My entire Oeuvre is against the police
If I write a Love poem it’s against the police
And if I sing the nakedness of bodies I sing against the police
And if I make this Earth a metaphor I make a metaphor against the police
If I speak wildly in my poems I speak against the police
And if I manage to create a poem it’s against the police
I haven’t written a single word, a verse, a stanza that isn’t against the police
All my prose is against the police
My entire Oeuvre
Including this poem
My whole Oeuvre
Is against the police
— Miguel James (Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Parra)
On March 30, 2020, nearly three weeks after the murder of Breonna Taylor, thirteen-year-old Yassin Moyo was shot dead by a Kenyan policeman at his parents’ home in Kiamako Estate, Huruma, a sprawling, mostly poor settlement in Nairobi. It was just past 7:00 pm, minutes after the mandatory curfew had begun. It’d been imposed a few days earlier due to the Coronavirus pandemic and Kenya Police were patrolling around the estate in search of curfew breakers.
Anyone familiar with Kenya Police knows their methods. Upon encountering you on the (supposed) “wrong side of the law,” they’ll quickly size you up to determine whether you seem like you can afford to pay a bribe; whether you seem like you may know an official; or whether, in general, you seem like you are endowed with the kind of vocabulary (as demonstrated by your accent, haircut, the clothes you wear) that would enable you to hold your own against their more brutal lexicon of blows and insults. In short, whether you seem to “know your rights” and, were those rights to be violated, whether you could do anything about it. If upon this quick inspection — a heuristic that is seldom afforded to the residents of many of Nairobi’s slums and tenements, since by definition, everyone there is poor, powerless, and knows nobody of significance — they determine that you are unimportant, they will unleash their brutality.
First, they’ll beat you up with their fists, boots, batons, and the butts of their guns, all the while loudly asking you why you’re not complying with whatever law it is you’re apparently breaking. Then they’ll beat you further for not responding promptly, or, if you as much as raise your arm over your head to try and protect yourself, for “resisting arrest” or “attacking an officer.”
I know this because I have seen it happen to my own father.
If you’re lucky at this point, they may bundle you into a police vehicle towards the respite (at least from the beatings) of a police cell, where you’ll have to bribe or bail yourself out, and then find your way to a hospital — if you can afford it. If you’re unlucky, they’ll put a bullet in you.
It's a grim form of theater. One never wants to see a neighbour, friend, or family member treated this way, brought to the brink of death or pushed entirely over it, and yet one can never resist looking. I reckon Yassin was drawn to his parents’ balcony by the very promise of such a spectacle, one that he knew would be coming were the police to encounter someone while out on patrol. In the first few days of the curfew, police had, in the name of trying to protect people from the virus, already killed more Kenyans than the virus itself. As such, it was not unreasonable to imagine that, were they to find someone wandering outside, they would have at the very least reacted with a modicum of violence, providing a much needed diversion, even if a perverse one, from the monotonous tedium of quarantine.
And so young Yassin went to his balcony where, he thought, he could watch the grisly show going on below in relative safety. His mother, Halima, perceiving that it was not safe even there on the balcony, beckoned to the boy to get into the house. But before he could move, a bullet from the policeman Duncan Ndiema’s gun caught Yassin in the stomach, and moments later, he was dead.
Yassin’s killing, coming as it did in the middle of ongoing protests against police brutality in the United States, gave rise to a conversation about policing which, while a mainstay in slums and informal tenements around the Kenyan cities of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Nakuru, and in the homes of millions of poor Kenyans all over the country, had evaded the concern of middle and upper class households.
This is not to say that the middle class and the elites had been completely unaware of these police killings. Since 2010, Kenya Police have participated in the documented extrajudicial killings of more than 600 men and women in Nairobi alone; mostly in the slums of Mathare, Kibera, Kawangware, Majengo, and in other low-income communities within the city, such as Dandora, Huruma and Umoja. According to the Daily Nation, one of the country’s leading newspapers, police in Nairobi killed 101 people over a nine month period ending in October of 2018. In fact, 67 percent of all firearm deaths in the country are committed by Kenya Police. Many of these killings have been documented, and many of the people whose children, spouses, neighbours and relatives have been killed work as nannies, messengers, and cleaners in the homes and offices of these middle and upper income Kenyans. Willful ignorance, along with the blithe callousness that arises out of distance and privilege, therefore, are the wonderful aids that work to distort this harrowing reality of police brutality.
