Although accountability of various institutions and individuals is an issue that has been brought to fore since the country embarked on the prolonged electioneering period, the manner in which the National Police Service employed excessive force to quell protests that turned riotous is chilling.
The number of deaths arising from police bullets as reported by various human rights institutions reached at least 100 individuals, largely young people, in a short span of about two months.
Clearly, this is a testimony all is not well with our law enforcing forces. This must now open the debate on police reforms that we have grappled with since 2002 when the country installed a responsive government — a reform the country has failed to actualise.
The arguments being fronted that the circumstances under which the police found themselves in during the protests called by the opposition National Super Alliance to ask for electoral reforms cannot sufficiently explain the huge loss of lives.
According to reports of the Amnesty International, heavily armed police used unlawful force against protesters and bystanders in the western city of Kisumu and some areas of Nairobi. This was seen in some quarters as a deliberate campaign to punish inhabitants for continued protests against the disputed repeat presidential elections.
These are not isolated incidents. The tragic events of police killings in the electioneering period are symptomatic of the broader set of police brutality across the country, and away from the glare of the camera. There are rampant cases of law enforcement officers taking the law into their own hands, ignoring human rights and taking lives of unarmed individuals.
The aftermath of the 2007 presidential election presented an opportunity to reform the police force. The Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence recommended extensive reforms of the police system. The taskforce came up with more than 200 recommendations and although some were embraced, the process lost steam at some point. This report can still today provide the roadmap needed to change the conduct of police.
Initial reforms included training, restructuring of the force and vetting. The vetting of officers by the National Police Service Commission (NPSC), a process that was mooted as central in the police reform agenda, must be done in a more transparent manner than has happened.
This is a constitutional requirement that is also well enshrined in the Police Act outlining vetting of police on competence and suitability, professionalism, performance, discipline, human rights record and qualifications in academia and training.
To bring desirable results, the security experts have offered that the vetting panel needs to be broadened to bring in place more stakeholders with various backgrounds.
This, it is argued, would create room for new opinions and ideas, in an institution that has been seen as very reserved and also isolated from the public it is intended to serve.
The corruption in the police service is widespread and has been a problem for long. For many years, Transparency International Kenya has ranked the police service as the most corrupt public institution.
It has also been evidently clear that the police service has lacked willingness and capacity to deal with the corruption in the institution.
A participatory approach, bringing various players including civil society organisations is needed for reforms the service needs.
And this must be supported by a strong political will. With the majority in Parliament, the Jubilee administration should initiate legislation on security laws that can create a responsive and accountable police institution. There is need for continuous training of police on human rights, good conduct and the need to adhere to the constitution that is very explicit for police to be professional, competent and accountable, respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms at all times.
Use of firearms is only justified if the police, or an individual they should protect, are facing imminent threat of death or serious injury.
This was not the case in most of the killed persons some of whom were not even in the protests but victims of stray bullets shot indiscriminately.
If the actions of the police are to be reined in and brought in line with internationally recognised policing guidelines, it is essential that the perpetrators of such violations — and those in command — be brought to justice.
No doubt, an overwhelming majority of police officers are doing a great job in accordance with the law and human rights, and under tough circumstances. However, to build confidence among the citizens, urgent action must be taken to root out incompetent, unprofessional, partisan and brutal police officers.
Mr Obonyo is the author of Conversations about the Youth in Kenya. [email protected]