Police Brutality in Kenya: A Deadlier Threat Than COVID-19?

Dozens of protests against police brutality emerged across major American cities in 2020. These protests have evolved in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, which gained momentum with the murder of George Floyd. Yet, these protests have long existed in other parts of the world. People in Kenya, for instance, have been fighting against similar injustices for decades. These uprisings have gathered a growing following and have united with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. In Nairobi, hundreds of people have taken to the streets to condemn the brutal acts of violence inflicted by the police. However, this conflict has been accentuated and simultaneously side-swept by a new, headline-dominating threat: The Coronavirus pandemic. 

In March 2020, the President of Kenya declared a daily dusk-till-dawn curfew in order to reduce the spread of Covid-19. This act was meant to protect the Kenyans, and yet, it turned fatal—not from the spread of Covid-19 but from the police brutality used to enforce the curfew. Tragically, the morning following the first night of curfew was one of immense loss and devastation. Yasin Moyo—a thirteen year old boy—was shot and killed by a police officer while watching from his balcony as police terrorized those who were not abiding by the curfew. Sadly, Yasin is one of many such victims. By June 8th, 15 people had been killed by similar police actions in the enforcement of the dawn till dusk curfew. These deaths quickly prompted peaceful protesters to mobilize and support the worldwide movements against police brutality. 

Local journalist Patrick Gathara explains that the law enforcement’s use of violence in Kenya is simply an inherited trait from British colonizers. Despite being independent since 1963, many scholars note that Kenya’s colonial wound still bleeds to this day. It seems that a particular colonial truth still remains: brutality is just a function of how the state sees and deals with its subjects.   

Mural dedicated to the memory of Yasin Moyo. Source: Samira Sawlani. 

Almost 60 years after decolonization, Britain’s former colony still suffers under the intrinsic social hierarchy forced upon it. A nation enslaved and ruled by white dictators and only liberated in the last few decades cannot suddenly become a well-functioning democracy. Evidently, the oppressive regime still remains; the inherited blueprints to rule a people is tarnished and warped; the concept of power remains tied to a specific definition—conquest. This inescapable cycle leaves the former colony under the control of powerful elites, never granted the chance to develop freely, with poverty and civil unrest continuing to fester.  

In the slum of Mathare in Kenya’s capital city, residents were shaken by the fear of a deadly virus and a difficulty to socially distance in such close quarters. The threat of injury or death by police force is an added burden. As such, many scholars and activists have attempted to confront the violent colonial pasts that have plagued communities in Kenya. For example, Human Rights Watch is calling for the Kenyan authorities to investigate all occurrences in which police shot, beat, or abused people, and hold them accountable. Kenyan and international law prohibits police using excessive lethal force unless absolutely necessary (to save lives). This sort of action is not being encouraged by President Kenyatta, who flippantly apologized for the police’s mistreatment of people; yet, he did not call for any action in ending the abuse. However, a small sliver of justice emerged when, Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecution approved the arrest of the police officer responsible for the death of 13-year-old Yasin Moyo. Similarly, the police officer responsible for the death of George Floyd in the United States has also been held accountable for his actions.  

There are jarring similarities of police brutality between Kenya and the US. In realizing this, many Kenyans are taking to social media to voice the parallels between the two movements and call for change. “We are in slums but the whole world will hear our cries just like they heard George Floyd,” stated one female protester. Evidently, the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened acts of police brutality in Kenya. Yet simultaneously, the pandemic has cast a shadow on the urgency in addressing this issue.  

As last summer’s protests in the US unfolded, a constant stream of horrifying injustices has been placed under the microscope for the world to see. Twitter and Instagram have given many a front-seat view of police and protester clashes, with several protests escalating into violence. The events of 2020 and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement have forced many to confront their privileged positions and outlooks.  

Social media can be wielded as a tool of accountability—encouraging, confronting, constantly educating, and providing new ways for people to develop allyship. I will never experience the fear and the struggle that black people face every day for the colour of their skin, and that of course unconsciously provides me with a diverting lens of the social injustices occurring around me. Recognizing this has also given me the ability to understand the issues in Kenya through a lens of colonialism. However, there is a comfort in knowing that we all hold certain tools necessary for gaining more knowledge and understanding of the issues at hand. Ignorance to injustice is certainly no longer an option. 

Michaela Nenadovich is a fourth year Environmental Engineering Student at the University of Guelph with a focus in wastewater engineering. Her interests are in environmental sustainability and social justice advocacy. She hopes to take the insights and perspectives gained from studying international development and incorporate them into future environmental work.