Like many of us expected, Yassin’s case lingers in court, where, given the notorious slowness of Kenya’s justice system, it may be years before a resolution is reached. But the current political moment, marked as it is by sustained global protests against police brutality, has ensured that unlike many of the victims of Kenya Police who are quickly forgotten (or worse, never identified), Yassin’s name remains in the social consciousness of Kenya’s body politic.
One result of Yassin’s sustained presence in our minds is that it has forced us to engage in a broader geopolitical and historical conversation. As the necessity of the institution of the police is questioned all over the world, and its white supremacist genealogy — especially in the United States, where the police first emerged as slave patrols to capture runaway enslaved people — is touted as a reason why institutional reform is an inadequate solution, we Kenyans have also begun to question our own institutions. We have begun to ask why the actions of our police look so remarkably similar to those of American cops, in a country where nearly 99 percent of the population is composed of Black people, which is ostensibly governed by Black people. We want to know why, in communities where those who purport to keep the law look exactly like those they claim to serve, Black lives are lost so flippantly.
Many of us have come to understand that, just as all American police officers work in the service of white supremacy (regardless of their own race or how anti-racist they may be in their personal lives), our own police officers too, heirs of a century old institution founded by white colonists with an explicit mandate to subjugate and terrorize Black people, continue to uphold the terms of their original charter. To fully understand how this institutional anti-Blackness led to the death of Yassin, and the deaths of the thousands of Kenyans killed by police, it is necessary to look into the history of the Kenya Police.
The General Act of the Berlin Conference, ratified in 1885, marked the official beginning of what came to be known as the “Scramble for Africa”; a rush by various European powers to carve up the continent into spheres of influence. The main players were Britain and France, though Germany, unified under Bismarck sixteen years earlier, also harboured strong imperialist ambitions. The Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, all powers long past their prime, were looking to reclaim lost glory in new frontiers, while Belgium’s King Leopold II proved keen on finally making Belgium a force in European politics.
In this imperial enterprise, Eastern Africa was of particular interest. Egypt, because of the Suez Canal, was understood as the crown jewel of the continent, and the reigning logic was that whoever controlled the source of the Nile — which had been determined to be in East Africa, in what was then known as The Kingdom of Buganda — would also, if not entirely wrest control of Egypt from Britain, then massively influence its machinations.
In 1886, the British had a stroke of luck. The Anglo-German agreement was signed, dividing much of East Africa into special “interest zones” to be controlled by Britain and Germany. In exchange for the much larger Tanganyika territory, the Germans allowed the British to have Uganda, the source of the Nile. Additionally, since Uganda was landlocked, the British also laid claim to Kenya, giving them access to sea routes.
The imperial logic had been to wring as much wealth as possible from the spheres without investing much in government resources. So, like the Dutch in Indonesia with the Dutch East India Company (DEIC), and the British themselves in India with the British East India Company (BEIC) before, the administration of the new British territories were initially left to a commercial company, in this case, the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC).
IBEAC’s caravans, however, were consistently raided and looted by local tribes, most notably the Maasai and the Kalenjin. As a result, in 1887, IBEAC was forced to institute the first semblance of a police force in Kenya, composed chiefly of local mercenaries. In 1895, British East Africa was officially declared a protectorate, and a year later, the first police station was opened in the coastal city of Mombasa. Not long after, the King’s African Rifles (KAR), the then-official protection force in British East Africa, was formed.
KAR, and its successor the Kenya Police — officially founded in 1926 — had an explicit racial hierarchy from the start. At the top were the inspectors, all white men. Then the assistant inspectors, composed (primarily) of Indians, mostly from Gujarat, who had been brought over as coolies to build the East African railway and had stayed behind to fill middleman roles seen as too jejune or undignified for the European, and too empowered for the African. At the bottom were the local Africans — and even here discrimination abounded: the lighter skinned Africans, mostly Somalis and Swahilis, were favoured over the darker skinned ones, like the Giriama and the Pokomo.
The Swahili word for police officer, Askari, now used all over the country, was first used to refer to protectorate officers. It is a derivative of the Arabic word Askar, meaning soldier. This itself connotes the intended function of the police as repressors and conquistadors rather than as protectors and servants of the people, as they now claim to be. Repression as modus operandi was evident from the outset.
