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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

The vicious cycle of urban violence can be broken

We have collapsed violent crimes, mob-justice and extra-judicial killings and our urban cities are traumatized. Last week, the nation reeled from an Eastleigh street execution. Within a week, six other cases had been reported. As I write, four men sit in Kayole police station. They are bruised, teeth missing and one had a bullet lodged in his leg. They await a habeas corpus application to have them produced in court to answer unknown criminal charges. A fifth was allegedly shot dead soon after his release.

Sadly, I have no comfort yet for those shocked by the Eastleigh execution. Extra-judicial killings are widespread and increasing. 206 people lost their lives last year, 65 more than 2015. Over 90% of them were jobless, poor and young men. As a jobless, poor and young man in Nairobi you are 26 times more likely to be summarily executed for suspected criminal activities than Bungoma, the county with the lowest number of deaths.

Many young men living in Nairobi’s Dandora, Mombasa’s Bangladeshi and Kisumu’s Nyalenda estates have between ten and fifteen interactions with the police per month. For those that turn to violent crime their life expectancy thereon is no more than three years. Shoot outs and the community matangas or “bridges” are frequent.

Talk to the mothers of these young men and they will tell you how they fear their boys turning fifteen and how they dream of sending them to live with extended family in rural or more affluent areas. A gender imbalance of one man to four women and fatherless families are the norm. Caught between the vicious cycle of poverty, violence and hopelessness, we are slowly losing a generation of young men.

Extrajudicial killings are deeply controversial. Those who support them cite court ineffectiveness and the clear and present danger of militarized youth gangs not just to communities but our police officers as well. Others argue that the killings are the misdeeds of a few rogue officers and not approved policing strategy.

Those against point to the law and order standards contained in our constitution, laws and policing policies. They argue that the unlawful use of deadly force is a rights violation. Further, this policing strategy discriminates by class. Tenderpreneurs and “high society” criminals are accorded their constitutional rights to arrest, representation and a fair hearing, why not poor suspects?

While all these views, as opinions, are valid, we are ignoring important questions. Have a few rogue officers with the consent of their seniors and sections of frightened communities come to define our urban policing strategy? Have some of our police officers got caught up in enforcing social order rather than effectively solving crime? Are communities creating unconstitutional rules and sanctions for managing crime that empower individual officers to act as de-facto investigator, prosecutor, judge and executioner?

As always, cutting through polarized discussions requires reframing around what we all can agree on. All of us (not just the rich) have the right to be safe from unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment. All of us (and this includes law enforcement professionals) have the right to live and work in safe communities protected from violent and radicalized citizens and police officers.

The vicious cycle of violence can be broken. It requires deeper community policing strategies with youth organisations, greater command responsibility and action from within the police leadership and closer oversight by parliamentary, IPOA and Police Service Commission. A Presidential Judicial Enquiry is long overdue. Perhaps it is also time the 27 affected County Governments undertook their own inquiries. The source of this problem is as much poverty and unemployment as it is criminal and security.

Leaving our officers to individually impose social order in the context of corruption and inequalities will only escalate the violence and that, is not in the public interest.

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First published Sunday Standard, April 9, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

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