Escalating State Repression and Covid-19: Their Impact on the Poor in Kenya

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Soon after Kenya experienced its first Covid-19 case on 13 March 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta invoked the Public Order Act to activate a series of tough measures, including wearing face masks at all times, the closure of schools and all ‘non-essential’ businesses, and a dusk till dawn curfew. Reports of police brutalities quickly followed. Even before the start of the curfew on 27 March, police in downtown Nairobi reportedly whipped and kicked people on the street, and in Embakasi, forced people walking home from work to kneel before them.

In the port city of Mombasa, police teargassed crowds trying to board a ferry home from work, beating them with batons and gun butts, kicking and slapping them, forcing them to huddle together and to lie on top of each other. In Kakamega county, around 1 April, Idris Mukolwe, a tomato seller, was hit by a teargas-cannister police threw at him. It exploded in his face and as he started suffocating, they laughed at him before he died. In the first 10 days, police killed at least six people in Kenya, according to Human Rights Watch (22 April 2020).

Various voices attested to the scale of the killings over the first weeks of the Covid crackdown. The Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA), an underfunded civilian organisation, had received more than 95 complaints of police brutality and had confirmed 30 deaths. Missing Voices KE, a consortium of rights groups, had recorded 17 people killed. The Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) had documented the deaths of 10 people in Mathare alone, a poor district of Nairobi: this number involved both extrajudicial executions, and the fate of Christine Aoko who, trying to evade the police curfew, had slipped down a cliff into the Mathare River and drowned. For “Stoneface”, an artist born and raised in Mathare, her death was in no sense accidental. ‘The topography of Mathare is defined [in part] by four police stations—one in each cardinal direction, connected by barracks no more than three kilometres apart’. For residents ‘these stations are familiar, feared portals from which armed officers emerge and into which young men often disappear.’ Purposeful and long enduring killings were taking place. MSJC’s report of 2017 (‘Who Is Next?’) tallied ‘systematic extra judicial killings’ of 804 people in Nairobi’s informal settlements 2013-2015. The victims were mostly young men, abducted or detained by police, shot at close range, sometimes in front of family members or neighbours. These findings were similar to those of Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur in 2009 on flagrant, institutionalised state killings, reported on by the present writer in these pages 3 January 2018, and by April Zhu, ‘Turning a Covid-19 Crisis Into a Human Rights Emergency’, New York Review (22 July 2020).

Rachel Wanjiku, 25, told reporters that she “knew about the police”: her boyfriend, Alex, age 19, was shot by them on the same night when she was in hospital giving birth to their child. Wanjiku was now with 200 others in Mathare in June protesting against police brutality. In Mathare, this was “a poor people’s struggle. Poor people are [being treated as] criminals”. Sobukwe Nonkwe, 30, a filmmaker, said “the police have killed us more than Corona”. At the start of June, IPOA announced that at least 15 people had been killed by police and 31 injured in the two months since the curfew was imposed. For writer, Patrick Gathara, “the brutality is just a function of how the state sees and deals with its subjects…not as citizens with rights but rather subjects with obligations.” Mathare’s marchers stopped at places where people had been killed, and finished at the apartment block of 13-year-old Yasin Moyo, shot when playing on his balcony after curfew in March. Police used teargas to disperse the marchers (reported by Amanda Sperber, Guardian Online, 9 June 2020).

Enhancing State Repression

Through settler colonialism, the Mau Mau poor-peasant rebellion of the 1950s, and successive independent governments since 1963, wealthy landed classes have used force to gain and maintain power. In the Kisumu Massacre in 1965, police fired into the crowd protesting against the visit of President Jomo Kenyatta, killing some eleven people and injuring hundreds. His successor, Daniel arap Moi, went further, using police as the tool of repression and assassination, and the detention and torture of opponents and dissidents. The police and paramilitaries are known today as one of Kenya’s most corrupt institutions: at all levels of its organisation, it is reviled for nepotism, tribalism and abuse. People who refuse to pay bribes may be brutalised, maimed or killed. The IPOA is overwhelmed by the number of complaints flooding into it: reportedly some 9, 200, on which it has secured convictions for ‘fewer than 10 cases’ (Douglas Lucas Kivoi, The Conversation (Johannesburg) 5 June 2020.

And the poor still protest. On 7 July, hundreds of demonstrators, mostly from such poor districts as Mathare, Dandora and Kiamike, voiced their anger against police brutality and the lack of basic public services. They also commemorated Saba Saba, seven seven, the 7 July 1990 protests, when ‘hundreds of others were arrested and dozens killed’ in nation-wide opposition to dictatorship (Rael Ombuor, Voice of America, 8 July 2020).

The continuities with the past are both close and complex. At independence, according to Tom Tebesi Anyamba, professor of architecture at the University of Nairobi, segregation in the capital was not dismantled, but rather “enhanced” along class lines instead of racial lines. From the 1970s and through the 1990s, “informalisation”, or the development of urban slums, ‘actually increased’, reinforcing the ‘exclusion of the city’s poor majority’. As the city expanded and refashioned itself into an outward-looking international hub, its “anti-city” followed. Nairobi always grows ‘in two directions at once’: every affluent district has ‘an equal and opposite slum’.

Despite being one of the city’s oldest settlements, from its time as a quarry, Mathare does not receive public water and lacks a systematic water grid. Water must be purchased by the poor at prices perhaps twenty times higher than the rate for city water. Across the bisecting highway from Mathare is the rich neighbourhood of Muthaiga, with its lush diplomatic residences, a long-established country club and golf course.

For Mathare and for “Stoneface” specifically this bifurcation constitutes a dense web of “ecological injustice”: cholera, the absence of schooling and sanitation, joblessness, housefires, teargas, the creation of hopelessness. This is also part of what defines Mathare.

And because the state has not invested in infrastructure for Mathare, the governance strategy of “neglect and force” exists, in the words of urban ethnographer, Wangui Kimari. The continuities appear clear. Kenya’s police force ‘can trace a direct lineage’ back to its colonial forerunner, the paramilitary Administration Police established in 1958, the final year of the State of Emergency out of which President Jomo Kenyatta emerged victorious. (Mau Mau’s Nairobi headquarters was in Mathare, Zhu says).

The Public Order Act is a pillar of colonialism and repression. Created in 1958, it criminalised vague infractions like ‘loitering and vagrancy’, and licensed police to widen the net of their roundups. The Act empowered the first two authoritarian presidents, Jomo Kenyatta and arap Moi, and it remained intact through reform attempts in the 1990s.

This is what Uhuru Kenyatta invoked on 13 March 2020, to combat the Covid-19 emergency. Brutality existed, but the Act facilitated and enhanced “policing by terror” (April Zhu, 22 July 2020).