Kenya less secure when police disregard the law


Not for the first time, I am moved to write in this blog about policing in Kenya.  Many Kenyans whose views I respect have told me they think that, although politics gets all the attention, security and policing are the crucial issues for the country.  I agree.

All of the country\’s other gains, in economic development, political reform, and increased investment in infrastructure, are jeopardised if security and justice are not assured.  Kenya\’s not alone in facing this challenge.

So the evidence caught on camera of policemen executing suspects on Langata Road last week was a sobering reminder of how far there is to go.  Since then the newspapers and radio phone-ins have contained plenty of comment from ordinary Kenyans that they support the use of lethal force by the police – many have commented that the courts fail to sentence criminals, so the police have no choice. 

I have heard the same in private from senior policemen.  And one can understand that anyone who has been a victim of violent crime isn\’t attracted to arguments about the human rights of the criminal.

But this as Paul Muite pointed out in a newspaper article, any country where the police have a free hand to act outside the law and against the Constitution becomes less secure, not more.  Everyone would support the right of the police to use lethal force where their or other people\’s lives are threatened.

But killing people as an alternative to arrest cannot be acceptable, anywhere.  It will always end up with innocent people being killed.  That isn\’t to say that the courts and prosecution system work properly: they do not.  And that is the reason often given for extra-judicial killings by the police.  But it just doesn\’t stack up: you can\’t wait for the reform of the criminal justice system in order for the police to start obeying the law.

The UK is a supporter of the Kenyan police: we have provided training and advice to a range of police units, and worked in close support of the police reforms taskforce and its Implementation Committee.  So we know from first hand that there are many, many dedicated and selfless police officers in Kenya.

Individuals who put their lives on the line, and who for little reward and thanks provide a vital service to the public.  Officers who go the extra mile to help the weak.  They deserve thanks and support from citizens:  the international community also has a role in helping.

But we also know that sadly, a culture has been allowed to grow where it has become acceptable to take bribes, and also to act with effective impunity, up to and including shooting people beside the road.

 There is a bright future possible for the Kenyan police, one where better equipped and trained officers are also better respected and trusted by the citizens of this country.  Indeed, without such transformation it is difficult to see Vision 2030 coming into being.  We want to help bring that future nearer.

Do other countries face problems with policing?  Absolutely they do.  In the UK, for example, the newspapers have been full of details about the behaviour of undercover surveillance officers.  But the key question is whether systems are in place to take action when things go wrong. 

In Kenya, there is legislation pending to (among other things) create credible, independent civilian oversight of the police.   As Internal Security Minister Saitoti has said, this is an urgent and essential part of police reform.  It would be a good step away from the events of last week, and towards that brighter future for the Kenyan police.

Macaire is the British High Commissioner to Kenya.  This blog was published on the FCO website

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