Taking stock of Kenya’s shaky commitment to security sector reforms

During one of the deadliest attacks on Kenyan soil, security agencies left villages unprotected, and when they did, disriminated, mistreated and stole from residents. Would they act any differently today?

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A member of the Kenyan security forces observes the reamins of vehicles destroyed by al-Ahabab militants after an attack in Mpeketoni.

By Kevin Motaroki

During five weeks between mid-June through July 2014, armed gunmen who in most cases claimed to be part of the Somalia-based armed Islamist group Al-Shabaab, attacked a passenger bus and at least eight villages in the Kenyan coastal counties of Lamu and Tana River. The attackers killed 87 people, including four security officers, and destroyed approximately 30 buildings and 50 vehicles. 

Kenyan security forces were slow to respond to the attacks, leaving villages unprotected; when they eventually responded, their actions were often discriminatory, beating, arbitrarily detaining and stealing personal property from Muslim and ethnic Somalis in the two counties. A year later, despite numerous law enforcement operations along the coast, hundreds have been arrested and mistreated, only to have charges dropped for lack of evidence and no one has been held responsible for the attacks. 

A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Lamu and Tana River Counties and follow-up research in Nairobi, documents the initial attacks and the Kenyan government’s response, including abusive operations by security forces in the aftermath of the attacks. 

The attacks began in Mpeketoni, a small town in Lamu County, on the evening of June 14, 2014, and spread to neighbouring Tana River County over the following weeks. The attackers, operating in groups of 15 to 300 men armed with guns, knives and machetes, as well as heavy weapons such as bazookas and grenade launchers, targeted mainly non-Muslims of different ethnicities, despite a claim by President Uhuru Kenyatta that the attackers had targeted one ethnic group – later “clarified” as the Kikuyu. They killed men by stabbing or shooting them at close range, sparing women but in some cases forcing them to watch the killings. In all but one case, attackers introduced themselves as Al-Shabaab fighters and the group has claimed responsibility for at least four of the attacks. 

According to witnesses, the attackers listed the persecution of Muslims, the presence of the Kenyan military in Somalia, and avenging the killing of Muslim clerics by Kenyan security forces in Mombasa, as some of the reasons for the attacks. They demanded the withdrawal of Kenyan military from Somalia and directed the women, many of whom were made to watch the killings of men, to relay their demands to President Kenyatta. 

Kenyan security forces were ill-prepared in responding to the attacks, and failed to protect the communities as events unfolded over time, according to research by Human Rights Watch and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC). These findings are similar in many respects to those of an investigation by the Kenyan Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a state-funded institution that provides civilian oversight of police work in Kenya. Security forces on the ground lacked sufficient personnel, vehicles, and communication, and there was insufficient command and coordination. According to an IPOA investigation into the Mpeketoni attacks in the Mpeketoni – and Kijijoni – attacks, security forces also failed to act on intelligence suggesting a future attack might occur. 

As early as June 16, a day after the initial attack, senior government officials stated publicly that the government had increased security and that justice would be done. Yet the attackers struck again in the subsequent days, and in the very locations where the authorities said security had been improved. 

A year later, in 2015, there had been no successful prosecutions for the attacks, with the state dropping most of the cases for lack of evidence. Instead, starting in July 2014, a month after the attacks, security forces arbitrarily detained residents of the two counties and subjected them to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including rounding up men and boys, searching and ransacking homes and businesses, and beating male residents. Members of the security forces also stole money and valuables from residents. 

Under Kenyan law, suspects can only be held for more than 24 hours with the permission of the court. In Tana River, security officers detained at least 60 people at Gamba Police station and held them without food for more than 24 hours without permission of a court, forcing them to sleep on cold concrete floors in very small, overcrowded and unsanitary cells. In Lamu County, police detained 41 people and held all of them in a small and filthy cell at Mpeketoni Police station between three days and two weeks. 

Police meanwhile told the media in August 2014 that the Lamu detainees were “terrorists” who had been arrested in Pangani Forest. Later, these detainees were all released by police without charge, or prosecutors dropped charges for lack of evidence. Interviewed afterwards, most of the detainees, it emerged, four months later, were still recovering from serious injuries sustained from beatings by security officers either during roundups or in detention. 

Detained Somali men sit inside a makeshift cell before being fingerprinted and screened at the Kasarani sports stadium, which was converted into a detention facility in April 9, 2014 after police crackdowns.

Stretched thin

In the face of multiple horrific attacks over recent years in Kenya, security forces are clearly stretched thin. Improving security forces’ ability to respond both lawfully and efficiently to protect communities most affected by attacks should be a central priority of Kenyan authorities. To date, rather than increase the quality and capacity of Kenya’s security forces, authorities have proposed amending laws to expand police powers, remove checks and balances, and weaken accountability mechanisms within the security sector. The government’s failure to implement long delayed security sector reforms has also been a lost opportunity to improve the protection of human rights and the rule of law, as well as build confidence and necessary cooperation with affected communities. 

It is unclear whether there have been internal investigations into the government’s response into the attacks in Lamu and Tana River Counties in 2014, beyond the IPOA investigation. The Kenyan government and its international partners promised to support a credible investigation into the security force operations in Lamu and Tana River counties described in this report with the view to ending abuses by security forces and holding abusive officials to account. Its failure, so far, to investigate and ensure accountability for security force abuses only serves to alienate affected communities and, potentially, increase the risk of radicalisation and recruitment by militant groups operating in the region. 

