Kenyan police divided over crackdown
Source: Associated Press
NAIROBI, Kenya – The police commander poured gasoline down the walls of three slum shacks and set them alight. At each home, his officers waited until his back was turned, then doused the flames.
The small rebellion is symptomatic of rifts within Kenya‘s police force over harsh tactics ordered to suppress opposition protests, some officers say — a new fracture in ethnic and political conflicts tearing at the country since a disputed presidential election
Several police officers sought out The Associated Press to express concern over the tough measures they have been ordered to use against opposition supporters protesting what they say was President Mwai Kibaki‘s theft of the Dec. 27 ballot.
“People are separating into tribes,” said one Muslim policeman in Nairobi, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. “What is outside is being reflected in the force.”
Human rights groups say more than 650 people have died in an election dispute that has sparked three overlapping conflicts — between ruling party loyalists and the opposition, between ethnic groups with long-held land grievances or connections to rival politicians, and between police and the residents of Nairobi’s restive shantytowns.
Clashes have been particularly severe between Kibaki’s Kikuyu people, the largest ethnic group, and the Luo of opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga.
But rights groups say many deaths have been caused by police, who have fired tear gas and live rounds at protesters.
Several police officers said they had been given “shoot-to-kill” orders, and one described “a general rebellion which has been compounded by that kind of orders.”
Two officers involved in a raid on a Nairobi slum said they had refused to shoot to kill and fired their guns into the air instead.
Officers said some policemen had threatened colleagues with fisticuffs and even death in disputes over tactics. All the officers spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The divisions further weaken a force already undermined by low pay — a recruit’s monthly salary is $154 and a mid-ranking officer makes $240 — and a reputation for corruption.
One officer said tensions are so high there could be a police strike.
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe denied there are any splits within the force and charged that officers may have been bribed by the opposition to fabricate testimony.
“There are no divisions in the police force as of now,” he said.
Kiraithe also said no commander had issued shoot-to-kill orders, insisting that officers are being told to use restraint.
Kenya‘s police initially denied killing any protesters, but last week acknowledged officers had been responsible for some deaths and put the number at 82. Rights activists said the number was much higher.
At a rally Monday attended by thousands in his hometown of Kisumu, the opposition leader Odinga raged against police violence, pointing to seven bodies that had been brought into the stadium.
“You can see how our bodies are lying there dead because they were killed by ruthless police,” Odinga said.
At least 53 people have been killed in Kisumu. Hospital records indicate 44 of them died from bullets. Guns have been used primarily, if not exclusively, by police in the upheaval since the election, while rioters have often used machetes and bows and arrows.
Kiraithe also denied police officers would deliberately destroy property.
“There are no circumstances whatsoever when a police officer can set fire to a building. It is false,” he said.
Two officers, however, said that is exactly what happened.
They said that last week, after a train was looted as it rolled through Nairobi‘s Kibera slum on the last of three days of opposition protests, they were given orders to enter homes there, beat any men they found and destroy property in the homes.
“Spare a woman and a child, but everything else was to be vandalized. Any man found in his house was to be dealt with — beaten up,” one of the officers said.
He and a second officer involved in the raid said their colleagues reluctantly searched houses but refused to beat people or destroy property, because many of the officers were Luo, the same ethnic group as the householders. They said the commander was from the Meru tribe, considered an ally of the Kikuyu.
On Friday, another police patrol in Kibera fired from a train, and six people died, including a 15-year-old girl.
Later Friday, the two officers said, they were told they would be returning to Kibera that night and a senior officer told them they were taking gasoline along. Houses would be burned to teach the slum dwellers a lesson, the two said.
In response, junior officers hid 15 cans of water in the three trucks that transported them, the two officers said. Some also tipped off relatives in the area about the raid, and the area was deserted when they arrived, the officers said.
The men said their senior officer set fire to shanties in three different locations and left a group to guard each. When he left, the officers doused the fires, the two said.
Two residents, Beatrice Michael and George Okumu, corroborated parts of the officers’ story. Michael said she passed three truckloads of police while taking her daughter to a hospital after she was hit by a stray bullet. Okumu said residents were tipped off their homes would be burned and left the area Friday night.
The two officers said objections to such harsh tactics had been intensified by the ethnic splits plaguing Kenya. Some Luo officers have been transferred from their usual patrol areas, they said.
An officer at the Criminal Investigation Department, where the two senior officers are both Kikuyu, said he knew of at least 10 non-Kikuyu officers who had been asked to give up their sidearms. No reason was given, he said.
“If they see two or three people (police) who are not Kikuyu discussing politics, they become suspicious,” the officer said.
Kiraithe, the police spokesman, said he was unaware of any such incidents.
The Muslim officer in Nairobi said he had been ready to fight some colleagues when they suggested tear-gassing Nairobi’s main mosque during a small demonstration Friday.
There was outrage when police in the coastal city of Mombasa fired tear gas outside the main mosque at unarmed protesters who were preparing to march after Friday prayers.
The officer said he threw away his tear gas without using it. He added that although most of those disobeying orders were non-Kikuyus, there were also some Kikuyu officers unhappy with the situation.
Many of his Muslim colleagues, he said, were concerned they could be transferred or fired because of the perception that Muslim communities support the opposition.
“There are people who say they are ready to join Raila’s force,” the Muslim officer said. “Senior officers are also divided … Some guys are saying, ‘Let me see anyone shooting a civilian, I will kill you.'”