On the morning of April 17, 2012, several police officers were woken up by the crackle of gunfire coming in from all directions at their base camp in Todonyang, Turkana, not far from the border between Kenya and Ethiopia.
Three hundred Merille bandits had targeted the Raid Police Response Unit camp set up to deal with constant raids on Turkana families from across the border. The over 300 Merille rustlers were finally overpowered. They retreated.
And as they left, two young policemen were lying lifeless on the ground. That incident barely caused a ripple on the national scale.
The killing of 42 police officers in Baragoi in the Suguta Valley last week has shocked the nation only because of its scale.
It is easily the largest single loss of life by the armed forces in a single incident over the last three decades.
But the fact is that the killing of policemen in Kenya is now a routine affair. The police have become the most expendable professionals in the country.
From Mombasa to Tana River to Garissa to Nairobi, policemen are killed every week, with the toll over the last three months hitting well over 60.
The murder of uniformed officers – an unthinkable offence in many parts of the world – has come to be viewed as normal. In Garissa, according to postings on social media, visitors are advised to stay away from policemen and churches if they want to stay alive.
“It is unacceptable for society to place such a low premium on the lives of the police,” says Dr George Kinyanjui, programme coordinator at the Private Sector Development Trust (PSDT).
“Police officers are playing the role elders had in traditional African society of maintaining law and order. The only difference is that they have additional powers to effect arrest and take people to court. They should be among the most valued members of society.”
The casual murder of police officers leaves their families in especially vulnerable situations because Kenyan police are among the few in the world who have no life insurance. (Editorial: Baragoi tragedy should provide a turning point)
Taxpayers will not contribute anything to the families of the nearly 100 officers killed in the line of duty in the past year.
Instead, every month, all police officers contribute Sh50 from their salaries to a pool of funds which is used to cater for officers killed or injured while at work.
The Kenya Police Medical Fund, introduced in 1995, serves as the only fallback for officers who are shot while at work.
Both the Moi and Kibaki governments have at various points promised to offer insurance to the police.
In 2000, senior officers requested that police stop paying deductions to the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) so that they could channel that Sh300 into the police medical fund to purchase insurance.
The offer was rejected on the grounds that they would soon be insured. Twelve years later, the people who perform one of the most dangerous jobs in the country – a job that has become ever more perilous amid multiplying threats from the Al Shabaab and ever better armed cattle bandits – have no insurance.
“It is very unrealistic and selfish of us as a society to expect security from policemen who work in such conditions,” says Dr Kinyanjui.
“A holistic approach should be taken to address their welfare. It is not just about higher pay. The canteens within police stations can be upgraded to duty free supermarkets where they can buy food at affordable rates. They should be able to import vehicles duty-free in the same way the MPs do. They have wives who can’t spend the whole day sitting in the house. The police Sacco should offer lending for them to start businesses. When police have enough income they will automatically stop asking for bribes and society will respect them more.”
The officers’ lack of insurance is compounded by extremely poor working conditions for policemen.
In a new report, the Usalama Reforms Forum lobby group carried out a study of 21 police stations around the country to assess the resources they work with and how effectively prepared they are to handle their tasks.
One of the stations examined was Baragoi, which serves the area where dozens of young recruits were mowed down in the unforgiving terrain of the Suguta Valley.
The report, Communities and their Police Stations, a Study Report of 21 Police Stations in Kenya, concluded that the station was thoroughly under-equipped:
“Baragoi police station is housed in Kenya Wildlife Services’ premises. All the buildings and most of the facilities at the station were constructed by KWS and not the Kenya Police. The divisional police office is hosted at the District Commissioner’s compound next to the station. The Officer Commanding the Police Division (OCPD) occupies a room meant for the District Officer who has since moved to the District Commissioner’s office to create room for the OCPD. The office has only three officers, namely the OCPD, his deputy and staff and operating officers who also share one office.”
Dr Charles Otieno, a policy analyst who was one of the lead authors of the report said the reform process of the police service should be modified to focus on improving the police station as a unit of service delivery.
“We should have different types of police stations depending on the local needs. Those planning the location of these stations should factor in population ratio in relation to the number of stations. They should also examine the specific needs of each location to supply equipment and police numbers that correspond with the challenges faced in those locations.”
The wave of sympathy for the police should not obscure real challenges within the police force itself particularly a collapse of leadership that has exposed many officers to casual deaths.
Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere has not addressed several questions security analysts have been asking.
For example, why have senior officers been sending their newest, most inexperienced officers to areas where there are major security challenges?
In September, dozens of new recruits who were hardly a week out of college were sent to Tana River following deadly inter-communal fighting.
On September 9, a few days after arriving in the field, nine officers were killed in an ambush at Kilelengwani – most of them new recruits.
Only two months later, Mr Iteere and his senior officers repeated the mistake. Those killed in Baragoi included dozens of young men who had not received their first payslip since joining the force.
Then there is the question of political neutrality. A police source who has served in Samburu said it was a major tactical error to include Samburu police reservists in the team that went on the mission to Turkana.
Many police reservists in Turkana, Samburu and Pokot are suspected of being major cattle rustlers themselves. Including them on a mission to any of those areas can often be seen as an abandonment of neutrality on the part of the authorities.
Nothing, though, can justify the killing of 42 policemen in cold blood. The frustration among many is that the shock and anger across society has not been reflected in the upper reaches of government.
There has been no order to fly flags at half-mast, as often happens when prominent people are killed and there have been few real gestures of sympathy for the dead men from the authorities.
The issue of compensation for the dead officers’ families has not been discussed – and it is unclear how the burial arrangements are being made. (Read: Family’s last moments with slain officer)
More scandalously, police headquarters does not maintain an up to date roll of honour of the officers killed in the line of duty, in contrast to the Kenya Wildlife Service which has erected a statue at its headquarters where the names of each officer killed by poachers is inscribed.
Efforts by the Sunday Nation to get photos of some of those killed in the last year collapsed after Vigilance House stopped picking our calls from Friday.
The attitude to police killings in Kenya stands in stark contrast to that in more developed countries.
On September 18, two female police officers on the beat were shot dead in Manchester, United Kingdom, while responding to a distress call.
Their killing brought the nation to a standstill. Parliament discussed whether to re-introduce the death penalty for criminals who killed the police; with a former conservative chairman Lord Tebbit saying such people should feel the “deterrent effect of the shadow of the gallows”.
The Queen led the nation in mourning the slain officers. Newspapers went into such a frenzy of condemnation of the act that the Attorney General had to warn them against prejudicing the rights of the suspected killer.
One newspaper produced a graphic of all police officers killed in the line of duty since 1680, reflecting the levels of record-keeping on that issue in that country.
On the Tuesday they were killed, Manchester United football club players wore black armbands and a minute’s silence was observed before the start of their Champions League match against Galatasaray.
Thousands poured into the streets of Manchester to offer their tributes and the local police chief came under pressure to resign for offering the suspected killer bail over an earlier offence.
Nothing of the sort happened in Kenya. These days, the killing of police officers is little more than a weekly ritual.