he has been harassed by an officer such claims are taken seriously and acted on before they take action of the accused. The word of an officer who is involved in an alteration with a member of the public is no longer enough by itself, to throw someone in jail.
Let me re-emphasise a point here. My experience showed that most police officers are doing a good job. Except for the two drunk fellows, every other officer I encountered treated me with utmost professionalism; even when leading me to the cells!
But honest police officers must accept that the few rogue officers amongst them are not really police men; they are criminals in police uniform. They must identify them and ruthlessly deal with them; publicly; to send out the message that police see members of the public as partners in police work. Then the members of the public will reciprocate.
Meanwhile, after my experience #TeamNgunjiriWambugu is establishing social program in Nyeri to assist anyone who has been harassed by police officers to build a case and sue them; privately; wherever possible. As Juliani says; ‘Sitasimama Maovu Yakitawala.
(Wambugu is a Director of Change Associates, a Political Think Tank)