Three weeks ago, the bodies of Willie Kimani, Joseph Muriuri and Josephat Mwenda were found in the Ol Donyo Sabuk River. All these men had been tortured before they were murdered. All three men had been missing since June 23 when they were abducted outside Mavoko law court in Machakos County after a hearing on Mwenda’s alleged police harassment.
The presumed extrajudicial killing of these three men has gained international attention. As Maina Kiai said to a New York Times reporter, he can recall lawyers being jailed in Kenya in the 1980s and 1990s, but, to be abducted and then murdered, “It’s a first”.
However, while such a brazen killing of a lawyer might be a first, violent intimidation and extrajudicial killings of ordinary Kenyans by the police are not. On the contrary, they have become commonplace—with experts suggesting that Kenya has one of the highest rates of extrajudicial killings per capita in the world.
Indeed, one of the most dangerous people to be in contemporary Kenya is a young male resident of an informal settlement who are regularly gunned down by police on flimsy charges.
Such killings are usually justified on the basis that the murdered are suspected criminals or terrorists. As a result, there is usually little public condemnation, and many Kenyans welcome this heavy-handed police response as a way to take criminals off the street. To give just one example, last week, The Star reported that “two thugs” had been shot dead by police in Kayole, Nairobi, “following a botched robbery”. Online comments include congratulations: “Good job Kenya police” writes one reader; while another encourages the police to “Finish them before they land in friendly hands (of) Syokimau police!”
This reference to Syokimau clearly relates to the case of Kimani, Muiruri and Mwenda. According to a human rights press briefing of 29 June, Mwenda, a boda boda rider, had been shot and injured by an Administration Police (AP) officer stationed at the Syokimau AP camp in April 2015. The report goes on to suggest that, in an attempt to cover up the shooting, Mwenda was fraudulently charged with “being in possession of narcotic drugs,” “gambling in a public place” and “resisting arrest.” Mwenda sought legal assistance.
It was this decision to stand up to the police that led to further police harassment, a court case, and, ultimately, Mwenda’s abduction and murder along with his lawyer, Kimani, and the lawyer’s driver, Muiruri.
The implication of the reader’s comment is that, instead of leaving a wounded victim that could lodge a complaint, the AP officer should have shot Mwenda dead in the first instance.
I could not disagree more. The case does not show that the AP officer failed back in April 2015. Instead, it highlights a deep-rooted problem of impunity whereby the police regularly intimidate and kill ordinary Kenyans.
To give police officers an open license to intimidate and kill ordinary citizens is to open the door to a world in which officers can illegally kill suspected criminals and terrorists, and anyone else they do not like. This includes citizens who have lodged a complaint against an officer, and those who defend such complainants in court.
However, it could also include someone caught up in a feud over a piece of land or a woman, since all the officer needs to do is to claim that the person in question was a criminal.
Indeed, I agree with Larry Madowo when he argues that “Willie Kimani’s death should frighten us all”. According to Madowo, everyone should be scared as “You live in a country where you could be murdered on your way from a court of law. You live in a society where a complaint against a police officer is effectively signing your own death warrant. You live in a world where no lawyers will be brave — or careless — enough to pick up cases like these for the sake of self-preservation”.
Madowo is right, and it is time to stand up to such impunity. If people don’t, who knows who’ll be next.
Gabrielle Lynch an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick in the UK; [email protected]; @GabrielleLynch6.