Opinion  :: Columns  :: Nairobi Notebook


Criminals rule

Published: 01-MAY-04

One of the most talked about issues in Kenya today is the upsurge in crime. Not a day goes by without media reports of all manner of violent crime, ranging from carjackings to highway robberies, bank heists, and sexual assault. Some major highways in the country have become high-risk roads, where you travel at your own peril.

A multitude of reasons have been advanced for this crime rate. The crackdown on the commuter transport sector was said to have thrown out a lot of hangers-on who benefited parasitically from the previous chaotic environment. Others blame the ongoing penal reforms, which have seen thousands of petty offenders and long-serving prisoners, some of them on death row, released under presidential amnesty. The tightening of screws around the corruption brigade has also meant that there is no longer any free-flowing money which had been oiling a whole retinue of sycophants and court jesters who no longer have an easy source of income. All of these at a time when the economy was not yet expanding rapidly enough to absorb these people.

Police insisted that crime was going down, and rolled out statistics to prove their case. The public simply ignored those statistics.

The government seemed perplexed, unable to respond. It seemed to wonder just what the problem was. It had just spent millions of dollars on hundreds of new vehicles for the police countrywide, and a hefty pay rise for policemen. It had appointed a new police commissioner, bought new equipment such as bullet-proof vests, and had announced grand plans for reforming and modernising the police force. Surely within a year the government felt that crime should have been retreating instead, crime was on a grand march! Something drastic had to be done.

Somebody hit on a brainwave. Sack the police commissioner, and replace him with an army general. So out went Edwin Nyaseda, whose one-year reign one of the shortest ever, and was in came Brigadier Mohammed Hussein Ali from the army. Donning police colours in place of his military fatigues, he promised to instill military discipline and a sense of dispatch in fighting crime.

A surprise choice, Brigadier Ali immediately signalled a new way of doing things. Within days of being appointed, he made several moves that had the whole force struggling to keep up.

First, he made a trip to inspect police stations and cells around the capital. Startled police officers at the police stations were mostly caught out when the 'Brig' entered unannounced, checked their entries in the occurrence books, and generally sought to acquaint himself with the world of civilian policing. Most did not even know who this stranger was until he was introduced.

There could not have been a more definite message that it was no longer business as usual. Other police commissioners have generally given police stations and cells a wide berth.

He then called a meeting of his senior chiefs and had a day-long meeting to discuss crime. It was reported that he read them the riot act but promised that there would be no political interference in their work or any victimisation.

He has since disbanded the civilian police reservist force, a police unit formed under the Police Act that enables civilians to assist police to combat crime. This corps of civilians has over the years become a law unto itself, killing suspects at will, and being accused of all manner of illegal activities like extortion, extra-judicial killings, and other malpractices. Brigadier Ali said he was disbanding them as part of police reforms, and they would be reconstituted to operate in accordance with the law.

It is early days yet, but it has been widely acknowledged that an outsider probably stands the best chance of cutting through the layers of traditionalism, sloth, sheer lethargy, nepotism and rogue elements who collude with criminals that has characterised the police force for a long time now.

In appointing a military man to take over, Kenya can take comfort from the experience of her neighbour, Uganda.

Uganda, long plagued by violent crime by armed brigands. Four years ago, President Yoweri Museveni brought in Major General Wamala Katumba as inspector general of police. This was at a time when the Ugandan police force was largely discredited because of incompetence and widely documented collusion with thugs.

Maj. General Katumba went to war, and executed the war against crime as he would any enemy incursion into his country. He undertook a major clean-up operation that turned Kampala into a virtual war zone. Finally, the thugs beat a retreat.

The Brig seems to have borrowed a leaf from Maj. General Katumba, and he has moved with a sense of urgency to impose his will on the police force. Hopefully, The Brig will make the whole country safer to allow Kenyans a sound night's sleep. They need it.

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