June 25th 2017

Top Stories / National

Electoral violence getting more local, but observers see worrying signs of escalation

This is exactly what happened in Mlango Kubwa last month when a Technical University of Kenya student was killed in the crossfire between Flying Squad officers and armed thugs. Karani lost his life while his classmate was badly wounded.

By Liza Makenalmakena@kenyafreepress.comThursday, 27 Apr 2017 14:27 EAT

President Uhuru Kenyatta with National Police Service commanders in a 2015 picture.

With the upcoming general elections shaping up to be a close one, concerns have heightened about potential election-related violence, and the preparedness of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the police service are increasingly coming under sharp scrutiny.

The last time Kenya had a really close election, in 2007, the impartiality of public institutions was gravely challenged. Unable to withstand political pressure, the Electoral Commission of the time bungled presidential vote-counting that resulted in President Mwai Kibaki being announced as the winner.

Likewise, the Judiciary was compromised, the chief justice Evans Gicheru having presided over the swearing-in of Mr Kibaki under the cover of darkness, leading aggrieved voters to erupt in violent demonstrations. With law and order broken, the police singularly acted to enforce the will of the rigged president, killing at least one third of the 1,333 people who lost their lives in the post-election violence.

The then police commissioner, Maj General Hussein Ali, came under investigation by the ICC for post-election crimes in Naivasha, Kisumu and Kibera, and while he escaped indictment, the ICC recognised the gravity of the crimes and recommended tough local action through a special tribunal that never came to pass. 

It is the post-election crisis that catalysed the movement for reform that in the electoral commission, the police and Judiciary that have kept Kenya going since 2008 but all of which have shown signs of tension in recent years - notably in the police service, despite progressive policy gaining ground in some areas of policing.

Under reforms, the police lost the unfettered control over the freedoms of criminal suspects, and now have to charge the accused within 24 hours of arrest and give them access to family and lawyers. Gender based violence is given more attention. The force is more diverse, with recruitment having targeted the most marginalised communities.

The trust between police and communities has improved in many counties where new policing authorities work well, giving local administrators (governors) political power to influence policing decisions - often for their own rather than public interest as shown below. In some respects the force is extremely well resourced, even though its equipment is hardly deployed to protect the vulnerable.

The current political environment is a replica of 2007. Ethnic polarisation is at an all-time high as the opposition is expected to gain ground with its newly-announced unity. If recent events are anything to go by, police reforms didn’t go deep enough. The force is laden with the tribes in power. Vetting removed only the most inexcusably corrupt officers who did not have political protection.

Corruption in the force service is at its peak, with police officers implicated in corruption routinely going unpunished - ranging from a CID officer in Taita Taveta who was arrested for taking Sh25,000 bribe to influence land case to the director of criminal investigations, Ndegwa Muhoro, who has been named in a litany of scandals that call his professionalism to question.

Coupled with internal corruption is growing concern that the force enjoys a level of political impunity for killings of civilians. In the run-up to the elections, police are engaged in so much killing that they have been ranked the leading killers in Africa, according to Amnesty International.

A case currently being investigated by the Independent Police Oversight Authority shows that on April 6, AP officers on patrol met and killed Elijah Mbugua, 23, in his Utawala Estate neighbourhood without any justification. Elijah was going to a butchery to buy meat when he met the officers who asked him who he was. While they were still talking, a lady officer withdrew her gun and pumped nine bullets into his body.

"We were informed that as he was talking to the group of APs, another female officer emerged and ordered Elijah to sit down. She said the officers questioning Elijah were wasting their time before she shot him," the deceased's uncle Jeremy Shabati told the Star newspaper. As it happened, Elijah was the son to Runyenjes senior police superintendent Njoroge Mbugua. Boda boda operators at the scene said Elijah begged for his life, saying he was not a criminal and his father is a police officer. But the AP went ahead and shot him.

A similar killing occurred in Mlango Kubwa last month when Technical University of Kenya student Francis Karani, who was walking to a shop in the estate with his classmate, was caught in the crossfire between Flying Squad officers and armed thugs. Karani lost his life while his classmate was badly wounded.

