On June 23rd 2016 Josephat Mwenda left a courtroom in Mavoko. He had been in court defending himself against criminal charges . He was with his lawyer Willie Kimani, who dealt in human rights cases. There was a concurrent case, a civil matter in which he had sued a police officer for shooting him in the arm. They got into a taxi driven by Joseph Muiruri. Eight days later their bodies were found in Ol-Donyo Sabuk river. There were signs of torture on all the bodies. Beatings, strangulations, crushed balls and drowning. An ear was missing from one of the bodies and they had swollen to absurd sizes showing that they had been dumped in the river a long time ago.
Their car had earlier been found, empty. There is overwhelming evidence that they had been detained at the Syokimau Administration Police (AP) Camp. Another detail about the senior police officer who shot Josephat Mwenda in the arm: not only is he a police officer, he also belongs to the AP. There are few initials that make sweat run as cold in Kenya as “AP” does. It stills steps. It demands caution. It is fear.
A citizen, his lawyer and their taxi driver disappeared into thin air and were found dead eight days later. The cause and cry had been taken up by the International Justice Mission and the Law Society of Kenya, for which Willie Kimani worked and to which he belonged respectively. Advocates have been wearing purple ribbons all week. There have been demonstrations in Nairobi. The symbolic walk to the seat of power has been done. And the oft repeated call for the vacation of that seat by its owner, the Inspector General of Police, took place. Papers were filed in court. A hearing was secured and the Judge ordered the police to provide details of their efforts to track the missing persons. A writ of habeas corpus was issued on the morning of 1st July. Before the day had gone too long into noon the writ was obeyed. The police duly produced the bodies. It has been said that God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh, or maybe too sad.
This matters. What happened to the three people here matters. It is a tragedy, a triple tragedy. It is a tragedy for their family and loved ones. It is a tragedy that this has happened before. It is a tragedy that it had to happen to a lawyer before it caught any kind of national attention.
The cause was taken up by the Law Society of Kenya. Demonstrations were organised in Nairobi in conjunction with the taxi drivers association and the boda boda drivers association along with various human rights groups. Kenya sawa strike by the legal profession. For a week lawyers everywhere were implored to lay down their tools in solidarity with their fallen colleague, with his client, and with their taxi driver. For a week courtrooms were mostly at a standstill. Countrywide demonstrations took place on 6th July.
The judicial system was also put into play. A court sat daily over a matter this also happened with the election petitions back in 2013. Four police officers Fredrick Leliman, Stephen Chebulet, Silvia Wanjiku and Leonard Maina Mwangi have been charged, their pleas taken and the trial is progressing.
This killing matters to everybody.
Or it should matter to everybody. Josephat Mwenda was shot in the arm by a police officer. He sought recourse and went to court. Willie Kimani did his job. A noble undertaking, as battling the executive always is when confronted with abuse of power. Joseph Muiruri drove a taxi standing at the furthest remove from this whole mess. All he did was drive a taxi. Then they all disappeared. Then their bodies were found. While you may not see yourself in any of these people, there is a situation here where we as Kenyans can all see ourselves. In the place of a person suffering abuse of power, body or self by a police officer.
AP is not a menacing word for no reason. Kenyans have had bribes coerced from them, been beaten, been arrested, and skirted the street to avoid that policeman because we know that authority means violence. We know this from a young age. What surprises me in other law enforcement jurisdictions is when people trust their police, because I never have. They prove corrupt and petty, and threaten us with violence.
There are two sides to this and neither of them looks good. That could have been any one of us going to court to enforce their rights and dying. That could have been any one of us being abused. That could have been my arm. That could be my arm because now I know better than to take the matter to court. I would rather suffer a gun wound than be beaten and strangled to death.
It’s been said that a whisper can be more effective than a scream. A scream is Jacob Juma being found shot to dead in his bulletproof car. A whisper is three men disappearing into thin air and the hint of a wink from the people who may be responsible. A whisper is the production of their bodies as soon as it is demanded as if to let us know that the police knew where they were. That all that was needed all along was this court order. The whisper says “AP” in all our ears and makes us put a little more hurry in our step on the way home.
It feels daily like there is a steady erosion of human rights in Kenya. A process of peeling back all our progress. You can see it in the attempt by the government to pass that Security Bill as it was . You can hear it in bloggers being arrested. It stands in the space of those who have disappeared and in the wounds of those whose bodies have not.
It’s tempting to think that a dictatorship needs a supreme ruler. That the president must be a dictator in order for it to work. Dictatorship though is a system. In a true dictatorship nobody is foolish enough to complain if they are cut off by a cabinet secretary’s car. Nobody smiles at the chief’s wife, and nobody complains when they are shot by a senior police officer. They know the consequences of complaining about being shot. They know that what will happen is they will disappear. We will blink and they will be gone. And if they are ever found, it will be their bodies being dredged out of rivers.
