NAIROBI, Kenya — Six men were dead. On that, Kenyan police and a watchdog could agree. Then the narratives diverged, and sharply.
Police posted on Twitter that the six men had robbed a motorbike taxi driver and raped his passenger. Human rights activists quickly put together a different account from witnesses: Two of the dead were robbery suspects. The others apparently were killed by police for witnessing officers kill the two men.
As frustration in Kenya grows over alleged police abuses, the public has begun fighting back. They have formed the Dandora Social Justice Center and others to investigate what they say the government doesn’t.
In low-income neighborhoods of the capital, Nairobi, police killings are common. Many cases have gone unreported with families suffering in silence, rights activists say. Rarely are perpetrators held accountable.
Police officers have been implicated in numerous reports by international rights groups and even Kenya’s government-backed rights commission. A database kept by the local Nation newspaper says police killed 180 people in Kenya in the first nine months of 2018, the majority in Dandora.
Police counter the allegations of illegal killings by saying the rights groups are embellishing their reports to attract more donor funding.
The rise of social justice centers in Kenya in recent months has had an immediate impact.
The six deaths in October documented by the Dandora Social Justice Center were among 28 alleged killings by police documented over a month’s time in Nairobi’s low-income neighborhoods of Dandora, Mathare, Kayole and Githuria.
One of the witnesses killed was a 17-year-old boy who climbed a tree to hide from officers but was pulled down and shot dead, said Beth Mukami with the social justice center.
The center’s account of the police killings was given to the Independent Police Oversight Authority, a civilian oversight group with the mandate of investigating police abuses. The authority says it received 288 complaints in 2018 of deaths and serious injuries allegedly committed by members of Kenya’s National Police Service.
The social justice groups have become a critical partner, said Dennis Oketch, spokesman for the authority. The groups work quickly on the ground, flagging cases when the crime scene is still fresh and witnesses are still available, he said. The groups also hold the authority accountable by following up on cases, he added.
Wilfred Olal, who co-founded the idea of social justice groups, said the idea started about two years ago during discussions in a civil society group known as the People’s Parliament.
“The communities come together, do research on matters affecting the community, especially on human rights and social justice,” Olal said. Most justice centers receive on average five cases a day.
Other issues addressed in the 10 Nairobi slums that now have social justice centers include gender-based violence, pollution and political accountability.
Currently most resources for the centers come from the community, Olal said.
“We don’t want to rely on donors so much. We are modelling justice centers to be business-savvy so that it gives them independence,” he said. The centers have received some support from rights groups Amnesty International and the International Justice Mission.
The community-based groups are the best placed to rapidly respond to rights violations and train local youth in leadership, said Irungu Houghton, Amnesty’s country director.
“The centers operate in very poor and marginalized neighborhoods,” he said. “Bruised by neglect and violence, the centers’ biggest challenge is building confidence and trust with the community that they can deliver results.” Every time a young person is wrongly killed, “this trust is broken.”
People had had no safe place to go to report alleged police abuses, said Mukami with Dandora Social Justice, whose husband disappeared almost a decade ago in a police crackdown on a quasi-religious gang known as the Mungiki.
Mukami says she suffered greatly as a single parent, not knowing whether her husband was alive or dead. The new social justice centers offer counseling to families of people who say they have suffered police-related trauma.
One of the greatest challenges the new centers face is protecting their volunteers, Olal said.
Currently one group member is in hiding after receiving threats from a police officer who was shown in a viral video shooting an armed suspect until bullets in his gun are finished, then taking a colleague’s gun and shooting until it’s empty too.
The activist went into hiding after allegedly documenting how the officer pulled another suspect he had shot from a hospital bed, with the suspect found dead days later.
Despite the challenges, the new centers have become community focal points for residents’ complaints, Mukami said.
“It shows us that people do not have trust in government and have nowhere to turn to,” she said