This is a guest post by Claire Wilmot, a former intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Program. She is a master of global affairs graduate from the University of Toronto, where she currently researches justice reform. You can follow her on twitter at @claireLwilmot.
On July 18, Kenya’s high court charged four police officers in connection with the murders of lawyer Willie Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda, and their driver Joseph Muiruri. The three men were reported missing after a court hearing on June 23, and their bodies were recovered from the Ol-Donyo Subuk River in Machakos County a week later.
Kimani, a lawyer with the International Justice Mission, was acting as Mwenda’s legal defense in a battle over charges laid against him by a police officer during a traffic stop. Mwenda alleged that the officer shot him in the arm during the encounter, and chose to file a complaint with the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA). Mwenda was subsequently harassed and threatened by the officers involved in the incident until his death on July 1, 2016.
The IPOA is a new oversight authority that investigates deaths and injuries caused by members of the Kenyan National Police Services, and can recommend prosecution. It also monitors, reviews, and audits police performance. IPOA was convened in response to Article 244 of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, which requires police to behave in a transparent, accountable manner consistent with Kenya’s human rights standards and fundamental freedoms. The Kenyan police have a poor record in this regard, which has contributed to high levels of mistrust between police and civilians. A recent report on Kenyan police accountability found that residents of Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood are more trusting of non-state security groups than they are of the police. Kenyans of Somali ethnic heritage in Eastleigh have been disproportionately victimized by police, who routinely "disappear" young men suspected of being affiliated with al-Shabab. Similarly, a World Bank survey found that 70.6 percent of residents from Nairobi’s Korogocho neighborhood trusted vigilante groups to reduce crime and violence, while only 4.4 percent trusted the Kenyan police.
This degree of mistrust should come as no surprise. The Kenyan police force was designed as a tool of British colonial rule. After independence, Kenya’s presidents retained a centralized, opaque police force to suppress opposition. During Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence, police were believed to have been responsible for 36 percent of civilian deaths and over half of all incidences of torture that occurred. Proponents of IPOA, and police oversight more generally, believe that effective accountability mechanisms help deter police excesses and build trust between civilians and police. Trust is necessary for police to investigate and prevent crimes, which is thought to contribute to community safety.
IPOA’s ability to build trust through accountability is hindered by police reluctance to cooperate with investigations, constraints on resources, and a lack of public awareness regarding IPOA’s function. Recognizing the magnitude of its challenges, IPOA recently chose to limit its investigations to only the most serious categories of deaths and injuries caused by police.
Despite facing considerable challenges, IPOA has made notable strides. Numbers of complaints reported to IPOA are increasing each year, which may indicate greater public awareness of the institution. Last year, an IPOA investigation led to charges against a Nairobi police officer for the murder of two brothers, and, in 2014, it released a report on Operation Sanitization Eastleigh publicizing civilian accounts of police abuse during anti-terror operations.
Kenya has a dire need for empowered and accessible oversight mechanisms that ensure police uphold, rather than undermine, the rule of law. IPOA is a new institution tasked with holding to account a police force used to operating with impunity. Demonstrating its ability to fulfill this function through successful investigations and charge recommendations may encourage more victims to file complaints and cooperate with criminal proceedings. While the Kimani murders are indicative of the severity of Kenya’s problem with police brutality, the outcome of the case could constitute a watershed moment for IPOA, and a meaningful step towards police accountability in Kenya.