By Silas G Nyanchwani
On March 5, 2009, a beautiful, sunny Thursday evening I witnessed something that would be permanently be etched in my mind as long as I live.
I had just finished some end of the semester paper, probably Communication or Political Science and we had walked up to our hostel, Hall 11, along State House Road. As was the habit, I went to my friend Plato’s room to shoot some breeze. I used to live on Ground Floor, Room 001. And my friend lived on the right wing of first floor, facing State House Road.
I had barely settled in his room, when we heard what sounded like gunshots. Looking outside we saw some men in suits running shooting to the sky. We ducked under the bed, lest a stray bullet greeted our eyes. The gun shots rent the air for a few minutes, then we saw the men in black disappear. A few minutes later we went down to State House Road to witness what had just happened.
Arriving on the scene, we noticed that two men had been shot dead. Shot dead on STATE HOUSE ROAD. Shot dead barely a kilometre where the president lives. Shot dead inside the country’s biggest and oldest university. Shot dead in one of the safest grounds in the country. In broad daylight. Never imagined a more brazen impunity. We stood there frozen.
Killers always intrigue me. When you kill, do you go back to your family, sit down with your wife and kids, have dinner and live like you have done nothing. Do you get to bed with your wife, have an erection and have sex with your wife? Do you live a normal life? Like do you take your kids to school with the money you have been given? Do you go to church and sit through a sermon? Do you cry when you lose a loved one?
My family pushed me, for nearly the eight years I was eligible, to join the military. I had the height, the right credentials and may be a godfather somewhere who would have seen to it that I am taken. But other than being a weakling, I can’t kill deliberately. So, two careers I knew I will never take up were military or any police work and Law. In the old days, I would have been a conscientious objector. I hate any form of pain or torture. Even as a prefect in high school, a student had to really provoke me, before I raised my hand and even when I did, guilty consumed. Man, I hate pain, or inflicting pain on anyone…anyway, I digress.
The two who had been shot were soon to be identified as Oscar King’ara and GPO Oulu, both working with an NGO that provided evidence to the UN Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings of Mungiki. Earlier that afternoon, the then Government Spokesperson, future governor of Machakos, Alfred Mutua had warned the duo, and barely two hours later, while leaving Ufangamano House, they sat dead in the car.
Oscar had a bullet through his forehead, and whatever expression he wore when the bullet came in, is what remained on the face. For GPO, the bullet had gone through the neck and his pulse was still discernible. And comrades did try to take him to the nearby student clinic, but treating a bullet wound is not possible with police clearance, and moving him around was not helpful and he died anyway. The people sent to kill, went to school to learn how to kill, so it was a mortal wound. Hope springs eternal and the comrades tried everything to save him, but he died.
Back in campus, now thousands of comrades had taken over State House Road, and one of the greatest student-police battle was about to take place. As usual the first contingent arrived, but it was easily overpowered. And then the GSU, trained to contain spreading violence announced their presence by throwing multiple teargas canisters, but there is nothing the comrades love more. Comrades pushed the Mercedes Benz with Oscar still strapped to the driver’s seat and it was pushed inside the university compound, and Oscar’s body was taken off and hidden in some corner, near the university swimming pool.
By 7.30 p.m., the university was inhabitable. Students were engaging the police in running battles, students hurling stones and police hurling teargas, the Lower State Unit of housing of the university was a cloud of teargas, there was nowhere to run to. By 8, the crowd, now uncontrolled, the police shot at student with live bullets, and one died on spot. And at that point realized that we were fighting a losing battle and withdraw to our hostels, misty eyed from the teargas that been lobbed into the hostels.
Around this time, my cousin who is older than me (bless his soul), then a police constable at Kamkunji Police Station, called me, and being older, it was an order.
“The GSU have been sent to the university, find a way and disappear as fast as you can,” he ordered me. From his tone, I knew the GSU were not coming to crack jokes with us, rather they were coming to crack our heads.
I told my friends that we should ran away, but they dismissed me as an alarmist, coward. But Alex Kirui, did heed my call and I don’t how we found our way out of the university and ran up State House Road, to the staff quarters where my uncle and his family lived. Alex thankfully ran into some member of staff leaving the staff quarters, going to his estate, South C and he boarded and left. For that cowardly act, my friends never quite forgave me. But my fear was informed by a story told me when I was a child by my other favourite uncle who is a police officer.
He told me that in the late 1990s, President Moi was going down State House Road when some cheeky students threw a stone at his motorcade. All the policing units within Nairobi were summoned and dispatched to reign terror on students, and he told me, students were beaten and raped properly, for that small misdemeanor.
So, I always lived in mortal fear of the police. Two years ago, when I saw students of the University of Nairobi being caned like primary school kids in the 1990s, near St Paul’s Catholic Church, my heart sunk.
To the police, university students are a nuisance, and anytime called upon to quell violence, they never hesitate using maximum force.
So yesterday, we saw them fishing students out of Prefabs 4 and brutally beating the hell out of them. And then more footage surfaced from ADD Building where the country’s top Architects, Quantity Surveyors, Landscapers, Construction Managers, Interior Designers, are made. Those are A students we are talking about. It takes about six years of hard work and sweating for one to finish an architectural degree.
They are one of the busiest people in Kenya. While in campus, I tried to date two girls from ADD, but it would simply not work. They were too busy for life. There is a labour of work and ADD that particular college in the university is one of the most functional colleges in Kenya.
So, to see the police so brutally beating the kids, and their lecturers, it shows the kind of country we have been living off. We may have changed the constitution and some of us, have assumed that things like police brutality are behind us. Alas!
Few people will notice the connection between the parliamentary desire to reverse the clock, taking us back to the dark days and police brutality. Few people can notice the connection between the president threatening the Judiciary and the manhandling of Babu Owino and lawyer Otiende Omolo, for all his faults. For some, as long it does not involve their ‘person’, they rarely bother.
Nairobi Governor said very unkind things about Babu, calling him every expletive in the book, and alluding to rape and sodomy, as people cheered. Few people notice how having a rogue leadership, emboldens police to be as brutal as they wish.
Only few people get to be held accountable. Usually, the underdog. Few people notice how the use of excessive force of the police beats the very logic that we have them. Few people see anything wrong with the police clobbering to death a six-month-old baby and shooting a teenager playing in the balcony of their houses.
Yesterday, it was Baby Pendo. Yesterday it was the university students. Tomorrow it will be your turn, and if you think that your ethnicity or class will save you, you can’t be mistaken. You can be middle-class, but the child, you paying top dollar for at the university of Nairobi will be shot dead, or disabled by the brutality. Nobody is immune from police brutality, and in some things, whatever our differences we must be united to fight against.
For instance, it should be made legal to enter university hostels or lecture halls. There ought to be spaces where our children can be safe. Once they have been taken out of the streets, the police should be stationed where they can stop them from gaining access to the streets. But going after kids in lecture halls, hostels, caning, torturing, raping female students should not be normalized as to assume that it is student practice.
Police were beating university students in the 1980s. In the 1990s, in the 2000s, and now in the 2010s. When shall this end.
Two successive governments have not stopped it. The new constitution has not stopped it. Forming IPOA has not improved the way the police force works.
Something gotta give. We can resign in desperation. Or we can stand for what is right.
The police kill, rape, steal, pillage because they know, in chaos, they are not accountable to anyone. Unless, a citizen stands up to oppose their brutality, we, our friends, enemies, relatives, fellow Kenyans, children, will always be victims.