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Last Updated: Monday, 8 September, 2003, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
The trouble with Kenya's police
By Gray Phombeah
BBC Africa Live! Nairobi

In every ethnic language in Kenya he answers to his generic title: 'polisi'. His motto is Utumishi kwa wote' meaning service to all in Kiswahili.

Kenyan police officers
Kenyan police are feared not revered
This is the man or woman in blue, the familiar figure on every street in the country, the so-called official custodian of law and order in the Republic of Kenya.

Yet, in uniform or plain clothes, the Kenyan police officer is both disliked and feared by nearly everyone.

In screaming headlines and cartoon sketches, the officer has been depicted as the policeman from hell.

Under the former regime of Daniel arap Moi, the Kenyan police were accused of taking bribes, of robbery, carjacking and all sorts of crimes in the country.

When the opposition Narc alliance took over power in a landslide victory last December, it promised a new and modern police force in what the party's politicians described as a new democratic Kenya.

Most wanted men

But nine months on, the Kenya police officer has not been able to shed off the lawless image that has dogged the force since Kenya attained independence in 1963.

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An incident two years ago amply illustrates what a monster the force had become.

On July 25, 2001, on a day like any other day in Nairobi, a contingent of policemen in plains clothes pounced on a city bus and ordered every passenger to disembark and lie on the ground.

Witnesses say they picked out seven men and minutes later sprayed them with bullets in full public view.

As in many other similar incidents, the police gave their usual classic version of what happened: The men were killed in a shoot-out with the police. And that most of them were on the police list of 'Most Wanted Men' in the city.

It was not the first time the Kenyan police had found themselves standing accused of unimaginable atrocities in the dock of public opinion. Human Rights activists claimed at that time that thousands of Kenyans had died in police cells.

Protector of lives

In Kenya, the life of a police officer begins at the Kenya Police College in Kiganjo, 40 kilometres west of Nairobi, where living conditions are said to be pathetic.

People should put themselves in the place of the policeman.
Peter McKinley

The officer will live in congested barracks with no private bathrooms or toilets; use a stove to boil his drinking water, shine their boots and belt, and feed on cabbages, greens and ugali - Kenyan's staple food.

After leaving college, they will walk into a similar situation when they earn 6,000 shillings or $80 a month and living in shared quarters.

Kenyans generally view the police as their enemy rather than the protector of lives and property.

Ordinary mortals tremble in their presence, but Kenyans are also known to mock them when out of sight.

And so jokes abound of policemen who would order their wives to put the kettle on the fire, sneak out of the house and return back a few minutes later with milk, sugar and a loaf of bread - all bought from a bribe extorted from motorists.


Kenyan politicians have also been notorious in their portrayal of the policeman as a figure of ridicule.

Kenyan Traffic police officer
Kenya police are often accused of corruption

Simeon Nyachae, a former finance minister now in the opposition, once described police officers as being too poor to afford underpants for their wives.

As leader of the official opposition under the Moi regime, President Mwai Kibaki once told parliament that policemen were driving old cars that could not even chase a goat.

The Swahili phrase "Kitu Kidogo", meaning pay something small or a bribe, has been translated to mean the Kenyan police officer's way of saying hello.

Even after the toppling of a corrupt regime propped up by a corrupt police force, the tattered image of the Kenyan policeman seems to have continued to sink even lower.

They are still seen as a symbol of the crimes and gangsters they are supposed to be fighting.


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