Lab Report

Cleaning House in Kenya’s Police Force

Why security sector reform in Kenya has been much more successful than you might think. The latest in our series of Lab Reports on Kenya.


Kenya’s generally well-regarded military has faced stinging criticism in the aftermath of the tragic Sept. 21 Westgate mall attack in Nairobi, with allegations of rivalries and "friendly fire" between army and police units and looting by soldiers. Kenya’s police, which have a decidedly less than stellar reputation, became the focus of similar censure in October when David Kimaiyo, Inspector General of the police, was condemned for an "assault on the freedom of expression" after he summoned several journalists over their coverage of Westgate. After a public uproar, the requests were subsequently cancelled. Additionally, recent reports on elite police units have documented abuses. 

While these developments certainly raise a number of important questions and reveal persisting challenges, the prevailing narrative of police ineptitude arguably leaves out the most important part of the story. Kenya has actually made substantial — if incomplete and fragile — progress on police reform over the past five years.

There’s a reason why security sector reform efforts in Kenya have focused on the police. Kenya’s military has a well-established reputation for professionalism and has generally stayed out of politics (with the possible exception of a coup attempt in 1982). As a result, Kenya’s soldiers have little involvement in political violence. By contrast, in the lead-up to Kenya’s March 2013 elections, many observers derided the pace and extent of the then coalition government’s efforts to reform the heavily politicized police force. (In the photo above, members Kenya’s police force take cover during the September attack.)

The police reform agenda featured prominently in both Kenya’s new constitution, which passed in 2010, and the 2008 powers-sharing agreement that put an end to the ethnically-driven 2007-2008 post-election violence, which was triggered by a close presidential election and allegations of fraud and ultimately left over 1,100 dead and 600,000 displaced. While criticism of the slow pace and implementation of police reforms since 2008 is warranted, during the March 2013 election the Kenyan police acted in an apolitical and generally professional manner, helping to contain tensions after the tight poll — which, despite widespread concern of renewed bloodshed, was not followed by large-scale violence.

It’s important to understand the broader historical context. Police systems in sub-Saharan Africa have long been used by elites to wield political authority, from the colonial period through the contemporary multi-party era. Independence leaders inherited and largely maintained centralized colonial policing structures, as the police proved to be useful tools for suppressing political competition and consolidating control. In the two decades since the "third wave" of democracy brought political liberalization to much of the continent in the early 1990s, the language of African policing shifted in many countries towards accountability and democratically oriented reform programs. In practice, however, the police generally remain political instruments and continue to play an often deleterious role in governance and political violence, from harassment of the opposition in Zimbabwe to widespread extrajudicial killings in Nigeria.

Until recently, the history of policing in Kenya was no exception. Successive Kenyan presidents — from Jomo Kenyatta to Daniel arap Moi to Mwai Kibaki — maintained firm executive control over Kenya’s two police branches (the Kenyan Police Force and the Administration Police), and used the force to exercise political control. In 1964, Kenyatta jettisoned police autonomy a year after independence, retained the paramilitary structure of the colonial police, and employed the police to suppress political dissent. The use of the police for political purposes deepened in the 1980s under the increasingly autocratic Moi, as units were deployed to attack and torture political opponents. Moi ignored calls for police reform after the move to multi-party politics in 1991, using the police to arm ethnic militias and suppress opposition voter turnout in the violent and flawed 1992 and 1997 elections.

In an environment of violent crime and endemic corruption, Kibaki came to power in 2002 on a campaign of renewal, launching a police reform program in 2003 that aimed to professionalize the decaying, corrupt force and experiment with community policing. The rhetorical move toward democratic policing achieved little, however, as Kibaki continued the Kenyan tradition of using the police for regime security. That became vividly apparent as a result of police involvement in the 2007-2008 post-election violence, where the police were implicated in 36 percent of the officially recorded 1,113 fatalities and the wounding of over 500 more. The short-term triggers of the post-election violence were an exceedingly close election, reports of vote rigging, and Kibaki’s decision to hastily declare victory. But the underlying roots of the violence can be traced to several longer-term trends in Kenya’s history, including the state’s loss over the monopoly of violence, the fragmentation of elites, and ethnically-based, high stakes "winner takes all" politics. To end the crisis, in February 2008, Kibaki and his challenger, Raila Odinga, established the coalition government that expired after the 2013 elections. As part of the power-sharing agreement, the coalition pledged to overhaul the troubled police force. To what extent was the so-called "unity" government able to deliver on its reform promise?

