Kenya’s police are key for peaceful vote on Monday

Tom Odula/ AP Writer

One of Kenya’s most vilified institutions — its police force — will be in the spotlight next week during its efforts to prevent the same type of post-election bloodbath that Kenya suffered during its last presidential election.

Kenya on Monday holds its first presidential vote since the 2007 election devolved into tribal violence that killed more than 1,000 people. At least 405 of those people were killed by police when citizens took to the streets to protest a flawed election because they did not trust the judiciary to fairly resolve problems. Kenya has since revamped its judiciary, and in December a new inspector general of police was appointed — David Kimaiyo.

Kimaiyo acknowledged, in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, that he has not had enough time to carry out all the needed police reforms ahead of the election. But he said the police are ready to tackle any election security challenges. One way to do that is to get people to leave polling areas after voting, he said.

“They should vote and go straight home and wait for results from the television and radios and celebrate the next day. We have noticed before the people waiting around the polling station cause problems when results are announced that they do not like,” Kimayo said.

Kimaiyo said his role as inspector general is to redeem the police force’s name. Kenya’s police force has long been accused of abuses. A United Nations expert, a government-funded human rights group and other rights groups accuse the police of extrajudicial killings. The groups have said the police ran death squads, which killed suspects they are unable to build cases against. The latest killings last year, attributed to the police, were the executions of five terrorism suspects.

The police have been ranked as Kenya’s most corrupt institution for more than a decade, according to the local chapter of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

A culture of shake-downs is endemic in the force, former police spokesman Eric Kiraithe admitted last year. This culture has made enforcement of traffic rules difficult because the public choses to give police bribes instead of paying hefty court fines.

But the police have not been given the resources to succeed. Police are under-equipped, poorly paid and live in deplorable conditions, a combination of factors which have led to low morale. The country’s emergency number — 999 — does not work because its telephone bills have not been paid.

And experts say the years of political interference have led to breakdown of professional standards. This was exposed in January when a man was arrested because he had pretended to be a senior police officer for at least five years and allegedly robbed residents.

Unlike previous police chiefs, the office of inspector general has been given autonomy that shields it against political interference. But for now the immediate challenge for Kimaiyo is to ensure peaceful elections.

A government report on what caused the post-election violence of 2007-2008 said that police were not only overwhelmed but were also seen to have taken sides of the dispute on who won the election between Raila Odinga, then the leading opposition figure, and President Mwai Kibaki.

The police have several election-related security threats to deal with this year. One is tribal violence, especially between the tribes of the two top presidential candidates. Other threats include the possibility of attacks by Somali militants and by a secessionist group on Kenya’s coast known as the Mombasa Republican Council.

Another threat is intimidation: Kimaiyo said leaflets are being circulated across the country warning people of consequences if they vote for certain candidates. Two people were killed on Thursday following fighting between ethnic Somali clans due to politics in Kenya’s north, he said.

Kimaiyo said enough manpower had been allocated to monitor and quash the threats; 99,000 police will be helping to secure the vote.

Kimaiyo has given orders that might appear to infringe on a person’s rights. No one will be allowed to hold public demonstrations for the election period, he said.

“We must realize that there will be another election … and life must continue as normal. If you feel aggrieved, the courts have assured the public of a speedy hearing of those cases,” Kimaiyo said.

As for police reforms, Kimaiyo said although progress has been made on response times, human rights trainings and an improvement in police attitudes, fighting corruption and other major reforms will have to wait until three months after the new government takes power.