Why violence is a hallmark of Kenyan policing. And what needs to change

Kenya has a long history of policing with excessive force, often resulting in unnecessary deaths. Recently at least six people died from police violence during the first 10 days of a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Moina Spooner, from The Conversation Africa, asked Douglas Kivoi, an expert on police reform and policy, to shed light on the situation.

What can account for the use of violence by Kenya’s police force?

The brutality exhibited by Kenya’s police force is a result of a number of factors. These include its beginnings under British colonial rule, poor recruitment policies, corruption and poor accountability for police actions.

Under the British colonial government the role of the police was to protect the interests of the administration. It was not to serve the interests of the general populace.

Successive post-independence leaders used the police units to advance their own interests. For instance, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, used the police force to suppress dissenting voices. An example of this was the Kisumu massacre in 1969 when police fired into a crowd protesting at the president’s visit. At least 11 were killed and hundreds were injured.

His successor, Daniel arap Moi, used the police as a tool for repression and assassinations as well as detention and torture of his political opponents.


The main role of the police service is to prevent, control, detect and investigate crime. But in practice, its members act more like a paramilitary unit trained to deal with conflict and serious disorder. This orientation takes on a different nuance in how the police approach and treat civilians.

Another factor that contributes to violent behaviour is the recruitment process. Corruption, nepotism, tribalism and professional misconduct are all part of the process.

Apart from physical fitness, no attention is paid to their mental and emotional state. It’s unclear what training they receive once recruited. To my knowledge, the training model and curriculum used to induct fresh recruits has never been made public.

The Kenyan police force is known to be one of the country’s most corrupt public institutions. The corruption is not simply a problem of the lower ranks. It can be found at all levels of the police organisation. And there are reports that those who refuse to pay bribes are sometimes brutalised, maimed or even killed.

Police corruption points to larger systemic problems caused by an absence of checks and balances and fragile institutions. This means it’s hard to hold them accountable for their actions.

Why are the police officers not being held accountable for their actions?

The level of accountability within police agencies in Kenya is very low. They operate with impunity, because they know they will get away with it.

There are two major bodies mandated to ensure police accountability: the Internal Affairs Unit and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority. Both appear overwhelmed and dysfunctional.

The Internal Affairs Unit, within the police force based in Nairobi, is meant to handle complaints against officers of policing agencies. Very few Kenyans know it exists and those who do don’t trust it because it’s run in an opaque manner by police officers. The main allegation against it is that it covers up crimes committed by colleagues.

The Independent Policing Oversight Authority’s mandate is to provide for civilian oversight over the work of the police in Kenya. It is also tasked with investigating deaths and serious injuries caused by police action, and investigating police misconduct.

The authority appears overwhelmed by the sheer number of police misconduct cases reported to its offices. Its work is further undermined by a hostile environment. Officers are sometimes subject to hostility, a lack of compliance and intimidation from senior officers. Staffing levels are also low. Though nearly a decade old, the authority has secured convictions for fewer than 10 cases, despite receiving more than 9,200 complaints.

Finally, police are able to get away with violence because there’s also a lack of political will to press for accountability.

What types of reform are needed and why haven’t they happened sooner?

Several reforms need to take place.

Policing falls under the National Police Service Commission. But police salaries are still processed by the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government, which falls under the office of the president. This link means the national police service is not truly independent. Police salaries should be prepared by the commission itself since it is the one that recruits and manages personnel within the police service. Otherwise, their loyalties lie elsewhere.

The way officers are recruited must also change and be made more transparent. Individuals must be properly vetted by the National Intelligence Services. For instance, any criminal records must be scrutinised. The vetting of police officers should also be a continuous exercise to weed out rogue elements.

There must be more emphasis on their training. This should include the development of a policing policy which would cover, among other things, how the police should interact with communities. No such policy exists.

And more must be done to investigate suspicious deaths and hold those responsible accountable.

There is also a gap in the investigation of violent, sudden and suspicious deaths at the hands of the police. A law passed two years ago allowed for the creation of a National Coroners Office. This was meant to provide complementary forensic medical science services to police investigations. But it has yet to be established.

In addition, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations lacks modern forensic tools to solve crimes.

The Internal Affairs Unit needs to be decentralised to local police stations and their investigations should be made more public.

Police officers are yet to see misconduct by their colleagues as being detrimental to their own work. This, coupled with other external factors like lack of political will and the rudimentary recruitment process, makes the much hyped reforms a mirage.

Douglas Lucas Kivoi, Principal Policy Analyst, Governance Department, The Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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Douglas Lucas Kivoi
Douglas Lucas Kivoi is a principal policy analyst, at The Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA)

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