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No society should debate whether extrajudicial killings are tolerable

Saturday April 8 2017

 a police officer immobilising a suspect

A screen grab taken on April 1, 2017 purportedly shows a police officer immobilising a suspect in Nairobi's Eastleigh suburb. Killing an already apprehended criminal is intolerably murderous. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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My faith in Kenya is repeatedly shattered by the kind of debates that periodically command national attention.

I don’t mean this as a statement against national debate; debate enlivens the mind and opens us to the many-sidedness of an issue.

But there are some things that have only one side. Extrajudicial killings have only one murderous side; it is the gateway to anarchy.

They are what distinguish a failing from a functioning State.

This is why I cannot tolerate debate that shows how debased a society we have become when we try to find ‘virtue’ in extrajudicial murder.

It is worse when I encounter otherwise reasonable public intellectuals, some of them journalists of repute, taking the side in this debate that makes you wonder where our moral compass is located.


In the case of extrajudicial murders, there is a distinct difference between the police officer and the criminal.

For a start, our police are not conscripted into the service. They apply for the job out of their own volition, get recruited and accept to join the service.

They are trained to remove the cobwebs of civilian life in them and grow them into professionals able to handle the intricate matters of security.

Not only are they trained to be physically fit, they are also introduced to key legal elements necessary to safeguarding law and order.

Police recruits know that their job is high risk and requires a fine balance in the use of fatal force.

In fact, the law allows the police to use force in self-defence or when it is clear that the life of an ordinary citizen is in clear danger.

I agree that there are moments when that determination is difficult to make in the heat of a chase against a criminal.

In fact, I will understand if a police officer accidentally shoots a criminal in the heat of a dangerous chase or in order to immobilise them and effect an arrest.

Killing an already apprehended criminal is intolerably murderous.

It is the professionalism required for security provision that distinguishes police officers from criminals.

By definition, a criminal survives in anarchic situations. Lawlessness is to a criminal what water is to fish.

In lawless circumstances, criminals can outwit everyone, including police officers.

We accept police officers as legitimate actors in law based on their ability to follow due process.

When a police officer turns into accuser and judge, which is what extrajudicial killing turns them into, we cannot distinguish them from criminals.

Extrajudicial killing renders officers a law unto themselves thereby turning them into equivalents of criminals.

An officer who is an equivalent of a criminal is dangerous and untrustworthy to any sane society.

The main excuse Kenyans give for supporting extrajudicial killing is that criminals kill innocent people without mercy.

As such, these Kenyans argue, it is fine if they, too, meet instant justice at the hands of police officers.

The single most important problem with this is that instant justice is just as capable of neutralising a criminal as it might neutralise an innocent Kenyan.

When you tolerate instant justice, you cannot guarantee it will not extend to other forms of political persecution.

The judicial process gives us confidence that whoever is arrested by the police is indeed guilty of the crimes they are accused of.

That confidence differentiates a functioning State from a failing or failed one. Due process is the source of State legitimacy.

Let me be clear: For us to have a debate about extrajudicial killings, we must first agree that we do not deserve a functioning State.

We can only envision such killings in a context of state failure since extrajudicial killings reflect failure of law and order.

Finally, it is not true that when we criticise extrajudicial killings, we support criminals who murder innocent people. Such conceptual muddling is the stuff of stale debates.

Godwin R. Murunga teaches Development Studies at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]