Blog post

Police Violence and the Criminalization of the Poor in Kenya

Police brutality is endemic in modern Kenya, and a legacy of British colonial rule, write community organisers Gacheke Gachihi and Esther Waigumo Njoki. 

Esther Waigumo Njoki, Gacheke Gachihi21 July 2020

Photo by Mutua MSJC

This article is part of the Global Perspectives on Policing series on the Verso Blog. You can find other articles from the series here

The roots of Kenyan police violence, and the associated criminalization of the poor, can be traced back to Kenya’s colonial period. Kenya is a former British colony, and from the creation of Kenya as a colonial settlement in 1900 to independence in 1963, indigenous Kenyans were made to submit to the violent tactics of the British army and police. This colonial violence laid the foundation for today’s neo-colonial Kenyan state, which is rife with police violence, extrajudicial killings and the criminalization of the working-class and urban poor in informal settlements, and of peasants in the rural areas.

During the Mau Mau struggle for freedom (1952 – 1960), thousands of Kenyans were killed by the British. Peasants were detained and tortured in jails as part of the British government’s attempts to retain Kenyan land and put down the uprising for freedom. This strategy led to armed resistance, and the Mau Mau War was used to justify a brutal path of police violence, with mass imprisonment of peasants and workers from the Gikuyu community and many other communities in Kenya who were opposed repressive British rule and were engaged in the struggle for land and freedom. 

Despite independence in 1963, Kenya remained an undemocratic state, and an outpost of western imperialism in the East African region. The new state used police violence to undermine and curtail the democratic movement that was emerging in the universities in the early 1960s and ‘70s. By then, many Kenyan intellectuals had returned to the country from further studies abroad, and started organizing around alternative and progressive political ideas. These included, among others, the December Twelve Movement (Mwakenya), whose spokesman was writer and activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o. These intellectuals and university workers led underground movements that sparkled a struggle for democracy and social justice, particularly in higher education institutions, but were crushed in their formative stages by President Jomo Kenyatta (the first president of Kenya from 1963-1978) and subsequently the regime of Daniel arap Moi. Even after independence, the British government continued to intervene in Kenyan internal affairs and politics. This included training Kenyan national security agencies, which entrenched a police state through torture and the detention of intellectuals and political activists who opposed one-party rule.

Kenya has a long history of systematic police violence. When Kenyatta died in 1978, former Vice President Moi took over as unelected leader and continued to preside over a regime of torture and police brutality for two decades. Maina wa Kinyatti, one of Kenya’s leading historians, has written of how “In 1985, with the help of the British and the United States, torture chambers named Nyayo Houses were constructed in Nairobi, where political dissidents were detained for interrogation and torture.  To force the surrender of strategic information, the captives were put through an advanced system. This included dismemberment and disfigurement, the use of electric shocks, water bonding, rope torture and starvation.” [1] 

The brutality of this era is evidenced in remaining historic sites, such as the Mau Mau torture room (photo below) at Mweru High School in Nyeri County, Central Region. Such torture rooms are maintained as memorials to Kenya’s violent colonial period, when peasants in the Central Region of Kenya, the political and cultural base for the Mau Mau,were particularly persecuted. This legacy of violence is continued today by the modern Kenyan police service. Indeed, police violence in Kenya has recently escalated. On the 25th June this year,  The  Daily Nation, a leading newspaper in Kenya, ran the headline "Police killings hit a new high in five months", and reported that Kenyan police were linked to the killings of 101 people from January to May this year.  


                                                               Photo by E. Waigumo, Mau Mau torture room.

     In the year 2013 thousands of former Mau Mau freedom fighters sued the British government in London for its sanctioning of the use of torture by colonial forces during the struggle for Kenyan independence. The UK government, via then-Foreign Secretary William Hague, admitted to the atrocities and killings. A monument was erected in the Kenya Uhuru Park in memory of this history of colonial police violence . Our organization, the Mathare Social Justice Centre in Nairobi, continues the historical struggle against police violence which began in the colonial period and which is used today by the state to  criminalize and control the poor. As part of the struggle for democracy and social justice, we have organized campaigns and reports to expose these human rights violations. In 2016, we documented 800 cases of police killings and enforced disappearances in Kenya, with a special focus in the informal settlements  where  youths  aged between thirteen  and  twenty-four are systematically killed, or disappear without trace  

Mathare Social Justice Centre and other grassroots social justice movements have continued to document these cases during the Covid- 19 crisis. In the three months since the first reported case of Covid-19 in Kenya, there has been a shocking surge in episodes of police brutality and killings. During this time, the government of Kenya has enforced a country-wide curfew from 9pm to 4am in order to curb the spread of coronavirus. The government has imposed a partial lockdown in the major cities of Nairobi, Mombasa and Kilifi, as these are the places in Kenya with the most widespread levels of infection. Social crisis and economic hardship are the hallmarks of the Kenyan government’s Covid-19 response. Ordinary people are struggling to cope with government measures which are inherently violent and   dehumanizing. The measures derive from the Kenyan government’s attempts to copy solutions for curbing infections from places in the developed world, such as China and Europe. However, limited state resources and high levels of corruption in Kenya have meant that basic services for ordinary people have been neglected. In rural peasant areas and informal settlements, where seventy-percent of the population of urban poor lives without water, services providing housing, education and healthcare have been seriously negatively affected. This is a crisis of neoliberal capitalism, as these basic services have all been commodified and privatized in Kenya, leaving the country without the resources to provide even basic healthcare for forty-seven million Kenyans. On top of this, the police have now criminalized a healthcare crisis, enforcing the illegal detention of victims of Covid-19, many of whom go for weeks without tests or treatment. Protests against these unjust and cruel measures have erupted across the country. 