The first explicit foray of the protectorate police into civil matters came in 1900, with the passage of the Palm Wine Regulations. Locals along the Kenyan coast were known for their love of Tembo, a palm wine, and the purpose of the regulation was to halt the trading of wine by Africans. This was achieved by requiring locals to apply for a licence in order to produce palm wine and subsequently and almost uniformly rejecting their applications. Africans who earned a livelihood from the production and distribution of wine were thought to be much too dangerous; “uppity Kaffirs” who could not only avoid working for European settlers in exchange for a wage, but who also constituted a potentially subversive element, one that would, even implicitly in their self-determination, encourage other Africans to revolt. The Palm Wine Regulations were conceived and heartily enforced by the police.
Next came the Hut Tax and the Vagrancy Laws. Since, as the Tembo producers had demonstrated, some inventive Africans could find ways to avoid working for Europeans, the Hut Tax was designed to forcefully induct otherwise independent Africans into a wage relation with European settlers by requiring that taxes be paid only in cash. In turn, the Vagrancy Laws were designed to corral African movement by requiring Africans to have established places of residence (from where the Hut Tax could be collected). These places where Africans were forced to live, close enough to be ready sources of cheap labour for Europeans, were known as “reserves” or “native quarters,” and were generally marked by appalling living conditions, with poor drainage, a lack of private space, and inadequate sanitation. Reserves were staffed and consistently patrolled by police officers, who ensured that the Africans stayed inside, behaving themselves.
The end of the First World War saw increased European settlement into Kenya, largely through the mass migration of less-favoured spawn of minor European nobles. It was due to this migration that the Kenyan “white highlands” acquired their reputation as places of debauchery; where wealthy but often disgraced white people came to have orgies, hunt game, and “discover” themselves, à la Baroness Blixen in Out of Africa. The mandated purpose of the police at this time, at least in the white highlands, shifted: it was at once to keep the blacks at work in the farms and nascent factories of the white settlers, but also to keep them away from white people and their property. This invariably led to police patrols herding workers to the reserves at night, while also enforcing draconian labour laws on settler farms to ensure that Africans could not abscond from mandatory work during the day.
It was also around this time that the police introduced a “proper” system of identification. A fingerprint bureau was set up in Nairobi, and a requirement was instituted mandating that all African men above the age of 15 carry an identity card, known as a Kipande pass, that was to be hung around their necks whenever they left their homes. The document marked their tribe and the reserve they belonged to, such that were they to travel past their mandated confines they could be arrested. In 1937 alone, more than 6,000 Kenyan Africans were arrested and prosecuted for failing to produce a pass, or for being resident in townships and reserves without the permission of the police. At this time, the police were unironically referred to as a “punitive citizen containment squad.”
By the end of the second world war, the Kenya police numbered more than 5,000, most of them (except the top leadership) African. They’d also become much more expansive, both in the causes they repressed as well as in their methods of repression. They now had a dog unit, a reserve force in cases of emergency (which is to say, agitation by the Africans), and a mounted unit to better patrol reserves, as well as to pursue errant Africans. An emergency force was set up and tasked with crushing the burgeoning labour movement led by veterans who, having served side by side with white soldiers during the war, had been disabused of notions of European supremacy.
On October 20th, 1952, a state of emergency was declared in Kenya by the British colonial governor, Baron Evelyn Baring. The Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), otherwise famously known as Mau Mau (a sobriquet they themselves didn’t seem to care much for, at least initially) began a violent resistance against British colonialism, with their main aim being, as hinted at by their official name, to reclaim their dispossessed land from British settlers.
During this time, a special police bureau, the Special Effort Police, was set up to fight the Mau Mau. Homeguards, local young men, mostly from collaborator families, who had been weaned on a steady diet of white supremacy since childhood, were the cornerstone of this Special Effort Police. Their duties included conducting patrols and sweeps, gathering information on the Mau Mau (usually through torturing locals), and most importantly, acting as death squads. It is estimated that 42% of Mau Mau deaths were caused by homeguards.
In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson characterized the inheritance of the state (even by revolutionaries from former “oppressors”) as akin to the inheritance of a large house with all its plumbing intricacies. “Like the complex electrical system in any large mansion when the owner has fled,” wrote Anderson, “the state awaits the new owner’s hand at the switch to be very much its old brilliant self again.” This perfectly encapsulates the fate of the Kenyan state after colonialism supposedly ended, and few things illustrate this better than the trajectory of Kenya Police.
