Sunday, September 2, 2012

Lessons we must draw from Mombasa riots

Sunday Nation 02 September 2012
This past week, an Islamic preacher was shot dead in broad daylight in a Mombasa street.
He had previously been charged with terrorism-related crimes, and was on American and United Nations terror watchlists. His killing resulted in an outbreak of violence in the streets of Mombasa, with youths accusing the government of having carried out the shooting and attacking churches and government property.

In my opinion, these events bring several disturbing issues to the fore. Firstly, if a Kenyan, no matter his alleged crime, can be gunned down in broad daylight without the killers being apprehended, then we need to be very afraid. 

Police boss

That the police boss came out to say he had no idea who had carried out the killing while absolving the police of any role in the matter is hardly pacifying. If anything, it is a great cause for alarm. This killing happened on a busy public street not far from a police station, and yet the killers got clean away!
How can the police assure other Kenyans of their security if something like this can happen?

Secondly, the reaction of the youths in Mombasa leaves a bitter aftertaste. Several churches were torched and property destroyed, including cars parked on the streets of Kenya’s second largest town. A number of people, including policemen, were killed in the riots, and several more injured.

It is unclear at what point Kenyans decided that the best way of solving their grievances would be through burning property and attacking anyone perceived to be an “other”, whatever that may mean. However, it stands to reason that this is the product of a general decline in civility in our population, which is manifested even in peacetime at our dinner tables, on our roads and even in our institutions of learning.

Thirdly, the difficulties the security agencies had in dealing with the riots may reflect a general lack of policy direction in dealing with situations such as these. Immediately after the cleric’s shooting, police officers arriving at the scene were barred from accessing the site by rowdy youths. Eventually, the preacher was buried without even a perfunctory examination of his body and recording the medical cause of death. 

Murder suspects

One wonders what would happen should the police arrest some suspects and charge them with the killing in court. Due to this disregard for forensic procedures, it is a sure bet that they would walk free on a technicality. In my opinion, the failure of security agencies to take charge, and the refusal by the youths to let the police get anywhere near the body, are symptoms of the rot in our criminal justice system.

The public has systematically lost faith in the system, and the system has given up trying to restore that faith. The officer at the scene was quoted in the press as saying that there was nothing he could do if the youths did not want the police to get involved!

Finally, the ease with which the shooting was framed by some as a religious conflict demonstrates the fissures that characterise our national infrastructure. Elsewhere in Kenya, it might have been branded as ethnic conflict. Unless we deal decisively with these prejudices and skewed perceptions, we are unlikely to be successful in guaranteeing peaceful co-existence, no matter how many “peace conferences” we hold. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine; twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

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