Throughout the lockdown, the police have continued with systematic extortions and extrajudicial killings. Two young people from an informal settlement were killed by police enforcing the curfew in a poor neighborhood in Nairobi. Yassin Moyo, a thirteen-year-old pupil from Valley Bridge Primary School in Mathare, Kiamaiko Village, was shot and killed by police while he stood on the balcony of a small apartment in Kiamaiko. John Muuo Muli,  who worked as a car washer in Ruai, was beaten by police and left badly injured. His brother could not venture out to seek medical help for fear of police reprisals and instead had to stay inside with him until morning, when he was finally able to take him to Mama Lucy Hospital. He succumbed to the injuries, bringing the total number of police killings up to twelve in the two weeks following the introduction of the curfew. At the time of Muli’s death, the total number of police killings during the curfew exceeded the number caused by the pandemic. 

Members of the Social Justice Centre Working Group and networks of community health workers gave assistance and solidarity to the family and helped to document these cases. We continue to demand that the government take responsibility for these deaths, just as we continue to document and expose excessive police force and extortion in the informal settlements and poor rural areas, where police use illegal methods to enforce the curfew. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed the level of crisis around the provision of healthcare, education and housing in this country today. People are regularly intimidated and instilled with fear as a result of police methods, but we will continue to assert our rights to healthcare, water and our livelihoods even as the government imposes the curfew without meeting the basic needs of the majority of Kenyan citizens. 

As a social justice movement, we have not given up in this crisis as we know that this class struggle is the struggle of our lifetime. We fight for dignity and social justice. In the knowledge that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will fall heaviest on the poor, we have organized fundraising initiatives to support our most vulnerable members with small packages of basic goods paid for through collective solidarity funds.  We have also continued to conduct campaigns demanding water and sanitation in the informal settlements, where we have sixteen social justice centres. We have also made a documentary, addressed to President Uhuru Kenyatta, featuring voices from all of our social justice centers, speaking out on police killings, water and sanitation. In this film, we ask the President to obey the Kenyan Constitution and fulfill our constitutional rights to food, water healthcare, education and housing for all.

The killing of George Floyd has sparked global protests and uprisings, including in Kenya. Mathare Social Justice Centre organized a protest in memory of Floyd and all the victims of racism and police violence in Minneapolis and the broader United States. The struggle of Black Lives Matter is clearly connected to our struggles against police brutality in the informal settlements. The protest was covered in local and international media and framed as part of global struggle against police violence during the Covid-19 crisis. The march used the slogan ‘I can’t breathe’, and applied it to our own experiences of neo-colonial police violence. ‘We can’t breath’ has become a global slogan against police violence and was chanted by members of social justice centres who marched around Mathare and its environs demanding the end of police brutality in our communities, and calling for social justice and to defund the police. Investing the resources currently used to fund the police in healthcare, education and housing would create social security and safety by rehabilitating millions of youths in the informal settlements, keeping them away from crime and drug related social ills which are the result of our ongoing neoliberal economic crisis.


                                                                             Photo by  Calvin Otieno Hood Creations.

             It was in line with the continued struggle for social justice in Kenya that Mathare Social Justice Centre, together with other social justice centres across the country, organized a peaceful demonstration on July 7th this year, to commemorate SabaSaba (which translates to ‘seven seven’, that is, the 7th day of the 7th month). SabaSaba is a day where Kenyans come out in numbers to protest and express their demands to the government. The tradition of protesting on SabaSaba can be dated back thirty years to July 7th, 1990 where demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the one-party regime of then-President Moi, a dictator of his time. Since then, patriotic Kenyans have always honoured this day by marching on the streets as they make their demands. This year's SabaSaba march saw activists and active citizens demand a country free from social injustice. Police brutality, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, water shortages, food  shortages, corruption, unemployment, unlawful evictions, state-sanctioned demolition and lack of access to basic healthcare are just some of the crises experienced in Kenya today, a country which makes a mockery of social justice. During the demonstration, around fifty-six activists were arrested and demonstrators were badly teargassed by the police who claimed the protest was illegal. According to the Bill of Rights, Chapter 4 Article 37 of the Kenyan Constitution, however, every citizen has the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions to public authorities. The only requirement to hold a peaceful demonstration is to notify the authorities so that they can offer security, which had been done on SabaSaba. Why, then, did the police teargas peaceful protestors? It is evident that those who are trusted to enforce the law either do not know the law or believe that they are above it. The arrested activists have since been released on cash bail but we call for solidarity from across the world to condemn the state’s actions which have deprived citizens of their constitutional rights.      


We urge every patriotic Kenyan citizen not to relent in this fight for social justice. We will fight until our last breath. The deep state must fall! The Constitution must be respected by all. We will remain defiant, courageous and no form of harassment will break our fighting spirit.  Even if we die fighting, we are convinced that history shall resurrect us. When we lose our fear, they lose their power! The struggle for social justice continues!

[1] Maina wa Kinyatti, History of Resistance in Kenya 1884-2002, ‘The Reign of Terror’, p. 445

Esther Waigumo Njoki is a student of Muranga University  and a Social Justice Advocate  and Community Researcher on Youth and Criminalization with Mathare Social Justice Centre. 

Gacheke Gachihi is the Coordinator of Mathare Social justice Centre and a member of the Social Justice Centre Working Group Steering Committee.