Many Missing Bodies

Mathare, Nairobi. Image via Wikipedia.
Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya. Image via Wikipedia.

Gideon Njuguna’s mother called us in early October 2015 because she needed help following up the case of her son, Gideon, who had disappeared a couple of months earlier on August 4. He was one of the many young men employed in the informal boda boda industry that offers motorcycle transport services at negotiated rates. Gideon was last seen ferrying two passengers to a destination not too far from where he lived. His body was found by boda boda colleagues several days later in the main city mortuary. He had been shot four times, twice in the face.

Through her own investigations his mother discovered that her son and his two passengers were killed on the day they disappeared. She believes that Gideon was shot by the police because the people he was transporting were deemed “suspected gangsters” – a now normal appellation for those whom the police cannot prove have committed any crime except for being young and poor. Although she has managed to find witnesses who confirmed the involvement of police officers in the deaths of the three, all of them fear coming forward.

Gideon’s mother is from Korogocho, but she came to us at Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) because we have a reputation for calling for widespread community documentation of the many extra-judicial executions (EJE) that happen in the poor, and predominantly, eastern urban settlements of Nairobi.

Despite their historical normality in city ghettos like Mathare, where we work, extra-judicial killings are not confined to these spaces and are also widely reported in North Eastern Kenya, Mombasa, Nyeri and elsewhere, as numerous journalists and human rights organizations have documented.

The Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) reports that between January and December 2015 126 people were killed by the police. Similarly, the Daily Nation Newsplex database shows that the police killed 122 people in the first eight months of 2016. While we are encouraged by these recent statistics, we believe that they are far from being a complete picture of the levels of police killings that happen in Kenya. In fact, they are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

From our own local ongoing research, and I emphasize that the circumstances of these cases are still being verified, at least 60 youth have been killed in Mathare alone this year. The extent of these killings in this one location highlights the impossibility of only 126 executions country-wide by the police in 2015. This wide discrepancy between community and official data is likely because official statistics are gathered, principally, when cases are taken by victim’s family or friends to relevant organizations. Unfortunately the distance of these organizations from the communities where the killings happen makes reporting such executions a complicated task (while also highlighting the classed spatial dimensions of human rights practice).

Furthermore, the “intermittent” success of cases brought against the police and the lack of protection for those who come forward undoubtedly diminishes people’s confidence in following up the cases. As the important case of Willie Kimani, Josphat Mwenda and Joseph Muiruri shows, professional organizations respond much faster to the executions of one of their own than to the everyday killings and disappearances of young poor people in many parts of the country.

Gideon Njuguna’s mother cannot read, nor did she know, until we took her there, where the offices of the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights (KNCHR) and Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) are located. As a vegetable seller in Korogocho, who is now tasked with taking care of the family of her son, she does not always have the bus fare or phone credit to embark on these formal, and usually complicated documentation processes. So, such deaths are more often registered by the missing generations of young men in poor urban settlements who are now only present in family photo albums, and in the weekly funerals of young, predominantly, male citizens around the country.

Elsewhere I documented how the entrance to Huruma ward in Mathare constituency is marked on one side by coffin makers and on the other by a police station. This cannot be accidental.

Many generations have been lost in what are essentially state-sanctioned pogroms motivated by a mixture of colonial and neoliberal hyper-policing and the criminalization of poor youth. The much feted jobs given by the National Youth Service (NYS), the recent state house youth summit, or even the highly publicized 10% of government tenders reserved for youth do not persuade us to believe in the government’s purported youth agenda, especially when these killings go on unabated and are deemed to be merely the infrequent actions of just a few  “rogue” police officers.

To get a more comprehensive picture of the gravity of the situation, we need to look for and listen to the stories of mothers selling vegetables in markets, the classmate who has lost his whole peer group, and the accumulated bodies of the poor in the city mortuary.

We also need to look for the ledgers filled out by the families who are made to pay for the bullets that killed their children, and the fears and traumas of communities who feel under siege. Without a concerted search for these bodies, official statistics will never be enough.

Wangui Kimari

Wangui Kimani is an urban ethnographer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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