The vicious assault of MCA Mutheu Musyimi has jolted us once more. Sadly, after a very brief lull, police brutality is back in the news. Spectators argue police violence is normal and the men and women in blue will never change. However, the path to a new policing culture and public safety is neither impossible nor a long-term project.
Before she became a national household name this week, Hon Musyimi was a website designer, businesswomen and advocate for the rehabilitation of women prisoners. She represents over 20,000 people of Mlango Kubwa ward, one of the largest wards in Mathare Constituency, Nairobi.
Mathare has nearly twice the population of Lamu all crammed into three square miles. Mlango Kubwa has some of the worst rates of school dropout, parental neglect, unemployment and drug abuse. Social division, transactional politics, police violence and collusion with criminals is rife. Despite being no stranger to lawlessness and violence, Tuesday’s events must have shaken her alongside the rest of the country.
For more than two minutes and twenty seconds, four burly and male officers in police reform-issued uniforms threatened, viciously beat and dragged Hon Musyimi across the County Assembly floor. Within a few hours, the wider context become clear. Political tensions between County Governors allies and those supporting the Nairobi Metropolitan Services have been boiling. To avoid fatalities, over fourteen firearm licences have been revoked. On Tuesday, 16 MCAs sought to storm the County and serve Speaker Hon Beatrice Elachi with a notice of impeachment. Chairs were thrown and the Police moved in. The rest, as they say, is history.
There are reasons why only 6 and 24 per cent of the world’s heads of states and parliamentarians are women. More than 80 and 25 percent women MPs have experienced psychological and physical violence in parliament. Over 44 per cent have faced death, rape, beating or kidnapping. Recently, Brazilian councilor Mariella Franco and British Parliamentarian Jo Cox lost their lives while serving their constituents. Violence against parliamentarians may not be exclusive to women also, but they experience higher levels than their male counterparts. What happened to Hon Musyimi is not just an attack against a woman, it is an attack on the political right of all women who seek public office and represent both men and women equally.
What is also worrying about the violence this week is that a very senior officer was involved. James Mwaniki Thathi, Commissioner in Charge of Operations at Vigilance House, was reported to have been actively involved in the assault. Police brutality is often dismissed as the work of junior and immature officers. While Hon Musyimi seeks justice in a court of law, this incident and others in Isiolo, Garissa and Keiyo South recently, demand we apply an institutional and behavioral lens.
Ironically or timely perhaps, the Inspector General also launched an e-learning course for officers this week. The seven modules include handling gender-based violence, human rights-based crowd control approaches and what should inform the decision of officers to charge suspects.
Re-training is critical. Fresh recruitment strategies should also be considered. It is not only whether officers should have university degrees, professional policing requires patience, compassion and belief in the rule of law. It also requires healthy mind-sets that see people breaking the law as persons in crisis first, not targets to be punished without due process.
The National Police Inspector and the National Police Service Commission must now screen out “aggressive warriors” and screen in “public guardians”. Anyone watching these viral videos will see officers lack strong de-escalation, conflict mediation and people skills. Ensuring age, ethnic and gender diversity is a key component. The current policing culture separates officers from the communities they serve into “them and us”. Simply, we must re-assess the entire service and re-train them.
Those that do not wish to work lawfully and compassionately should be dismissed. Those that remain must uphold national values of integrity, human rights and service to all. There is an urgent need to increase investment in emotional trauma, well-being and mental health for our officers. There must also be stronger consequences for those that break the law. Without this, the vicious cycle of impunity will continue.
Lastly, rising political tensions in our County Assemblies have to be interrupted. The scenes in Nairobi this week have been seen elsewhere. As we head to the 2022 General Elections, they will increase. The National Security Council must catalyze new thinking and leadership not only within the Executive but in every aspect of our society.
This article was also published in the Standard Standard, 1 August 2020