We face the unique situation of having dictatorship by evolution and not revolution. All you need to do is look at the last couple of months and the citizens’ reactions to their government’s actions. University students were laid on the ground and caned and we cheered because we didn’t want to be stuck in traffic. A rich businessman was found shot to death in the most in-your-face assassination we have had in a couple of years and no questions were asked, investigations soon died and we moved our eyes to the next thing.
The next thing is protests being banned by the government. The next thing is people dying at those protests. A six year old boy is found with a bullet in his body. And we keep quiet. There are no investigations, there are no questions. We move on to the next thing and it is this, three men disappear because one of them dared to demand investigations and the other served him by asking questions. Then they disappeared and if the past is any indication of the future we are about to be thrust back into silence.
Yvonne Awour wrote that “Kenya’s official languages become English, Swahili and Silence.” We take every opportunity to speak them. But in the end silence wins out. Only silence. The silence of our people and the silence of our President. I want to ask him if he hears about these things. I wonder if he knows that a six year old boy was shot by one of his police officers and if he just doesn’t care. I want to know if the silence surrounds him so much that he does not hear. That the names of the missing don’t mean anything at all to him. I wonder if we Kenyans are so many that he can’t be bothered to think about individuals. If that’s true I want to know if he read the reports that claim hundreds of people have suffered extra-judicial killings and disappearance in relation just to anti-terrorist activities. Who knows how many more are like the three found dead here, missing because of various run-ins with the police. An image is stuck in my mind when I think about him in relation to this:
Farther on she came upon a feast of corpses. Savagely slaughtered, the feasters lay strewn across overturned chairs and hacked trestle tables, asprawl in pools of congealing blood. Some had lost limbs, even heads. Severed hands clutched bloody cups, wooden spoons, roast fowl, heels of bread. In a throne above them sat a dead man with the head of a wolf. He wore an iron crown and held a leg of lamb in one hand as a king might hold a sceptre, and his eyes followed Dany with mute appeal.
George R.R. Martin.
Maybe it’s the mute appeal. The silence, the awful silence that must have accompanied such a scene. The horror that’s clear there. The horror that’s murky here. The silence that accompanies our scene.
I once read a story whose details such as author and actual plot have become fuzzy (which may be fitting considering what I remember about the story). There was a town where the people began forgetting things. They forgot their lovers and their children as they slept. They forgot hills and houses. They forgot everything. But this one child held it all as he dreamed. When he too forgot things, they simply disappeared. This idea that a thing remains real as long as we remember it is ingrained in our culture. We say about the dead that they are not gone as long as we carry them in our hearts.
So many have died in Kenya or disappeared without a trace. So, so many at the hands of our governments. They are remembered by their families. But the public forgets the act of the killing. The silence plays its part because those who enforce it know that speaking a thing makes it more real. University students were lined up and caned but nobody talks about it anymore. The less real the fact that Jacob Juma was assassinated is, the easier it is to forget. People were killed at those CORD protests but if we don’t talk about it we soon forget. These three have been disappeared, beaten, strangled and drown and the fog of silence and forgetting approaches.
Cultures all over the world believe that a thing both defines and is defined by its name. If this is true then how fitting is it that the Swahili word for government- serikali, sounds so much like the Swahili phrase for a dangerous secret – siri kali.
A people write a social contract with their governments. It is writ in blood and amended by silence and complicity, or noise and revolutions. Slowly we have allowed ours to be amended to the point that when these three disappeared there was no question in our hearts that the police were involved. I think we all did it. We all goaded the power-mad with our acceptance and fatalism. We failed as a society to speak up when it happened to others. Now it comes closer home.
It eats at my heart that it had to be a fellow lawyer who was killed in such a manner before it hit home just how endemic it is. It makes me wonder why compassion and empathy had fled me. Why didn’t I think of all my brothers and sisters before as my brothers and sisters? I don’t know. Because of this I come to accept that it is also my fault. That I played my part, my silent part, in the taking of these men. In their beating and torture. In their mutilation and strangulation. In the defacement of their bodies. In the pain of their families.
There is a court case proceeding and in this one case justice may yet be served. Already though the words extrajudicial killing are fading from the national consciousness. Demas Kiprono, a human rights lawyer like Willie Kimani, wrote in relation to this:
Even if the APs are convicted. What happens to the other victims, Knowing that during the weekend after their abduction, 3 bodies thought to be them were recovered in Mai Mahiu, They were similarly tortured and murdered. But none was a lawyer hence no one really cares.
Nobody really cares. For all the other victims of extrajudicial disappearance and death there is nothing but this enormous quiet. There are future victims too walking amongst us. It is good that four policemen were caught and charged, and may be convicted. This is a symbolic victory for justice. Symbolic victories are important because they show us that something can be done. Once we know that it can be done it is necessary to put in place steps to ensure that it will be done. Systemic and structural changes. The kind of change that comes after the marching and the boycotting and the noise and purple ribbons. The kind of change that requires us to remember that this happens for longer than a week or a month or a year. For these deaths to change the course of our country we need to remember them for years, for decades.
The three dead men should haunt the future of our country and not fade away like so many other ghosts have along the way. The worst thing we could do now would be to stay silent.
To stay silent and forget.