• Irũngũ Houghton

VC and police must act over student leader Njoroge’s death

First published Sunday Standard, March 4, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

It has been seventy years since the Colonial Government established the Emergency company that later became the General Service Unit and almost thirty years since a younger Njoki Ndungu wrote her dissertation on the need for police reforms.

Njoki Ndungu is now a Supreme Court Judge and the police is no longer a force but a service governed by new laws and public institutions. In the wake of the murder of Meru University student leader Evans Njoroge, we must all ask the question, what has gone horribly wrong again?

Alone, unarmed and in flight, Evans Njoroge was pursued and shot dead by a police officer several meters away from a public demonstration he organized to protest the increase of university fees and poor facilities at his university.

The demand for affordable university education, democratic and efficient management of universities is not a crime under our law. It has also been a recurrent global theme with South Africa’s #FeesMustFall student movement being probably the most famous.

His death comes just six months after the violence against at least sixty University of Nairobi built environment and medical students on September 29. For seven hours, the General Service Unit yelled “Mnajiona mlisoma, sisi hatukusoma. Leo tutawaonyesha.” (You think you are educated and we are not. Today, we shall show you) while indiscriminately wielding batons, exploding tear-gas cannisters in confined spaces, sexually assaulting female students and torturing both sexes.

Njoroge tragically joins the very large number of citizens killed by our police service. Last year, 252 men, women and children died at the hands of uniformed officers. This was 38 more than 2016. Most of these well-documented deaths and injuries are among young men in the killing fields of Dandora, Mathare, Kondele, Majengo and other urban poor settlements.

Bunty Shah’s death last year stood out for many. Asian, third generation industrialist and millionaire, Shah was shot in an Anti-Terrorism Unit raid. The family have now sued the Attorney General and Police Inspector General seeking Kshs 730 million in damages with Kshs 100 million as a punitive measure for widespread extra-judicial executions.

To date, the incidents have elicited an all too familiar set of official responses. Silence, denial then an admission of a few rogue officers acting alone, accidental deaths or a justification that violent crimes breed violent policing lead the arguments. Words are not backed by police cooperation where it matters. The refusal to supply duty rosters, weapon registers, attend court appearances or provide evidence has intentionally frustrated investigations and inquests.

Only two cases out of a staggering 9,200 cases brought to the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) have successfully ended in convictions. Without vigilance, the other cases will probably recede in the public conscience and our amnesia will again license excessive force in future.

Protests have been the default expression of public disappointment and outrage. I was reminded this week that protest also comes from a space of powerlessness. Parents don’t protest at the behavior of their children nor do employers protest the poor performance of their employees. They simply take disciplinary action. Perhaps, it is time we looked at this issue in this way also.

The Meru University Vice Chancellor and University Council, Police Inspector General, National Police Commission and Interior Cabinet Secretary have an individual and collective obligation to act. Stepping aside, issuing a public apology, establishing conflict mediation and safety strategies, releasing that morning’s deployment plan and a list of all the officers involved, their ranks and service numbers to IPOA and lastly, swift disciplinary and criminal proceedings against the officers responsible would be a start.

Sixty-four years ago, Colonel Young made history by resigning as one of Kenya’s shortest serving Police Commissioners. Disgusted by police violence and torture of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, he resigned after only eight months.

Having interacted with many decent, courageous and dignified police men and women, I know they must be appalled by the actions being taken in the name of “utumishi kwa wote”. Their reputation is now on the line. They too must speak up now.

Njoroge will not be among the 50,000 university students that graduate this year. Perhaps his family, comrades and rights organizations could also institute a civic suit to seek justice and kickstart desperately needed police reforms. We are not powerless. We also get to say how our public institutions treat us but we need to decisively act, if this is to happen.

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