As my recent research highlights, two main factors helped achieve substantial, albeit sluggish and incomplete, police reforms in Kenya under coalition government: first, a low degree of political influence in the police; and second, strong police reform provisions in the text of the power-sharing agreement. A unique combination of factors led the police to
become deeply politicized, as noted above, but police leaders never amassed enough of a power base to reciprocally influence the political sphere, a symbiotic relationship that is often seen in other cases such as Zimbabwe. These two factors allowed local, regional, and international actors to leverage the power-sharing text and push reforms forward, while, at the same time, recalcitrant police leaders were unable to sufficiently block reforms.

Thus, in spite of a halting pace and constant pushback from anti-reform elements, several significant legislative and constitutional police reforms took place during the tenure of the coalition government from 2008 to 2013. Kenya’s new constitution, promulgated in August 2010, contained major changes to security and police governance, including provisions to diminish political manipulation and increase accountability of the police. The new constitution also merged the two police forces into one National Police Service, which was intended to help streamline the often overlapping and conflicting mandates of the two branches (the Administration Police was a colonial relic, created to help local chiefs with policing and administrative issues). In August 2011, three key police reform laws were passed: the National Police Service Bill, the National Police Service Commission Bill, and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority Bill. Passage of such reforms has set in motion the long process of reshaping police governance in Kenya.

Implementation of these institutional reforms has lagged due to a number of factors, but mostly due to a lack of political will from elites and recalcitrance from some within the police leadership. Here’s what a member of the Kenyan government’s Police Reforms Implementation Committee, Odour Ong’wen, told me in an interview in 2011: "The first major obstacle we are seeing as a committee is the resistance from the very top [of the police hierarchy]…. A staggering majority are resisting." However, due to a lack of political influence, these efforts to resist change have largely been fruitless.

Kimaiyo, the first Inspector General of the reformulated National Police Service, who was a director in the Ministry of Internal Security when I interviewed him in 2011, acknowledged the difficulties in operationalizing institutional reforms: "The recommendations are there on paper," he told me. "Implementation is a problem." In spite of these obstacles and the real potential for a rollback under a new administration, it appears this institutional legal framework helped depoliticize the force ahead of the 2013 elections.

Notwithstanding fears about preparedness, during the ultimate test of the fledgling reforms — the March 2013 national elections — police conduct was, overall, commendable, which clearly stands in stark contrast to the 2007-2008 election. The police force deployed officers to areas that saw outbreaks of violence in 2007-2008, and was quick to send reinforcements to areas that did suffer from violence in the days before the March poll. In a move that could have implications for the quality of Kenya’s democracy, Kimaiyo even instituted a ban on public demonstrations during the election period. In a recent post-mortem on the election, the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded that police behavior during the March elections was "greatly improved" from the previous election, characterizing their performance as a "measured response."

Of course, there’s still considerable justification for harsher verdicts. The ICG report itself highlighted several instances of questionable use of live ammunition and excessive use of force during the election period, episodes which are under investigation by the Independent Policing Oversight Authority. Additionally, a report released last month by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Kenyan NGO Muslims for Human Rights is particularly critical of Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, which they allege is responsible for a laundry list of abuses, including torture, arbitrary detentions, and disappearances.   

These worrying incidents — combined with police conduct during Westgate and the subsequent crackdown on journalists, additional charges of major abuses of Somali and other refugees, persistently high levels of corruption, fundamental questions about effectiveness, chronic budget shortages, and continuing impunity for previous political violence — highlight the many remaining challenges in turning  reforms into a reality.

Nonetheless, a new legal framework and improved police conduct during the March elections suggest real movement on reforms, particularly in depoliticizing the force. That said, recent efforts to amend two police reform bills to transfer some powers back to the police commissioner, which are currently being debated in parliament, suggest that the possibility of a reversal remains high under the new government of Uhuru Kenyatta.

Pressure from civil society and international actors played a large role in pushing the police reform agenda forward under the coalition government in Kenya. In order to consolidate on past gains and avoid backsliding, it is incumbent on both domestic and international actors to continue to monitor and push the Kenyatta administration to fully implement and translate police reforms from paper to practice.

Alexander Noyes is a political scientist at the Rand Corp. Twitter: @alexhnoyes

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