The level of international scrutiny towards Kenya’s COVID-19 response has increased in the last week. This is chiefly due to a recent Human Rights watch report establishing at least six people died due to excessive police force in the first 10 days of the curfew. Kenya’s central government have done little to prevent the spread of this violence, and the country’s police force appear to be acting with virtually no accountability. Sadly, this feeds into a broader governmental response structured by heavy-handedness and scaremongering.
Particularly damning was the report’s revelation that, prior to the start of the daily curfew, police had shot at and beat people in markets and those coming home from work. Moreover, certain atrocities have captured international attention, like the tragic death of a thirteen-year old boy hit by a stray bullet whilst merely standing on the balcony of his flat. Otsieno Namwaya (one of the senior researchers involved on the report) fears the extent of police brutality during the Kenyan lock down is more far reaching than just those listed as dead: “There are lots of people who are nursing injuries because of police beatings; there are a lot of people who have lost businesses because of police either demanding bribes or looting.” This view is shared by Wilfred Olal of the Social Justice Centres Working Group, who recently announced the group has the identities of at least 14 victims of police killings during lock down in Kenya.
The majority of this violence and exploitation is occurring in Kenya’s poorest urban slums and adds one more layer to a deep history of state violence in these areas. But perhaps the most frustrating consequence of this violence is the way in which it conversely raises the possibility of the coronavirus spreading. One witness has reported police rounding up individuals walking home from work, forcing them to kneel alongside each other, and then “whipping and kicking them”. In doing so, they contravene social distancing guidelines and risk passing on the virus. Equally, as Namwaya points out, such a brutal response will only erode trust between the public and central government.
A much more effective way of ensuring compliance with lock down measures would involve winning over the public through a clear and empathetic rhetoric rather than blunt force. However, the government instead exacerbates the risk of needless police violence through its guidelines stating that police officers may use “proportionate force when non-violent means are inadequate to achieve the objectives of the curfew”.
The unsympathetic approach adopted by the Kenyan government is typified by the continuing controversy surrounding their quarantine centres. A video circulating on social media last week of Kenyans escaping from a centre in Nairobi prompted an authoritarian response from President Uhuru Kenyatta: “We know you and we will find you”. But this rather overlooks the alleged conditions of squalor inside the centres that has forced some to seek escape. Indeed, it is for this very reason that dozens attempted to storm out of a separate facility in Kenyatta University last week. On top of this, some reports have surfaced of Kenyans being forced to stay inside these centres beyond the allocated 14 days, causing them both physical and psychological distress.
Although the international community is becoming increasingly unified in its condemnation of the Kenyan government’s response, more is needed. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has rightly come out to say that countries should not use emergency powers as a weapon to quash dissent and control the population. This is encouraging, but the policies and behaviours of Kenya’s government and security forces must be singled out for criticism. Meanwhile, Kenya’s politicians must rapidly grasp the fact that aggressively imposing itself on the Kenyan population will only deepen the damage caused by COVID-19.
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