Kenya Police Force Has a Bloody Past With Protesters

Excessive force. A long history of brutality and impunity.

That’s the reputation of Kenyan policing, which is under scrutiny again after at least five people were reported to have died of gunshot wounds when officers confronted protesters in the capital, Nairobi, on Tuesday.

It was the very day a contingent of Kenyan police officers arrived in Haiti to lead a mission to restore order in the gang-ravaged Caribbean nation, a deployment that activists and human rights groups, citing the police’s history of abuse and unlawful killings, have roundly denounced.

The Kenyan police force is an extension of a colonial-era creation that the British used to control the population and stamp out dissent. During the 1950s, as Kenyans began to assert their right to rule themselves, the police and other British-run security services rounded up tens of thousands of Kenyans and hanged more than a thousand. It was an especially disturbing chapter of British rule, detailed in a prizewinning book, “Imperial Reckoning.”

Kenya’s independence in 1963 didn’t dramatically change policing. The police, and especially the paramilitary wing called the General Services Unit and another group known as the Flying Squad, became dreaded characters, known for quick trigger fingers and wide impunity.

In the summer of 1990, Kenyans held one of their first major pro-democracy protests. Thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Nairobi, calling for an end to the dictatorship that then ruled the country. The police responded by shooting dozens of them.

During an election crisis in 2007 and early 2008, police officers killed dozens of protesters. There were even instances of officers seen on television fatally shooting unarmed demonstrators.

In 2009, the United Nations sent a special rapporteur, Philip Alston, to Kenya to investigate the situation. The report he delivered was a bombshell. “Police in Kenya frequently execute individuals,” the report said. “Most troubling is the existence of police death squads.”

The Kenyan government vowed to revamp the services, and it set up an independent police watchdog. Western donors, especially the United States, pumped millions of dollars into training and other programs. The focus was to help make the Kenyan police more accountable and more effective at countering terrorism. Crowd control and the use of nonlethal methods was not the priority.

Last year, in the first round of anti-tax protests in Kenya, at least nine people were killed during rowdy demonstrations and their violent suppression, according to a human rights commission and news reports.

In July 2023, the government of President William Ruto agreed Kenya’s police would lead the mission to Haiti, with backing from Washington. The United Nations Security Council authorized the mission in October that year.

Kenyan courts sought to block the deployment, as activists and human rights groups shared their profound misgivings.

“Our concern is that this is not the quality policing we should be exporting to Haiti,” Irungu Houghton, the executive director for Amnesty International Kenya, said at the time.

But Mr. Ruto, who has sought to increase his standing with the U.S. government, did not waver, saying that Haiti’s worsening crisis was a call to “serve humanity.” And his foreign minister, Alfred N. Mutua, has pointed to Kenya’s history of leadership on peacekeeping missions to East Timor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sierra Leone and Namibia, as well as ongoing deployments in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On Monday, in an address to the police officers leaving for Haiti, Mr. Ruto said: “You are undertaking a vital mission that transcends borders and cultures. Your presence in Haiti will bring hope and relief to communities torn apart by violence and ravaged by disorder.”

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