The Return of the Gulag – Alex Ndungu Njeru

A week ago something peculiar happened that escaped the eye of the global media and was relegated into ‘by the way news section by local media.’ The killing of a 14 year old girl; Kwekwe Mandaza in Mwawewu in Kwale county by police. This did not quite have the ‘CNN effect’ that I expected it would have, first because; a) this was not the shooting of a young black man by a white cop in Ferguson Missouri and b) Kenyans have been so normalized to police brutality and impunity that there was a general lack of outcry of the Kwekwe’s shooting.  Even if Kenyans were not incensed by the killing itself, which is queer in the first place, I expected them to get angered by the official police statement that seemed unintelligible and foolish. According to the police, they shot the Kwekwe after she attempted to slash them up with a machete. How appropriate? A group of eight police, armed with guns could not handle a 14 year old with a machete? Clearly this were ‘trigger go happy’ officers out on a shooting spree, they were out decimate anything on their path.

This is bizarre; police have been known to shoot dead alleged robbers in broad daylight, but not teenage girls. Even more bizarre was the statement by the inspector general of police, to him this was an occurrence of normal happenstance that could be wished and shooed away by a clever press statement.

If the killing of a 14 year old by police in Kenya does not shock you, then nothing probably will, not even  the Gulag that was perpetrated by the security apparatus in the security operation dubbed ‘Operation Usalama Watch’ to members of the Somali communities and other immigrants in Eastleigh Nairobi. Over 3,000 were detained without trial, hundreds forcefully encamped to refugee camps, during the operation and almost without fail the detainees were either Kenyans of Somali origin or Somali refugees living in Kenya.

The detention without trial and gross human rights misconduct by the police and other security apparatuses in Kenya beckon for the memory of the most conspicuous Gulag in Kenyan history, the Gulag the British government perpetrated against members of the Kikuyu community in Kenya’s struggle for independence. In her book ‘Britain’s Gulag’ Sarah Elderkin, profiles the despicable acts that the colonial administration meted on the natives, mostly drawn from the Kikuyu community. According to official reports, the number of Mau Mau and other rebels killed was 11,000, including 1,090 convicts hanged by the British administration. The unofficial figures portray a different picture, the natives were rounded down and pinned into concentration camps, where; lice, jiggers and sanitation inflicted suffering, and there was hunger and pestilence elsewhere.

Sadly, as surreal as it looks the Gulag is back, not by the colonist Britons on the natives this time, but by the independent Kenyan government on sections of its own population. The ethnic profiling that was seen during the ‘Operation Usalama Watch’ has all the hallmarks of Britain’s Gulag. According to a report by the Independent Oversight Police Authority (IPOA), the detention facilities where Usalama Watch detainees were held by the Kenyan government were squalid and overcrowded, basic amenities such as water were lacking.

A much more ‘up-close to the victims’ report is offered by Amnesty international. The report details the; impunity, callousness and corruption that was characteristic of the Usalama Watch operation. Take the story of Hawo in the report, “a widowed mother of six, had remained in her house for weeks fearing arrest. On 12 May, she went to collect some documents from a local organization. As the taxi neared her destination she was stopped by the police who demanded documentation. She showed her valid refugee certificate. She told her family that the police demanded she pay them 50,000ksh ($600). She begged them not to take money from her but they told her she should go back to Somalia or to the camps, and detained her. On 18 May she was forcibly relocated to the Dadaab refugee camps, leaving her six children in Nairobi.”

The report also details the unfortunate events with regards to Congolese refugees, “On Sunday 4 May, 158 Congolese refugees were rounded up and arrested during a church service. They were taken to Kasarani stadium for screening, and later taken to Kasarani police station where they spent the night. On 7 May, the Congolese refugees protested in Kasarani Stadium after they were informed that they would be forcibly relocated to the Dadaab refugee camp. The police quelled the protest by using teargas and physical violence, wounding some of the protestors.” This was a gross violation of the Kenyan constitution because under the Kenyan constitution and international law, all people – including refugees and asylum-seekers are entitled to protection from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Then what? Why has police brutality, corruption, impunity and extra-judicial murders been tolerated for so long in an allegedly free country? Why? The truth is Kenyans have allowed the culture of impunity to deeply entrench itself in Kenyan society. It is the little small things that Kenyan police are allowed to get away with that seemingly create that belief that the police are the law itself. That slapping of a woman by police in Nairobi, that detention without bail, that little bribe you give the police man is the one that perpetuates the culture of impunity in the police. That voice you do not make for the poor and defenseless will come to haunt you, tomorrow you could be poor and defenseless, wishing that there are enough virtuous men who could stand for you and you rights. Today make a choice be virtuous, stand up for the rights of the defenseless, do not sit and watch the institution of police erode, do not feed the dragon that will

Alex Ndungu Njeru writes in from Kenya

Photo: New York Times