Kenya Election Violence and the Police Response

Published on 22 August 2017

The recent elections in Kenya raised tensions both nationally and internationally with many fearing a repeat of the violence seen in the 2007/8 elections, which claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people and left more than 600,000 displaced from their homes. Despite a predominantly peaceful electoral process in 2013, many still feared the occurrence of violence this time round. As a Kenyan economist commented: “We are hung up with 2007 and 2008, which were very specific circumstances.”

Police warnings

As with previous elections, the country came to a standstill with most businesses remaining closed and people staying indoors for the better part of the election week. Some residents of cosmopolitan areas such as Nairobi also opted to leave for rural areas perceived to safer for their ethnic homogeneity. Others who could afford it left the country as they awaited the election outcome.

In efforts to deter violence, voters were urged to go home immediately after casting their vote and politicians warned against instigating violence. The police also warned that more than 150,000 state agents would be deployed for purposes of ensuring electoral security.

Flawed primaries and a violent outbreak

Even before the polling day, the police got to showcase their tough standpoint when they responded to a surge of violence that erupted during the political party primaries in April 2017. The violence followed logistical challenges in the management of the primaries, as well as accusations of election malpractice and reportedly resulted in the death of two people nationwide.

As perhaps demonstrated by the flawed party primaries, the unprecedented number of political aspirants in 2017 also increased the potential for violence as the extra competition could naturally result in more conflict. Ethnic mobilisation – a key feature of past Kenyan elections – also elicited fear of election-related violence. To compound this threat, the use of social media and digital technologies for posting hateful and incendiary comments  and the circulation of fake news were also seen as possible contributing factors to a violent outcome and instilled fear among already-tense voters.

Polling day

When the 8th August polling day arrived it was largely calm and peaceful except for some challenges at a few polling stations that were easily resolved and hardly required the intervention of security forces. However, a strong police presence was felt, especially in informal settlements and areas marked as violence hotspots.

The tallying and transmission of the election results began immediately after voting. The following day, the provisional tally of presidential results indicated the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, leading with a sizeable percentage of 54% over National Super Alliance (NASA) leader, Raila Odinga’s 45%. NASA leaders then released statements claiming to have proof that the elections transmission was rigged.

Anticipating the official declaration of Kenyatta as the successful candidate on 11th August, Odinga had earlier that day refused to be party to the declaration of election results. Amid celebrations after declaration of Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto as the successful candidates, demonstrations broke out in areas considered to be opposition strongholds including some parts of Nairobi, Kisumu, Migori, and Siaya counties among others.

Accusations of excessive force used by security forces

The demonstrations were met by a vicious crackdown by security forces. Heavy gunfire was heard in some of the places where protests took place including Mathare, Lucky Summer and Kibera slums in Nairobi and Kondele slum in Kisumu.  According to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), 24 people, including women and children, were killed by the police as a result of this process. The police were accused of using excessive force in response to the demonstrations, including through the firing of live ammunition at protesters. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials requires law enforcement officers to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. The police in Kenya are yet to justify their use of live ammunition when dealing with protestors.

Investigations needed

The Nairobi County Police Commander, however, maintains that the force used was proportionate to the force used by protesters. Mr. Japheth Koome argued that officers only shot in response to criminals who opened fire against the police officers first. The official position was that the officers acted within the law and that the force used was necessary to protect life and property of the Kenyan people. Moreover, the Inspector General of Police maintains that allegations of police killings by opposition politicians and KNCHR are false.

At this point, there ought to be an investigation into the allegations made against the police. The Independent Policing and Oversight Authority (IPOA) should launch a nationwide investigation of the process and report on the alleged misconduct of the police. This should follow a transparent process so as to assure the public that the investigation was conducted independently. The state also ought to publicly speak against police brutality. This is important in order to guarantee equal protection for all, including protestors and to dispel claims of the state machinery disproportionately attacking opposition supporters.

The people should also not be denied their constitutionally guaranteed right to Freedom of Assembly that allows them to have peaceful demonstrations. Citizens should be encouraged to report matters of human rights violations to human rights bodies such as KNCHR and IPOA for investigations through the toll-free lines available. Police should also refrain from violating the rights of the protestors unless deemed genuinely necessary for the protection of life and property. Force used must also be non-lethal i.e. not use firearms unless the gravity of the situation makes such non-lethal use of force unavoidable and less extreme means would prove insufficient.

The role of police and politicians in future elections

The conduct of the police in these elections shows that violence can be reduced if demonstrations are well managed. This places an onus not only on police but also on protestors and politicians. While police should receive better training on managing riots, protestors also need to ensure that they act peacefully within the limits of their right to freedom of assembly. Improved conduct by both police and public would reduce the police-civilian strain and encourage opportunities for better relations, including through community policing, which would serve to reduce crime and violence during elections.

Politicians themselves also have an important role to play – especially in the age of social media – and should publicly shun violence from their supporters and refrain from making false or incendiary statements on social media. Politicians should lead by example in efforts to reduce tension from all sides.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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