Al-Shabaab’s April 2, 2015 attack on Garissa University College, in which at least 147 people, including 142 students, were killed, and the very real prospect of future attacks, make addressing the types of abuses documented in the HRW report all the more pressing. Kenyan authorities should urgently implement necessary reforms and ensure the response to the security crisis respects Kenya’s human rights obligations, is founded on the rule of law and genuinely protects the public from further violence. 

Changing tide

Kenya has long faced incidents of insecurity, but the number and scale of incidents have increased since October 2011, when Kenya deployed forces to Somalia in response to increased kidnappings, gun and grenade attacks at the coast, in the northeast and Nairobi. The Kenyan government labelled Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based armed Islamist group, “the enemy,” and vowed to set up a “buffer zone” north of its border with Somalia to stop the attacks. 

Al-Shabaab swore to resist the Kenyan deployment and take the war to Kenya. Although the identity of perpetrators remains unclear in some cases, Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for most of the large-scale attacks since 2011. 

According to media reports, there were at least 133 grenade and gun attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa, and Garissa between 2011 and 2014. Kenyan police said that 173 people were killed in attacks in 2014 alone. In September 2013, gunmen attacked the affluent Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and injuring hundreds. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for that attack. There were also a series of grenade and gun attacks at the coast, in Nairobi and in the northeast throughout 2014 and early 2015. These include the attacks on villagers and shopping centres in Lamu and Tana River in June and July 2014, two attacks in which at least 64 teachers and mine workers in Mandera county in the northeast were killed on November 24 and December 1, 2014, and the April 2, 2015 attack on Garissa University College in which at least 147 people were killed. 

The public response to these attacks has varied, with some Kenyans calling on the government to withdraw Kenyan forces from Somalia and concentrate on improving internal security. Others support the position of Kenyan officials and the ruling Jubilee Alliance Party, who insist that Kenya will only leave Somalia once Al-Shabaab has been defeated.

Officers neglected 

Neither are security officers tasked with neutralizing terrorist threats facilitated or protected.

In 2017 officers conducting the multi-agency security operation in Lama’s Bony Forest complained over unpaid hardship allowances.

The operation, conducted by various security agencies including the Kenya Defence Forces and various units of the National Police Service, sought to flush out Al-Shabaab militants said to be hiding inside the dense forest.

In an interview with the Nation, the officers accused the national government of failing to pay them hardship allowances and not providing them with enough facilitation. Among others, they had not received their hardship allowances for the past six months which accumulates to Sh189,000 per officer.

“We have been abandoned here. We have not been paid a single penny as hardship allowance since we set foot in this place. We have been undergoing a rough time since we joined the mission,” lamented one of the more than 3,000 officers taking part in the mission.

Those interviewed said they were having a difficult time operating in the area, something that they said is also contributing to their suffering both mentally and emotionally. Whereas government reportedly purchased more than 25 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), the officers had been left to get around on foot or using unarmoured Landcruiser pickup trucks or lorries.

In the recent past, dozens of security officers and civilians have been attacked by the militants in various parts of the country, including Lamu, Garissa, West Pokot and Turkana.

Somali and Ethiopian nationals arrested as part of a crackdown on terrorism by Kenyan national security officers sit at the back of a police truck as they are driven away from a centre on April 17, 2014, in Nairobi, following a process of vetting of the validity of their stay in Kenya. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said today it was “disturbed by reports of harassment and other abuses” in a Kenyan counter-terrorism operation targeting Somalis that has seen thousands arrested and scores expelled. Kenyan authorities launched the mass round-ups earlier this month, saying they needed to weed out sympathisers of Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels following a string of militant attacks. AFP PHOTO / TONY KARUMBA

Delayed security sector reforms

Kenya’s heavy handed response to insecurity in a variety of contexts points to wider problems within the security sector, including lack of accountability and weak investigative capacity – issues that have been repeatedly identified by various official inquiries. The Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence of 2008, created to investigate the violence that followed the disputed 2007 elections, and the Report of the National Task Force on Police Reforms of 2009, created by then-President Mwai Kibaki to provide a way forward for police reforms, recommended comprehensive police reforms to address these and other challenges.

The 2010 Constitution lays out the roadmap and timelines for police reforms. Some of the reforms have been implemented since 2011, including the enactment of various security sector laws and competitive recruitment of top police officers outlined under the new laws. The process of vetting police officers at all levels by the National Police Service Commission started in 2012, amid concerns from human rights organizations about protracted delays, lack of transparency and failure to engage the public in the process as required under the National Police Service Act.

However, overall security reforms have lagged under the administration of President Kenyatta. The government has repeatedly tried to amend security sector laws to expand police powers to use firearms, remove checks and balances, weaken accountability mechanisms and increase executive control over the security agencies. Recommendations of the recently created statutory bodies such as IPOA to ensure accountability for security forces abuses are largely being ignored by the authorities.

In December 2014, President Kenyatta’s administration introduced problematic amendments to various statutes, including the National Police Service Act, the National Police Commission Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Penal Code, and the Refugees Act, among others, arguing that the amendments were necessary to bolster the government’s fight against “terrorism.”

The amendments increased executive control over the police and eliminated requirements of accountability for security agencies, seeking to abrogate the rights of accused persons. The High Court struck down some clauses of the contentious amendments after human rights organisations successfully appealed against the retention of those clauses in the Act.  (

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