Protecting Africa’s democracy from trigger-happy police

Saturday July 16 2016

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Evidently, brutal policing is putting Africa’s nascent democracy at great risk. Despite the momentous collapse of the “police states” of the one-party vintage and Africa’s return to democracy, policing remains a nasty and brutal affair on the continent.

The neo-liberal experiment on “democratic policing” is yet to take root in Africa’s new democracies.

Conceptually, the crisis of policing in Africa mirrors the paradox of the police force in democracy. The emergence of the modern state would bestow upon the police force what Max Weber described as a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force” only exercised by the military.

Opinion on the role of policing has been divided since the police force first appeared in Paris in 1667.  The Parisians looked up to their police to safeguard “the peace and quiet of the public and of private individuals” by purging the polity of potential causes of disturbances and ensuring that each and every one lived according to their station and their duties.

Anti-police campaigns across the word are blurring Michel Foucault’s concept of preventive policing, which remains the cornerstone of the new guardians of the democratic space.  It is in this context that US President Barack Obama reminded us that “most police officers are decent people who risk their own safety for ours every single day”.

But the radical opinion, informed by Marxist theories of power, will always see the police as a negative force—as one component of the “repressive apparatus” in the hands of the ruling class for subjugating the working class.

Like democracies elsewhere, Africa’s new democracies rely on the police to control crime and to ensure public law and order. But the police force remains a paradox. Africa’s democratic experiments need protection both by the police and from the police.


Ironically, the African countries hardest hit by the crisis of policing are the “pivotal states”, including Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

In Kenya, the recent brutal killing of a lawyer, Willie Kimani, his client (a boda boda operator Josephat Mwenda who had been allegedly shot and wounded by police in a traffic stop) and taxi driver Joseph Muiruri has sparked public debates and protests.

The discovery of the three bodies in the Ol Donyo Sabuk River 70 km northeast of Nairobi on July 1, 2016 marks the worst case of police brutality since Kenya’s return to democracy in the early 1990s and the killings at Nyeri main prison, King’ong’o, on September 3, 2000, where six death row inmates were found dead as prison officials claimed the victims met their deaths trying to escape by scaling the 24ft perimeter wall of the prison.

Police have been on the spotlight since the May 9, 2016 demonstration by the Kenyan opposition where anti-riot police officers were captured on video repeatedly striking and kicking a man.

Although four police officers have been arrested in connection with the recent killings, Kenya’s worst nightmare is coming. If its courts exercise their freedom—as they should—and based on available evidence declare the accused officers not guilty, this will push public confidence in the police force to an all-time low, and perhaps spark a new wave of protests.

In Egypt, police brutality was a major drive behind the 2011 revolution as people took to the streets demanding the purging of the Ministry of Interior for its brutality and torture practices.  The crisis of policing reached its all-time high in the wake of the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsy. In what has become one of the most brutal uses of force against civilians in Africa’s modern history, Egyptian police killed over 800 people in a pro-Morsy sit-in near the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square.

In South Africa, two cases left the reputation of police in tatters. One is the shooting of striking mine workers at Marikana in August-September 2012 that resulted in 44 deaths and over 78 injuries. The other is the killing of a Mozambican migrant and taxi driver, Emidio Macia, who was dragged behind a police van and later killed in police custody in February 2013 for “causing a traffic jam and resisting arrest”.


Across democracies, police have moved from protectors of rights to violators of freedoms. In 2014, the UN Committee against Torture condemned police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement in the United States of America, highlighting the “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.” The police killings of Rodney King (Los Angeles), Eric Garner (New York), Michael Brown (Missouri) and Freddie Gray (Baltimore) have given a racial tinge to America’s crisis of policing.

In the UK, the death of Ian Tomlinson after he was hit with a baton and then pushed to the floor during the 2009 G-20 London summit protests epitomised police brutality.

Similarly, two events revealed the problem of democratic policing in Canada. One is the case of the Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekaski, who was electroshocked by the police to death in a secured room at the Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, British Columbia on October 14, 2007.  The other is the brutal killing of Sammy Yatim, an 18-year-old male, who was shot at nine times in Toronto on July 27, 2013.

In Hong Kong, seven police officers were caught on video kicking and beating a prominent political activist who was already handcuffed during the 2014 protests.

Police brutality is also straining African economies. The cost of civil liability claims against South Africa Police Service hit an estimated 26 billion rand ($1.8 billion).

In Kenya as elsewhere, the police force must embark on serious PR to ward off negative publicity and to redeem its reputation. The move by the New York police to give away colouring books to children with the inscription “Police officers are your friends” is likely to restore confidence across generations. But the question remains: who will guard the guardians? Perhaps technology will. After putting monitors on the streets to detect and deter criminals, we now need to get officers to wear body cameras to provide evidence after violent encounters. This might be the surest way of policing the police—and protecting the officers against biased complaints.


Prof Peter Kagwanja is the chief executive of the Africa Policy Institute.