In December 1963, Kenya won independence from Britain, and rulership of the country was purportedly transferred from white hands into Black ones. The work of the police forces, however, had been cast in the crucible of colonialism and independence did little to change their practices. In Kenya, the problem wasn’t simply what Anderson had called “the plumbing.” It was ideological, too: independence brought about white supremacy in blackface.
Johnstone Kamau wa Ngegi (otherwise known as Jomo Kenyatta), Kenya’s first president, took power and almost immediately set out to both reenact and uphold the fable of white supremacy, only this time with a mostly (elite) Kikuyu (Kenya’s largest tribe) ruling class. Kenyatta came to power as a poor man, a long-time prisoner in a country where wealth accumulation by Africans was near-impossible, but by the time he died in 1978 he was one of the wealthiest people in Africa. To this very day, Kenyatta’s family ranks among the wealthiest in Africa.
To facilitate this immense accumulation of wealth and concentration of power, Kenyatta filled the ranks of his initial cabinet and senior administration with former homeguards and the children of collaborators. Take Mbiyu wa Koinange, the son of the prominent collaborator Kikuyu chief Koinange wa Mbiyu, for instance, who held several prominent ministerial portfolios. Or consider Charles Njonjo, Independent Kenya’s first Attorney General, often referred to as the “Duke of Kabeteshire,” who even as a centenarian now, still thinks of himself as British, and overtly expresses disdain for many Africans, whose hands he refuses to shake for their purported “uncleanliness.” He prides himself on his sartorial elegance, with his suits tailored on Savile Row, and speaks with the most upper crust of English accents.
The actual fighters for independence, the Mau Mau and others like them, however, were forgotten, or when they dared to speak, quickly suppressed. Their land, for which they had so bravely fought, either remained in the hands of the white settlers favoured by Kenyatta, or was acquired by Kenyatta and his cronies. For decades, their claims for compensation were largely ignored by both the Kenyan and British governments, and it was only in 2013, because of a ruling by a British court, that the few veterans still alive were promised a settlement of ￡20 million.
Kenyatta’s major monograph, Facing Mount Kenya, continued the project of reenacting white supremacy. The Kenyan theorist Wandia Njoya has convincingly argued that Facing Mount Kenya was a form of Uthamaki, the Agikuyu word for “Empire”; that is, a deliberate attempt to recast Kenyan-ness into (elite) Kikuyu-ness and, by so doing, flatten the diversity of “social dynamics internal to Kenya or even internal to the Kikuyu.” Njoya surmises that in doing this, Kenyatta’s intention was not to overturn the colonial system, but rather, to “acculturalize” Africanness to the colonial state. If the idea of the “civilized” were expanded to include the African (or rather, a particular kind of African, the elite Kikuyu) some Africans could be deemed “equal members” of the colonial state, Njoya argues — just as civilized as the white man and just as deserving of self-rule, without the basic apparatus or functions of the state having to change much. Uthamaki, and its variants, are our own homegrown versions of white supremacy.
Post-independence, the hierarchies that existed during colonialism still persist because of the steps Kenyatta took. A few families (mostly white — the families of settlers who remained; Kikuyu — through the appropriation of land in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley; and Kenyan Indian) own most of the land and wealth in the country, while the vast majority of Kenyans are poor and heavily policed. Of course one could say this mass dispossession is simply neoliberalism at play, because the same trend can be seen occurring all over the world, where increasingly, a few individuals own most of the wealth of a country. But in Kenya, neoliberalism and Uthamaki are Damon and Pythias.
It comes as no surprise then that from 1965 onwards, a catalogue of the atrocities committed by post-independence Kenya Police, one of the main institutions serving to protect Uthamaki, reads like any list of atrocities committed by the colonial Kenya police. This catalogue is mostly made up of rampant (because quotidian) killings and abuses that target poor Kenyan civilians. But it is also comprised of more institutionalized brutalities that target specific Kenyan communities — Somalis, stereotyped as terrorists; queer people, ostracized as “un-African” and subjected to forced rectal exams; Sabaots, dispossessed of their land and branded bandits; Luos, simply because many of them have long refused to toe the line of Uthamaki. Add to this list the prominent individuals who have challenged Uthamaki, whether they be Kikuyu or not: Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, J.M. Kariuki, Chris Msando, Boniface Mwangi, Wandia Njoya.
