Kenya's Police Are Notorious. Few People Are Protesting

Jun 20, 2020
Originally published on June 28, 2020 5:04 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Since the killing of George Floyd, people around the world have taken to the streets to protest police brutality. But Kenya, which has a notoriously brutal police force, has seen few public demonstrations. NPR's Eyder Peralta explores why. And we'd like to warn you that the story includes some very disturbing details and the sounds of gunshots from a police shooting that was caught on video.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Just as protests took off in Western capitals, a handful of Kenyans showed up for a march in downtown Nairobi. Luis Magana was one of the organizers. Cops have killed too many Kenyans, he says. And during this pandemic, they have tear-gassed, beaten and killed citizens for nothing more than breaking curfew.

LUIS MAGANA: People have to live a dignified life. People have to be respected by their own state.

PERALTA: He looks around. Police have parked a tactical vehicle on one side of the park, and plainclothes officers with sticks begin to circle.

MAGANA: So you're telling me to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. Yes. Yes. Keep off from here, this place - just keep off.

PERALTA: Like the United States, over the years, Kenya has been roiled by a series of police killings. When they can get out on the streets, Kenyans recite a litany of victims - Yassin Moyo, baby Pendo, Khamis Juma (ph), Calvince Omondi (ph), David Kiiru (ph).

One killing that sticks with me happened in 2017 in the middle of a busy neighborhood in Nairobi. It was caught on video. It shows a teenager lying in the street, dead. Cop named Ahmed Rashid is holding another boy by his shirt, 16-year-old Mohammed Dahir Kheire (ph). Mohammed pleads for his life when the officer, Rashid, pushes his gun into his stomach and pulls the trigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS, SCREAMING)

PERALTA: Mohammed writhes on the floor. A crowd watches as the cop puts his foot on Mohammed's back and asks for a reloaded gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

PERALTA: A few days later, I went to Mohammed's funeral. I was the only journalist there. The men washed Mohammed's body and covered it in a white shroud, their prayers building as they passed his body from hand to hand.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Unintelligible).

PERALTA: The family are refugees. Mohammed's father, Dahir Roble (ph), says they've been under constant suspicion since they left Somalia in the '90s.

DAHIR ROBLE: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: His son made mistakes, he says, but he did not deserve to die. As we talked, Mohammed's aunties cut in. When he was killed, Mohammed wasn't resisting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And he surrendered, and he kneeled down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There's this thing called humanity. You just can't shoot someone like that. That's not humanity. That's insane, I'm telling you. We need justice.

PERALTA: Kenya's police force was founded by the British. Ruth Joyce Kaguta teaches criminology at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology in Kenya. During the armed resistance to British rule, she says, it was the police who ran concentration camps. But when Kenya gained independence in 1963, professor Kaguta says the new African government left that force in place.

RUTH JOYCE KAGUTA: We inherited the same kind of police force with the same structures.

PERALTA: The same modus operandi. In fact, many of the white commanders remained because Kaguta says the aim of the new government was the same as that of the colonial rulers.

KAGUTA: The objective was very simple - that it was to protect the interests of the administration and not the people.

PERALTA: A new constitution in 2010 did lead to some checks on police power. But Ahmed Rashid, the cop who killed the 16-year-old boy, is still on the force.

NJERI MWANGI: He's always on the streets walking like a free man.

PERALTA: Njeri Mwangi is a human rights activist in one of the neighborhoods Rashid patrols. Her group, the Mathare Social Justice Centre, counted 60 young men killed by police last year just in her neighborhood.

MWANGI: These people are protected by the government, their own state. And when people are trying to uprise (ph), they are always intimidation.

PERALTA: Intimidation, she says, is why Kenyans don't rise up. She gets text messages warning her to stop documenting cases. She says plainclothes officers hang out in front of her office. Police did not respond to our requests for comment. But earlier this month, interior minister Fred Matiang'i did address police brutality, admitting some officers do make mistakes. But, he said...

FRED MATIANG'I: They're human. Let's work with them. Let's not create a stigma.

PERALTA: This week, I went back to talk to Dahir Roble. Since his son's killing, he's developed high blood pressure and diabetes. He says the weeks since the killing of George Floyd have been hard. The Koran, he says, speaks of the life-giving jugular vein. So what sticks with him is the officer's knee on Floyd's neck.

ROBLE: (Through interpreter) Because I could remember the cop placed his foot on the dead body of my son.

PERALTA: Like his son, he says, Floyd begged for his life.

ROBLE: (Through interpreter) But the white cop did not respect the shout and cry of George Floyd, and he decided to kill intentionally

PERALTA: Roble says since his son died, he alone has spoken up. He says when he watches all those protests across the U.S., in Paris, in London, he thinks George Floyd is lucky because at least people cared about his death.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.