Skip to main content

Extrajudicial Killings in Kenya

"[Criminal Investigation Department] officers had challenged the gang of six suspicious men to stop, but instead they drew arms and fired at the officers, and a shout-out ensued." This was the official police statement of the events on Langata Road on the morning of January 19, 2011. It would have ended there. However, another version of these same events emerged the next morning as the headline story in the Daily Nation causing a national stir because, for once, the counter version was accompanied by the irrefutable proof of photographs taken by a very brave eye-witness.

"Laleni vizuri tuwamalize!" ("Lie down so we can finish you!"). These were the orders heard from a police officer to three men who were forcibly removed from a car on Langata Road that January 19 morning; as they lay face-down on the tarmac, bullets were pumped at their supine bodies for what was reportedly a sustained period. Four eyewitness photographs eloquently and truthfully told the story. It was point-blank, cold-blooded murder: the deliberate, calculated, unprovoked shooting-to-death of suspects who had clearly surrendered. But this was not all that is wrong with the overall picture.

First: the shootings. Recall David Makali’s eyewitness account of a police execution last year in one of his Star columns? Recall the Kawangware seven where seven taxi drivers from Kawangware were shot to death by the administration police? In 1996, the Kenya Human Rights Commission was recording at least two deaths a week due to extra-judicial killings. In 1997, the figure had risen to three per week and in 1998, it was two lives every three days. Shoot-to-kill is clearly a pervasive phenomenon; Professor Philip Alston, then the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions had this to say in his summary report after a visit to Kenya in 2009:

Perhaps the most surprising outcome of my visit was the extent to which I received overwhelming testimony of the existence of systematic, widespread, and carefully planned extrajudicial executions undertaken on a regular basis by the Kenyan police.

Second: the official lies.  The statement from Langata police boss Kimantiri on the January 19 events is part of a tradition of police spin-doctoring. When Dr. James Ng’ang’a Kariuki Muiruri was shot in cold blood on January 24, 2009, the police officer responsible for the shooting filed a report that a bank robber and Mungiki [a banned criminal organization in Kenya] member had been killed. This would have been the end of the case were it not for the fact that James was the son to Hon. Patrick Muiruri, Deputy Secretary, Agriculture & Environment. It later transpired that that James had been in an argument in a night club with the police officer who had later stopped him as he left and ordered him to handcuff himself. When he asked why he was being arrested, James was shot three times.

Allied to the lies is another method: deny. Professor Alston would note:

The Police Commissioner in particular, along with various other senior officials, assured me that no such killings take place. But he and his colleagues appear to be the only people in the entire country who believe this claim.

When pressed a bit more, the police counter by saying that they too are being shot at: that they are under attack and in the words of current Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere "Bunduki sio jembe; bunduki sio kijiko." ("A gun is not a hoe; a gun is not a spoon.") It is not contested that the police are under attack; in fact this is reprehensible and must be unequivocally condemned. It is also why international law allows the police to engage lethal force in self-defense or in defense of the life of another. But, were the shootings of January 19 about self defense or defense of another? What of the other numerous recorded systematic shootings of suspectswho are reliably reported to have surrendered to the police?

Thirdly, we find that the police accuse those who question their version of events as being supportive of crime and criminality in Kenya. The Daily Nation report of the executions on January 19 records a uniformed woman police officer challenging an inquisitive journalist: "Kwani wewe ni mmoja wao?  Pia wewe tutakuweka hapo." ("Are you one of them? We will also put you with them.") This has been the standard police response to human rights activists who question police shootings: that they are in league with or supportive of criminals.

There is a fourth issue arising from these events: that Kenyans, by and large, are mighty fearful of personally or collectively raising issues of accountability around extrajudicial killings. Witness how the Daily Nation uses the byline Nation Team and, correctly in my view, withholds the name of the eyewitness. The vast majority of Kenyans are scared of crossing the path of the police even in the name of vindicating our own inviolable rights. In June 2008, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights recorded the confessions of police officer Bernard Kirinya, who said he witnessed extrajudicial killings of 58 suspects by his colleagues, under orders from his superiors. Kirinya would be shot dead three months later.  Fifth, when all else fails, we are told that this is the case of "a few rotten apples" and that the police are investigating. Pooh-pooh. Some of us will continue to insist: it is not just "a few rotten apples". It is the whole tree that is rotten: root, trunk, branch, leaf and fruit. And because of this, the police cannot investigate themselves.

The continuation of the shoot-to-kill policy may offer psychological comfort but it has not effectively tamed armed crime in Kenya. Ask any ordinary Kenyan if they have felt any safer throughout this era when different police squads—flying squad, alfa romeo, kwekwe and so on—have been in existence arbitrarily executing those it deems to be criminals. It is the clear that it is the reverse that is true: insecurity has increased forcing the citizen to migrate behind even higher walls and seek more protection from a variety of private sources—including private militia.

A number of things, hence, need to happen: investigations by an independent, credible, and competent entity into the January 19 shootings for a start. Similarly, greater police oversight is needed: again, by a properly resourced independent, credible, and competent authority. An audit of extrajudicial killings needs to be urgently undertaken leading to an open and independent vetting and lustration process of the police: the traditional cosmetic changes where a game of musical chairs is played with the office of the commissioner of police is nowhere near enough. Training, retraining, and re-evaluation and reconfiguration of just how the police conduct their business are also vital. The adequate re-sourcing of the police—with decent pay, housing, and insurance for instance—is also vital.

All Kenyans have the right to life. This is constitutionally guaranteed and the circumstances under which this right can be trammeled are also very clear. If this very clear delineation were to be followed, we would avoid the shock, exposure, and outrage from pictures taken by an eyewitness’ camera.

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world

By entering your email address and clicking “Submit,” you agree to receive updates from the Open Society Foundations about our work. To learn more about how we use and protect your personal data, please view our privacy policy.