The brutal and bloody daylight murder of two Kenyan human rights activists has thrown the country into turmoil, revealing the rot at the heart of the police and divisions at the center of government.
Last week a top United Nations expert on state-sponsored murders described the Kenyan police as “a law unto themselves”. Philip Alston, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, said: “They kill often, with impunity,” and accused the police of running death squads.
Friday the police force was accused of being behind this latest double murder.
“The human rights community in Kenya holds the government fully and wholly responsible for the assassinations,” said Cyprian Nyamwamu of the Kenya Human Rights Consortium.
A spokesperson for the police denied any involvement. However, Prime Minister Raila Odinga issued a statement that implicitly pointed a finger at the police, saying, “I fear we are flirting with lawlessness in the name of keeping law and order. In the process, we are hurtling towards failure as a state.”
Oscar Kamau Kingara and his colleague John Paul Oulu were moving slowly in thick late afternoon traffic in the capital Nairobi when, eyewitnesses say, three men in dark suits carrying pistols leapt out of two cars that blocked their white Mercedes front and back.
The two activists, outspoken critics of the government and the police, were shot repeatedly at point blank range. Kingara died behind the wheel of his car. Oulu was mortally wounded and died later in hospital.
The gangland-style assassination was watched by nearby students milling around outside a University of Nairobi dormitory. Kingara and Oulu — a recent graduate of the university — were well known to the students who were incensed and immediately blamed the government for the murders.
When the angry students refused to give up Kingara’s body — “Without the body there is no evidence,” explained one — a battle ensued between stone-throwing students and police armed with tear gas and guns.
After an hours-long sporadically violent standoff the police finally recovered Kingara’s body but they left behind them another, that of a student shot and killed during the rioting.
His blood lay fresh on the ground at the entrance to the university dormitories compound. Nearby, the shot-up Mercedes was jammed against a wall where the students had pushed it in a bid to keep car and corpse from the police they blamed for the murders. A
bloody trail led to the stairwell where the students had hidden Kingara’s bullet-riddled body.
The students, none of whom wanted to be named for fear of reprisals, are not alone in blaming the police. Ben Rawlence, Kenya researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: “When police are suspects in the murder of human rights activists and when they respond to
protests with lethal force, major changes are needed. It is clear the police are utterly compromised.”
The attack came just hours after a government spokesperson, Alfred Mutua, accused Kingara of helping an outlawed criminal group called the Mungiki. Kingara’s Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic had repeatedly criticized the police for its brutal crackdown on the Mungiki, a Kikuyu tribal gang itself responsible for many murders including beheadings.
His evidence played a key role in last week’s damning report by the U.N. investigator Alston, who has called for an independent inquiry into Thursday’s double-murder. “It is imperative, if the Kenyan police are to be exonerated, for an independent team to be called [in to investigate],” he said.
The assassinations have also torn at the seams of Kenya’s so-called Grand Coalition Government which has just marked its first birthday. Prime Minister Odinga distanced himself from spokesperson Mutua’s comments that preceded Kingara’s death. Odinga condemned the killings.
The divisions between the prime minister and President Mwai Kibaki since a violently disputed election in late 2007 have not been reconciled. As one observer put it, “There is no government in Kenya, there are two, and they’re not talking to each other.”
Rivalries and bad blood between Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) and Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) have stymied all government business and allowed corruption to thrive.
More than 1,500 people are thought to have died in the 2007-08 post-election violence yet nobody has been brought to justice. The recommendations of the so-called Waki Commission, established to investigate that violence, have been assiduously ignored by Kenya’s
government. All signs point to Alston’s report meeting with the same fate.
It is an unthinkably high price to pay but Kingara’s death — as well as his colleague and the student — may prove harder to ignore than the reports.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Kenya:
Democracy wins in Ghana
Obama has many opportunities in Africa