Some have blamed Kenya’s weak criminal-justice institutions for the routine use of excessive force, particularly in “counter-terrorism” operations. As one anonymous member of the anti-terrorism police unit put it to the BBC last December, “The justice system in Kenya is not favorable to the work of the police. So we opt to eliminate them [suspects]. We identify you, we gun you down in front of your family and we begin with the leaders.” HRW heard the same observation from others in enforcement, including lawyers.
To be sure, Kenya is facing serious threats and it has proved difficult for the Kenyan authorities to prosecute terrorism cases. But the challenges of investigation and compiling evidence for prosecution cannot justify abuses and ethnic profiling, on the premise that this will improve security.
In September 2013, gunmen believed to be affiliated with al-Shabaab attacked the affluent Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and injuring hundreds in a bloody stand-off. A year after the horrific incident, which also drew international attention to the botched security response and extensive looting by Kenya’s military, there has been no official investigation or report. And Westgate was not unique: there have been at least 70 grenade and gun attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and Garissa since 2011, according to the US embassy, with at least 30 in 2012 alone. The situation does not seem to be improving.
By engaging in thuggish tactics and targeting entire communities, the authorities risk alienating more people. No one knows how many young people in Kenya may have turned to al-Shabaab for opportunistic or idealistic reasons but the abuses certainly don’t help. It was no surprise that the Institute for Security Studies, which promotes stability across Africa, found that members of al-Shabaab and the separatist Mombasa Republican Council said they had joined because of Kenya’s abusive “counter-terrorism” practices.
Instead of investigating the abuses by ATPU and other security forces, Kenyan authorities have looked the other way. Western donors, in particular the US and the UK, have also ignored the abuses, while continuing to channel resources to the anti-terrorism unit. That is not just short-sighted but appears to condone the crimes. US law prohibits support to abusive foreign forces.
The obvious way for donors to help is by pressing the Kenyan government to respect the rule of law, ensure that abuses are investigated and prosecuted, and push through much-needed police reforms, which have stalled. Support could also include beefing up investigative capacities, prosecutors and the judicial system, as well as funding programmes that provide at-risk populations with new opportunities for education and development. Above all, there needs to be real accountability—not just rhetoric and promises—from the government in Nairobi.
Jehanne Henry is a senior researcher in the Africa division.