Governments may change, but rarely do deeply institutionalized ethea. During the Moi dictatorship (1978-2002), Kenya Police still functioned in the mode of the colonial police: they worked to stifle demands for multi-party democracy as the colonial police had worked to stifle calls for independence; they killed and “disappeared” activists; and they tortured men, women and children. They terrorized entire communities and facilitated rigged elections. They engaged in so much resource plunder and corruption that their tagline — Utumishi kwa Wote (Service to All) — was colloquially bastardized to Ufisadi kwa Wote (Corruption for All).
And, like in many other places, the Kenyan state, when not actively involved in these acts of police brutality, has refused to acknowledge an institutional dimension to police brutality. As with most other places where police brutality flourishes, the actions of the police are chalked up to “troubled officers” or “bad apples.” When public outrage necessitates it, as in Yassin’s case, the government has called for the prosecution of individual officers and established lame-duck commissions and oversight authorities to little effect. The “Independent” Police Oversight Authority (IPOA), for example, though supposedly tasked with reforming the police service and with bringing criminal police officers to justice, has only secured the convictions of two police officers since 2012. That is out of 9,200 cases.
With impunity, Kenya Police, like in the old colonial days, goes on killing citizens, collecting bribes, harassing, torturing, and maiming, all with the secure knowledge that nothing will happen, because the poor Black people that they enact this violence on do not matter in the eyes of the law.
But not all hope is lost. While Kenyans have not, by all outward signs, been a revolutionary people in the last fifty or so years, Kenya harbours her lone revolutionaries. Consider Wangari Maathai, for example, who for years was beaten, stripped, arrested, sexually assaulted, and otherwise humiliated by the police as she protested state policies that sought to grab public land, but whose unceasing efforts and moral courage finally prevailed. Or consider the so-called “freedom mothers”; six mothers of men imprisoned by the dictator Daniel Moi, who, realizing the power of spectacle and myth in a deeply conservative and patriarchal society, stripped naked to protest the harassment they endured at the hands of the police as they sought to have their sons freed. These women, led by Monica Wangu Wamwere, flashed their naked breasts at the police officers who, afraid of being cursed, ran away. At least momentarily.
The acts of such revolutionaries have given the rest of us permission to question what role the police play in our lives, and to further examine the genealogy that the current police force belongs to. We have come to understand that the existence of this institution — the brainchild of white supremacy — is, in modern day Kenya, a morally untenable situation. In the last few months, as protests against the police have rocked cities all around the world, they’ve also taken root here. And like in other parts of the world, the police have fought back. We too have learned not to attend a protest without a bottle of milk to wash off the tear gas they invariably lob at us; never to walk alone to or from a protest, because we risk being kidnapped and disappeared; always to document every interaction with the police through photography and videography.
Despite all the challenges we face and the precautions we must take, we nurse a pervading sense of hope that animates those of us fighting against police brutality in Kenya. We have learned that power lives in the streets, and so we have, with remarkable organization, taken to them. The movements challenging police brutality here are mostly horizontal, led by a broad coalition of poor people, artists, intellectuals, queer people, and mothers who’ve lost their children to these brutal forces. Many of these people have never left the country, yet they are connected with an international conversation of anti-police movements and an intersectional ethic of liberation for all. Murals of George Floyd and Yassin Moyo have popped up all over Nairobi. A page on Instagram (@policebrutalityke) painstakingly and intentionally documents acts of police brutality, fundraises for bail money, and coordinates protests and meetings. A dedicated website provides up to date data on police killings, as well as records of police killings going all the way back to 2015. There is a refreshing intentionality to the conversation. There is hope.
The wins are small, but they are there. On July 7 2020, for example, during a protest in commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of Saba Saba day, when the Seventh of July movement was formed to agitate for multi-party democracy in Kenya, police tear gassed and attempted to unlawfully arrest protestors. One courageous young woman, Wanjiru Wanjira, refused to be forcefully taken. Loudly and in the full glare of cameras, she asked them why they were harassing and manhandling her; what particular crime it was that she had committed. And when, out of the fear of spectacle, they relented and released her, she began a chant which was quickly taken up by onlookers: “When we lose our fear, they lose their power… When we lose our fear, they lose their power!”