Toxic lockdown climate leads to deaths from police violence in Kenya

The rules to prevent the spread of corona are strictly enforced in Kenya. An independent Kenyan organization is investigating 22 cases of people who died as a result of police violence during the lockdown.

The cases were registered by the Kenyan Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) from the end of March until the end of July. That organisation also received 66 reports of injuries and a complaint of rape. The actual number may be higher because many people do not dare to complain.

Under the guise of enforcing the corona rules, such as the curfew and the compulsory wearing of a mouth cap, Kenyans have been treated with batons, beaten with whips and even shot at in recent months.

Lost an eye

Michael Rucathi is one of them. He brought home his last client on the back of his motorbike taxi in the poor Mathare neighborhood of Nairobi when the police stopped him. The curfew had just begun. “The cops started hitting. I didn’t resist,” said 35-year-old Rucathi.

He was given a wooden stick by a policeman in his eye. There’s a hole there now. Doctors couldn’t save the eye. His career as a motorcycle taxi driver is over. In a neighborhood where there’s already huge unemployment.

“The corona rules give the police an extra excuse to harass people,” says Wangui Kimari. She is an anthropologist and works for the Mathare Social Justice Center, an organization that investigates violence in the neighborhood and tries to help victims.

She lists a number of cases: a homeless man who was shot because he was outside after curfew. A woman who drowned in a river, chased by the police. And the case that caused the most commotion during the lockdown in Mathare: a 13-year-old boy who stood on his balcony after curfew and died of police bullets. According to the police, the bullet was not aimed at him, but a stray bullet.

In other African countries, too, there have been reports of cops being too far removed from enforcing coronavirus rules. At the end of April, the United Nations Human Rights Organization already drew up a list of the fifteen countries where action is being taken too harshly. In addition to Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa are also mentioned. The UN calls the lockdown climate in some countries toxic.

Especially the poor became victims. “In rich neighborhoods they would never do this,” says 35-year-old Elijah Kanyi. He is a filmmaker, grew up in Mathare, and documents police violence during corona. “They catch people with no voice. They see us as inferior in the slums. They come to wage war. Why are you being beaten because you don’t wear a mouthpiece? I’d rather hand them out.”

Here’s the story of Elijah Kanyi and Michael Rucathi:

Many policemen also use the fear they instil in people to extort civilians. Under threat of violence or arrest, they take bribes. President Uhuru Kenyatta has apologized for the violence, but they have heard this before in Kenya.

The problem of excessive police violence in Africa is not new. In many of the hard-hitting countries, the police have always had a hand in it. And the police in Kenya is probably the most notorious on the continent for violence and abuse of power.

Researcher Wangui Kimari says the police killed a total of 803 people between 2013 and 2016. “That’s extreme.” According to her organization, these were often innocent victims shot in the back.

Many complaints lead nowhere. Hardly any agents are called to account. Kimari: “That leads to a climate of lawlessness. We know who commits the violence. Every neighborhood has a murdering cop. And we know them. But they continue.”

Still, she’s got a little hope. The officer accused of shooting the 13-year-old boy has been charged. “Looks like this is a signal to other cops. The violence has subsided since then.” complaints of deadly police brutality fell during the first months of the lockdown.

Motor taxi driver Rucathi also filed a complaint. He hasn’t heard anything yet. Meanwhile he lives in fear. “If I run into cops, they threaten that I can lose my other eye too. I don’t dare take to the streets alone anymore.”