Such use of force is not only in Nairobi where the crime rate is higher but also in the counties, where some governors (enjoying close collaboration with the police) are using the force to stifle political opposition. Throughout most of 2016, the police in Machakos refused to enforce a court order to arrest Governor Alfred Mutua over a criminal matter, claiming Mr Mutua was unreachable.

In Homa Bay, governor Cyprian Awiti has been accused of using local officers to suppress his opponents in ODM elections and during the just ended party primaries. In Mombasa, a subset of the tensions between governor Hassan Joho and local administrator Nelson Marwa arose from the governor's better working relationship with the police commander.

These examples serve to show is that, despite reforms, the force remains amenable to political influence, which is more effectively exerted at the national level during times of crises. During last year's Kericho senatorial by-election, the police worked in concert with Jubilee campaigners. The unresolved killing of businessman Jacob Juma is a blot on the force, which many believe has evidence about perpetrators of the crime. Then mid last year the police clamped down heavily on anti-IEBC protestors. In the same year, they tear-gassed ODM leader Raila Odinga in Huruma.

Concerns about police preparedness and impartiality have been amplified in an assessment of the electioneering climate by the National Democratic Institute, the U.S-based pro-democracy group, which sent a high-level election observation mission to Kenya between April 3-7. The delegation included regional and election experts from North America, Europe and Africa, among them former chair of South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission Brigalia Bam; former chair of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission Attahiru Jega; NDI senior associate and director of electoral programs Pat Merloe; IRI board member and former assistant secretary of state for Africa Constance Newman; NDI senior associate and director for Southern and East Africa Keith Jennings; and NDI director of gender, women and democracy Sandra Pepera.

During their visit, the report says, the delegation met with the Chairman, Commissioners and chief executive of IEBC, political party leaders, government officials, the Chief Justice, the Speaker of the National Assembly, religious and civic leaders, including gender, youth, peacebuilding, election monitoring and media sectors, and representatives of the international community.

The consultations examined election preparations, assessed the political environment, and offered recommendations that Kenyan citizens, civil society, political parties, and the government can take to ensure the integrity and peacefulness of the electoral process. The report identified targeted solutions the government can aim to fulfill to provide a conducive electioneering atmosphere.

"Violence takes place outside and in the electoral context. Extremists who seek to destabilize the state employ violence around elections to advance those ends. Criminal syndicates may employ violence in an attempt to influence electoral outcomes to advance their fortunes. Aspirants for nominations, candidates and parties may use incitement and violence to gain electoral advantage.

“The goals of such violence may be to suppress voter turnout or to remove a candidate in the pre-election period, disrupt polls on election day or to prevent election officials, party agents and monitors from safeguarding electoral integrity, or seek to change electoral outcomes when results are unfavorable. In all of those circumstances, violence has a differing gender impact, disproportionately affecting women as voters, candidates, and other electoral actors,” the report analysed.

“Security planning to prevent, mitigate, and stop the varying forms of violence requires coordination of the IEBC, police and other security forces. The National Steering Committee on Peacebuilding and Conflict Management brings together various security agencies and concerned civil society organizations. Strengthening its response mechanisms would build public trust and awareness of its activities.

“Professional and impartial engagement of police and other security bodies is crucial in addressing public safety and protection of electoral rights. Providing training and clear instructions to them, including measures to protect women’s electoral participation, would be important. Those instructions should address preventing the use of excessive force when violence occurs, and they should ensure police accountability.

The IEBC, security agencies and groups working on early warning and peaceful elections, should share information and strengthen coordination efforts for the elections. Instructions should be issued to not use excessive force, and a clear statement should be made concerning the accountability of security forces," the report observes.

Such early warnings abounded in the just-ended party primaries. With the power governors enjoy, many have shown the intention to use violence in order to retain political power. Violent nominations in Homa Bay, Migori, Busia, Embu, Kwale, Lamu, Muranga, Nairobi and elsewhere were triggered mostly by differences among candidates within the same parties.

Extrapolating this in a general election context presents bleak scenario in hotspots like Tana River (where, given ethnic dynamics, four candidates that were nominated this week have nearly even chances of winning), Narok, West Pokot, Migori, Busia, Embu, Lamu, Kwale, Samburu, Isiolo and others where national actors can capitalise on local disputes to spawn large-scale displacement of voters to achieve certain ends.

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