Kenya’s Vicious War Against Its Youth
Security forces say they're targeting terrorists, but it's young people who keep dying. Why do so few Kenyans seem to care?
NAIROBI — One day in 2014, university students Felix Nyangena and Dennis Magomere, 21 and 22 years old respectively, were walking from the Globe Cinema roundabout in Nairobi’s central business district to the nearby offices of the Higher Education Loans Board, a government agency that oversees financial disbursements to students. The Globe Cinema roundabout is one of the Kenyan capital’s busiest bus terminals, and during the day it can be among the most densely populated parts of the city. There, in the gentle light of the still-rising sun, Nyangena and Magomere were gunned down by two plainclothes police officers attached to the city’s anti-mugging unit. Nyangena did not die immediately. So the officer stood over his body and fired twice more, killing the young man in broad daylight. The officer then calmly wiped his fingerprints off the gun, planted it on the young man’s body, and made a call — presumably to report a robbery.
We know all of this because unlike many other extrajudicial killings by police and security officials in Kenya, Nyangena and Magomere’s murder was captured on video. The crisp, high-quality footage of the crime, taken on a witness’s mobile phone, is the centerpiece of a recent documentary by noted Kenyan journalist Mohammed Ali on the epidemic of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances by security services. And perhaps as a result of both the video and the documentary, Kenya’s public prosecutor has announced that for the first time in recent memory, his office will charge a police officer for the unlawful killing of a civilian.
Unfortunately, the only unusual thing about this horrific story is the judicial outcome. Through a conspiracy of public apathy and sinister cover-ups, Kenyan security forces have essentially acquired carte blanche to kill and disappear citizens, particularly young ones, on the pretext of fighting crime and terrorism. The scourge of killings and disappearances has accelerated in recent years as the Somali militant group al-Shabab has trained its sights on Kenya, but abuse and impunity long have been the calling cards of the Kenyan security services. And while the discriminatory religious contours of the “War on Terror” would suggest that the problem is confined to northeastern and coastal Kenya, regions that are predominantly Muslim and have a high proportion of ethnic Somalis, the truth is that Kenyan authorities routinely commit violent crimes against young people all over the country.
The government does not release official statistics on victims of terrorism, but data culled from news sources and reports by human rights organizations suggest that with the exception of mass attacks like those at Garissa University and Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, which together claimed roughly 220 lives, more Kenyans are killed inside the country each year by police than by terrorists. According to the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), a nonprofit that provides investigative, medical, and psychological rehabilitation services to victims of torture, Kenyan police and the Kenya Wildlife Service together summarily executed 126 people in 2015 alone. The majority of these killings — 61 — occurred in Nairobi, and they were not concentrated in predominantly Somali neighborhoods but rather near informal slum settlements that are home to Kenyans from a range of ethnic and regional backgrounds. Significantly, the vast majority of those dying at the hands of law enforcement are between the ages of 20 and 29, according to the IMLU. And these are just the gun deaths.
All of this is, of course, illegal. Due process protections in Kenya’s constitution prohibit arbitrary killings by the security forces — even of criminals or suspected terrorists. So shoot-to-kill orders of any kind are unconstitutional, even if they come from the head of state. But instead of demanding greater legal and political protection for those who are vulnerable to police brutality, many Kenyans are inclined to defend extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances on the grounds that the victims are thugs and terrorists who had it coming. (For evidence of this inclination, look no farther than the comments section of any Kenyan newspaper article on alleged killings by the police.)
Young people are especially at risk for these crimes because they are seen as more likely to belong to gangs or terrorist groups. Successive security operations against such groups have effectively criminalized being young — male or female — in certain parts of the capital city, leading to an alarming rise in arbitrary arrests and detentions of individuals under the age of 30. The problem is especially acute because Kenya is one of the world’s youngest nations. The median age is 18, and more than 42 percent of the population is under 14. In other words, a huge number of Kenyans are on a collision course with security forces simply by virtue of their age — and the results are not pretty. According to the IMLU, nearly 50 percent of gun deaths in 2014 were of people between the ages of 20 and 29 — and most were killed by the police.
Part of the reason for the public nonchalance no doubt stems from the fact that media have focused most of their attention on abuses committed by security forces in predominantly Muslim parts of the country. As a key partner in the “War on Terror,” Kenya has imported many of the same pathologies that plague its Western allies, including Islamophobia and ethnic chauvinism. Prejudice against ethnic Somalis, who make up between 6 and 8 percent of Kenya’s population, is on the rise. And it is not uncommon to hear bigoted statements tarring the entire ethnic Somali community as “terrorists” on the radio or television, even from civic and political leaders.
