‘If we don’t kill these people they will kill you’: policing Africa’s largest slum | Global development



At a meeting between police and community members in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where crime is acutely high and mainly unreported, the two sides try to find common ground.

There are courteous introductions and then an appeal for openness – and information – to help the police tackle Kibera’s crime problems.

It’s a frank exchange of words, with the audience seeking confirmation of their rights when they come into contact with police. They remind the officers of the overriding principle of Kenyan law: an individual is innocent until proven guilty, not the reverse.

A young man asks why officers take bribes and extort money from the community. “That is corruption,” responds Insp Nick Sulwe of Kibera’s administration police, firmly. “To eliminate it you must comply with the law.”

More than 60% of all African city dwellers live in slums. As the climate crisis continues to drive people away from rural areas and into cities, urbanisation has become a growing issue across the globe. 

The Guardian’s Global development team travelled to  Africa’s biggest slum, Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya, in an effort to look beyond the stereotypes and myths of life in a slum.

Many people living in Kibera work hard, long days. They pay high rents for flimsy shacks on land owned by the government and effectively squatted on by landlords. They have no services and the only taxation comes in the form of protection money demanded by police and gangs. Each day is a struggle to scrape together enough money and food to reach the next.

Electricity, clean water, toilets, healthcare and schools are either non-existent or not available to all residents. At any one time, 50% of Kibera’s 15- to 25-year-old women are pregnant. Abortion is illegal and contraception scarce. Rape and child sex abuse is endemic. Abuse of drink and drugs is rife. Food is cheap but unhealthy – fizzy drinks are easier to get than clean water.

“If you’re arrested, you will more than likely pay not to be arrested.”

Another person wants to know why officers hire out their guns to gangs, perpetuating crime against their community. “That’s misconduct, such people are not fit to be policemen,” Sulwe says. “The government is doing its best to eliminate the problem.”

The people here want more. They want answers about the number of police killings, or “extrajudicial executions” as they are known locally. Sulwe provides an explanation that goes to the heart of such shootings: disillusionment. “If you tell me someone is a thief, they rob and rape women, and you ask me to arrest him – but with no evidence – the judge will ask for evidence. If there is no evidence, he is released and comes back to commit more crime.”

Woman challenges Inspector Nick Sulwe of the Kenyan police service on police killings and says “you’re just killing us”

‘You’re just killing us’. A meeting between community members and police leads to a frank exchange. Photograph: Rod Austin/The Guardian

A young woman refers to the case of Carliton Maina, a 23-year-old allegedly shot dead by police months earlier. She wants the inspector to explain why suspects were not simply taken into custody. “You are just killing us,” she tells him.

Maina was a football-loving student who had studied at Leeds University. In December 2018 he was heading home in the early hours, having watched a football match with friends in Kibera. An encounter with police resulted in a chase. Maina suffered four gunshot wounds to the chest and one to the head. Authorities say he was “part of a gang terrorising local residents” something strongly refuted by those who knew him.

“When police officers raid a place … trust me, they are not wrong,” responds Sulwe. “There’s something there, there are criminals there. And normally when we come, they open fire. Are we supposed to run away? No, we don’t run away. We fire back. Trust me, if we don’t kill these people, they will kill you.”

A police station in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya

A police station in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya Photograph: Rod Austin/The Guardian

He is then challenged over the lack of protection for witnesses and those who provide information. Why are such people at risk, not only from suspects, but from corrupt officers working hand-in-hand with criminal gangs? The perception of the audience is clear. Despite a number of high-profile convictions, they believe police fail to protect them and commit crimes against them with impunity.

Kenya’s government claims to be making an effort to weed out rogue officers and bring them to justice. Figures relating to the number of killings in 2018 vary significantly. One organisation puts the figure at 121, another at 267 – which would mark a significant increase on the previous year, when there were an estimated 152.

Data collectors monitor police statistics, news and social media reports, but struggle to obtain accurate information about incidents in Kenya’s 10 slums. Many killings go unreported or the deceased are buried by relatives who say nothing for fear of reprisal.

– Estimates of how many people live in Kibera range from 250,000 to 1 million.

– Life expectancy is 30 years.

– The biggest killers come from diet and dirt. Diabetes is rife from cheap, high-sugar food.

– One in four children attends school.

– One toilet block serves approximately 50 shacks, with each shack housing roughly eight people.

Kibera’s residents are not alone. In Pangani in north-east Nairobi, host to a largely Somali community, residents voice similar concerns. There, specialist police units like “Pangani-6”, led by Cpl Ahmed Rachid, have reportedly been involved in alleged unlawful killings.

Rachid openly admits that his mandate is to rid the streets of gangsters and criminals. “Those we profile, we have to get them alive or dead,” he told a television crew after he was captured on film shooting an apparently handcuffed, unarmed suspect. That was in 2017; it appears that in 2019 little has changed.

Maina’s case and a host of others raise fundamental questions about the conduct of Kenya’s police service. Has the government given certain officers an undisclosed mandate to kill suspects rather than bringing them before the courts? Is the government simply struggling to maintain police discipline? Or is the state simply turning a blind eye to the actions of certain officers in order to focus instead on gang crime and public disorder?

It has been alleged that some armed officers have openly engaged in robberies, there have been interventions in order to free corrupt officers from detention, and, in one case, a previously maimed suspect was kidnapped from hospital, and their body discovered days later with gunshot wounds.

The Kenyan government has to come up with a solution that fits the depth and gravity of the problem. Human rights watchers are still awaiting Kenya’s director of public prosecutions Noordin Haji to make a decision over whether or not the officer implicated in the shooting of Maina will be charged.

