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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Police must go beyond tear-gas, clubs, bullets as poll nears

Key Cabinet Secretaries spent Valentines’ morning with diplomats and gave their reassurance that the General Elections would be free, fair, and non-violent. The February 14 meeting offered an opportunity to review the electoral environment, recent policing guidelines, and investment in national security over 2022. Should everyday Kenyans be worried?

Last week’s column identified several real-time risk factors that included last minute controversial changes to electoral laws, political incitement, dirty money, and undemocratic party primaries. Sabina Chege and Musalia Mudavadi further muddied waters from different sides of the political spectrum by separately alleging the 2017 elections had been rigged and OKOA principals had been invited to rig the upcoming elections. As IEBC investigates and ODM lawyers defend Chege from possible misconduct, it is worth noting that the integrity of the August 2017 elections is a matter of judicial record. The Supreme Court annulled them for failing the constitutional threshold, numerous irregularities and demanded a second, divisive and costly election.

Election security management is also fundamental to the upcoming elections. Violent demonstrations as well as the failure to peacefully manage the right to protest, excessive lethal force and unlawful killings by police officers caused 1,000s of deaths, injuries, rape, and property destruction before and after the 2007 and 2017 elections. Most violence occurred in informal poor settlements in both party strongholds and contested swing constituencies with historically toxic community-policing relationships.

Last month, the National Police Service released a 178-page Elections Security Management Manual for Police Commanders as part of its partnership with the IEBC and UKAid under the Election Security Arrangement Project. The manual clearly breaks down the elections cycle and states the mandate and role of commanders in operations design, management, and reporting. Commanders will be held accountable for the impartiality of their officers, upholding human rights, and treating Kenyans equally under the law.

Conspicuously absent is how commanders manage gender-based violence, officers’ mental health, fatigue, and welfare, and collaborate with key agencies. Within five months of the first elections in 2017, 201 sexually violent incidents had taken place over 17 counties. 56 per cent of them were perpetuated by individual police officers. With this recent history, why would the Commanders Manual be silent on how to manage this type of indiscipline and human rights violation?

After years of denialism and stigmatisation, the mental health of officers is finally getting the attention it deserves. With concerted effort, resources, and openness, hopefully the horrifying and heart-breaking stories of officers shooting their loved ones, families and superiors and then committing suicide will be a thing of the past. Electoral seasons come with high levels of stress, long hours, and tensions with communities. Failing to prepare psychologically for this is not a recipe for a smooth election.

The three cases of abduction, robbery, assault, and defilement of a minor incidents reported this week alone are an additional level of concern. Six officers attached to Lang’ata (Nairobi), Mea (Meru) and Butula (Busia) Police Stations were arrested for robbery with violence, defilement of a minor and destroying an occurrence book to block investigations. Link this with increasing reports of police guns, handcuffs, vehicles being used to commit crime and the deeper problem facing the National Police Service is unmistakable.

The Commanders manual requires officers to work with NCIC on incitement, report complaints to the Internal Affairs Unit and cooperate when the ODPP orders investigations. It is however silent on police legal obligations to the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, or how to collaborate with influential human rights organisations networked with communities nation-wide.

The omissions are frustrating. Since the last elections, the police leadership and key stakeholders have been developing manuals on the use of force and firearms (2018), public order management (2018) and gender-based violence standard operating procedures (2021). Operationalised together with the commanders manual, they would position the National Police Service and the nation much more confidently and effectively to deal with this elections cycle.

The current Commanders manual does not guide, therefore not protect, commanders and officers from the legal consequences of unlawfully obstructing freedom of assembly, the right to protest and fatalities caused by the excessive use force and firearms. While no assembly or protest is strictly ever spontaneous, many demonstrations have no clear organisers. How will commanders manage these if they have not built trust and open channels with communities and their leaders?

Clearer guidance is still needed on what is a “proportional response” to public disorder and violence and what precautionary actions de-escalate confrontation with mobs. How can we go beyond the predictable cycle of tear-gas, clubs, bullets, and “apartheid” style water-cannons? How do officers provide medical care and that illusive P3 form? Lastly, ignoring the binding legal obligation to notify IPOA about any incidents that lead to injury or death is risky as tens of officers have already found.

There is a degree of realism that the police leadership need to bring to the complexity of 2022 elections and the tremendous responsibility we are placing on our 100,000 officers. Perhaps, while we have the time, should criminal justice agencies look again at the limited guidance and support being given to our police commanders? Given our electoral history, they open a door to predictable electoral security weaknesses and should alarm us.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard 19 February 2022

Read also for the 2017 experience


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