Will Kenya’s police reforms strengthen responses to crime?


In September last year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced significant reforms to enhance the professionalism, efficiency and accountability of the Kenya Police Service. However, the reforms have been clouded by legal challenges and doubts over whether they would enable the police to fight organised crime effectively.

At the outset, it was clear that the reforms would focus on the reorganisation of police structures and the rebranding of the service. However, challenges remain in eradicating corruption and emerging threats, including the use of modern technology by criminals. It will take time to see whether the reforms might help to diminish corruption and boost the fight against organised crime. This would be a welcome result since corruption has over the years abetted crime.

A 2011 study on corruption showed that Kenya’s foundations were under attack given the presence of criminal networks in government and business structures. According to the study, state institutions had lost the capacity to counter this trend effectively due to ‘rampant corruption in the police, judiciary, and other state institutions’. The author recommended, among others, the establishment of an independent, specialised serious crimes unit and strengthening police cooperation in the region.

Challenges remain in eradicating corruption and emerging threats in Kenya, including the use of modern technology by criminals

Over the years, various corruption perception index surveys have placed the Kenya Police Service among the top state institutions affected by graft. For instance, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission’s National Ethics and Corruption Survey, 2016, identifies the police service among state institutions that are most prone to corruption during the research period between 2012 and 2016.

Public debate that surrounded the review of Kenya’s independence constitution in the 2000s raised questions around the ability of the police service to deal with modern challenges. These included cybercrime, organised crime and endemic corruption.

The review paved way to the 2010 Constitution, which raised hopes of transforming the police service. For instance, it created the Independent Police Oversight Authority to handle complaints against the police and the National Police Service Commission (NPSC) to recruit top police chiefs, and promote and discipline staff. This encouraged merit-based appointments, as political patronage in police recruitment was considered one of the drivers of corruption.

There is a lack of state presence along Kenya’s porous borders with neighbouring conflict countries

However, these efforts were undone by the Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014, which transferred the power to appoint the inspector-general of police from the NPSC back to the president. The recently announced reforms are the result of an ambitious US$925m plan unveiled in 2015 to incentivise professionalism among police officers.

The reforms also seek to improve operational coordination. A former security expert in Mombasa told ENACT, ‘there is poor coordination of security functions between the police and devolved elected structures at the county level.’ This means there is a lack of state presence, especially along porous borders with neighbouring conflict countries through which crimes like the trafficking of illicit arms, drugs, wildlife products and minerals take place.

It is hoped that a new command structure would help to improve coordination between the central government and devolved county governments in order to effectively respond to local security challenges. Effective coordination would therefore serve as a useful yardstick in assessing the success of the police reforms.

To build public confidence, Kenya’s police service must uphold the rule of law and prioritise a human rights approach

The recent terror attack in the heart of Nairobi revealed the need to enhance intelligence gathering to foil attacks by home-grown terrorists. Corruption has also been cited as a challenge in the policing of the long porous border with neighbouring Somalia. A UN report in 2018 details an operation foiled by Kenyan anti-terror forces, in which operatives of militant Islamist group al-Shabaab bribed their way back and forth across the Kenya-Somalia border.

To build public confidence, the police service must uphold the rule of law and prioritise a human rights approach. This could help foster healthy cooperation between the public and the police, which is needed to successfully investigate criminal cases and defeat organised crime.

Deo Gumba, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – East and Horn of Africa, ISS and Andrew Kimani, independent researcher.

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