The problem is complex,” says Ir?ng? Houghton, Head of Amnesty International in Kenya. “Most officers work within the law. However, it appears that a few have given up on the judicial system, arguing that arresting suspects for serious crime is futile as many are found not guilty and the prisons are full. They take matters into their own hands. Others are simply corrupt, committing crime themselves. These factors fuel extrajudicial killings.”

Kenya’s 60,000-strong police service is plagued with allegations of unlawful killings, corruption and other misconduct. As of March 2018, the country’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority were monitoring 9,878 outstanding complaints against police, of which 5,085 were earmarked for detailed investigation.

There are approximately 2.5 million slum dwellers in Nairobi, representing two thirds of the capital’s population. The largest is Kibera. . Poverty and wrongdoing are apparent on a grand scale. Daylight protects communities from gang activity but allegedly allows some officers to extort money from shopkeepers already struggling to make a living. By night, residents face the savagery of gangs who rob, rape and extort, undeterred by police who tread carefully to avoid confrontation, remaining on the slum’s outskirts and entering only when absolutely necessary – and then only in sufficient numbers to stave off an ambush from gangs and resentful locals.

To add to Kibera’s violence, every four years political violence pollutes the slum as electioneering politicians bid for popularity. Residents allegethe use of criminal gangs to sway voters, creating mayhem and turning Kibera into a tinderbox that sparks conflict in regions of Kenya.

A protester brandishing a machete and a knife prepares to take cover from incoming tear gas canisters during clashes with police forces in Kibera, Nairobi, on October 26, 2017.

Elections often result in confrontations between residents and police. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

It takes little to trigger angry confrontations between stone-throwing mobs and police, who retaliate with tear gas and automatic gunfire.

“During election time, politicians comes into slums like Kibera, they put Kikuyu against Luyha, Nubians versus Luo, encouraging violence,” says Kennedy Odede, founder of Kibera-based charity Shofco. “Politically people are used to kill each other. They come here and leave you killing your brother with pangas (machetes) whilst they go and drink champagne in the Serena Hotel. When Kibera cries, the whole of Kenya cries. People are used to kill each other.”

In 2007, post-election violence claimed more than 1,000 lives across Kenya. In August 2017, 24 people died following the presidential vote, including a six-month old baby who died after reportedly being struck numerous times by a baton when officers entered a home “looking for protesters”, discharging tear gas and beating the occupants. Earlier this year, an inquest ruled that 36 officers should be held liable for the death.

In 2017, Kenya’s police force recorded just 77,992 crimes. In 2018, there were 88,268 recorded crimes, a 13% increase across a population of 52 million.

In Kibera, few crimes are reported or registered. Instead, police admitted, officers maintain a “black book” of offenders. We were told that once your name finds its way into this book it is difficult to have it removed.

Insp Nick Sulwe leads officers on patrol in Kibera, May 2019. He warns that any incident could trigger an attack from residents or armed gangs.

Insp Nick Sulwe leads officers on patrol in Kibera, May 2019. Photograph: The Guardian

“If we find that someone is committing burglary we go and see their parents and give them a warning. If the person does not respond, then when we catch up with them we act,” said Sulwe, who would not be drawn into explaining what “act” meant.

“Once your name is in the book it is likely that you will be killed by the police unless you can pay to have it removed,” said one person who did not want to be named. “If not, they hunt you, kill you, and plant a fake gun on your body to say you were carrying a weapon. Then they say that you were terrorising the community, or were about to commit crime.”

Arrangements were made to interview the superintendent in charge of policing Kibera. He agreed, and then later declined unless we offered payment.

The exact number of killings and enforced disappearances across Kenya is not known. Independent monitors suggest that between 2013 and 2017, at least 765 people have been unlawfully killed by police. It is alleged that 572 people have been “summarily executed” in circumstances similar to those surrounding the death of Maina.

According to Democracy in Africa, victims were mainly men aged 18–24, killed “on their way to commit a crime”. Most cases were reported by the victim’s mother or wife, rather than by police.

Sulwe and his officers make an effort to interact with Kibera’s residents. The ex-teacher attends community meetings and is optimistic that police and residents can work together to resolve local disputes and reduce crime.

He hopes that meaningful dialogue will reduce deaths on both sides. He says officers have been killed for no apparent reason other than doing their job. But he is realistic. The community needs to trust their police service and officers of all ranks must abide by the law.

“All Kenyans, not just the rich, have the right to be safe from unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment,” says Houghton. “The vicious cycle of violent crime and brutal policing can and must be broken. It requires deeper community policing strategies with youth organisations. We will continue to hold commanding officers responsible for those who report to them, as well as [demanding] closer oversight by parliamentary bodies and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority.”

In a written response, a spokesperson for Kenya’s police force said there are no policies, orders or directives to support unlawful killings.

Parliament has oversight of the police through parliamentary committees. Kenya’s constitution enshrines human rights, and an independent police oversight authority has been established. Kenya plays a leading role in international initiatives to uphold the rule of law across Africa.

“In cases where the cause of death is not outrightly clear, an inquest is held by a magistrate to establish the cause of death. Any person found culpable is charged in accordance to the law,” the spokesperson stated.

“We strive for the highest standards of professionalism and discipline amongst officers, who are expected to operate in accordance to the rule of law. Officers found flouting the law are prosecuted like any other citizens without any special considerations.

“Unfounded utterances against the police not only dents a good image but has the potential to discourage would-be investors and visitors to our country.”