And so the actions of law enforcement in heavily Muslim and Somali regions rarely receive scrutiny. A September 2015 report from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNHCR), an autonomous watchdog organization, highlighted 106 cases of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in the country’s three northeastern counties between 2014 and 2015. The youngest victim named in the report was 16-year-old Maslah Daud Hassan. He was taken from a small town just outside Mandera and transferred to Nairobi, where he was tortured and subsequently detained at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. He is still being held there — a minor in an adult prison — without charge. There has been no public outcry over his case or those of any of the other victims named in the report.
Another reason extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances have become normalized in Kenya is because of the country’s long history with both, dating back to the colonial period. During a state of emergency declared in 1954, for example, the British colonial government rounded up more than 10,000 suspected Mau Mau freedom fighters and permitted officers to shoot to kill in cases of armed resistance.
Since independence, successive governments have routinely used similar shoot-to-kill orders to appear tough on crime, capitalizing on a stunning level of tolerance for violence against putative criminals among the general public. For example, after ignoring the outcome of an independence referendum for the Northern Frontier District (today’s northeastern regions), Kenya’s first independent government put out a shoot-to-kill order against suspected shifta rebels in the region, and hundreds of Somali people were subsequently disappeared or killed in secretive security operations.
Later, the administration of Daniel arap Moi, who governed from 1978 to 2002, gave the police unprecedented authority to use deadly force. His government issued shoot-to-kill orders against a group of pro-democracy opponents known as the Mwakenya in 1987, against wildlife poachers in 1988, and authorized emergency measures to justify the killing of 30 Somalis in the northeast region, also in 1988. It was also under Moi that three of the worst massacres by security forces in Kenyan history — in Mandera in 1981, Wagalla in 1984, and Garissa in 1980 — occurred. In Wagalla alone, an estimated 3,000 men were rounded up and killed, some shot at point blank range, some poisoned, and some trampled in a stampede. Other atrocities were committed against the women who were left at home.
The great promise of Mwai Kibaki, Moi’s successor, went grossly unfulfilled. His administration, composed of many activists who had agitated for multiparty democracy and greater respect for human rights, scored little better when it came to abuse in the security services. In 2005, Internal Security Minister John Michuki issued a shoot-to-kill order for anyone found in possession of illegal firearms. The directive was meant to address the capital’s rampant crime problem, but instead it just compounded the culture of impunity within the security services. Michuki also signed off on a 2007 operation against the Mungiki — a Mau Mau-inspired group running an elaborate, mafia-style protection racket in the capital — that involved sealing off Nairobi’s Mathare slum for three full days and killing at least 32 alleged members of the group.
The incident set the tone for the conduct of law enforcement during the post-election violence in 2007 and 2008, when police officers told Human Rights Watch that there were unofficial shoot-to-kill orders in place in certain regional police departments. In the western city of Kisumu, 44 people were brought into the morgue between Dec. 28, 2007, and Jan. 11, 2008, the worst period of violence. According to Human Rights Watch, most of the victims were males whose gunshot wounds were consistent with targeted killings. During the same period, similar killings were reported in Nairobi’s slums and in other parts of the country, including the Mt. Elgon region, where the army allegedly targeted members of a local land-defense militia group, the Sabaot Land Defence Force.
The current administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who faced charges at the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in the post-election violence that were later withdrawn, has not abandoned this heavy-handed approach. In March 2014, police in Mombasa issued a shoot-to-kill order against “terrorism suspects,” with then-Mombasa County Police Commander Robert Kitur claiming, “It is fair to kill the criminals as it would bring the justice they deserve on behalf of the victims.” The police inspector general, David Kimaiyo, later urged officers to ignore that order, but he himself issued a similar one for Pokot and Turkana counties in October of that year. In June 2015, the police commissioner in Kenya’s western Baringo County issued a shoot-to-kill order for cattle rustlers in the region “whether they are armed or not,” and in November 2015, similar orders went into effect in the restive counties of Isiolo, Meru, and Samburu.
This is the experience and mindset that Kenyan security services have brought to the battle against al-Shabab. In the wake of the 2013 Westgate attack, and again after the attack at Garissa University last year, violent security operations were launched in the northeast, resulting in the deaths or disappearances of hundreds of young people as outlined in the KNHCR report. Kenya’s indigenous Somali population, along with Somali refugees fleeing violence in their home country, have borne the brunt of this violence; as the KNHCR report details, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances are painfully common within the Somali community.
In the absence of a broader public outcry against these abuses, the war on Kenya’s youth will continue. The deaths of innocent people at the hands of the state will remain unmourned by the public because they are said to “fit the profile” of terrorists or criminals. It is hard to measure the extent to which generational apathy has eroded the rule of law in Kenya by enabling the impunity of security forces, but what is clear is that the situation has reached a state of emergency. Without some kind of mass public mobilization on this issue, young, poor Kenyans will continue to walk around their own country with target signs on their backs.
Image credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images