Cry for justice over rise in police shooting cases

 Kalonzo Musyoka

Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka (in blue shirt), Governor Joseph Lenku (in orange T-shirt), and other leaders attend the mass funeral for four people killed by GSU officers in Masimba, Kajiado, on June 2.  

Photo credit: Pool

More than one-and-a-half months after officers from the elite General Service Unit (GSU) were accused of opening fire on civilians in the Masimba area of Kajiado County, families of the victims are still crying out for justice.

On June 2, four people lay dead and six others were seriously wounded in what authorities at the time termed an anti-riot exercise gone wrong. Today, findings tell a different story of an incessant trend of use of unnecessary and excessive force by police on unarmed civilians.

It all started with what was meant to be a peaceful march by Masimba women, who were protesting about the killing of a teacher by a stray elephant a week earlier. Initially, the march was going well even as locals demanded audience with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) bosses.

Local police are reported to have tried intervening by engaging elders to try and calm the protesting women, who had barricaded the busy Mombasa Road.

“Police had tried using teargas to disperse the women, but it was not working. That is when local police bosses and the administrators decided to engage the women through elders,” elder Pastor John Tigwe told Sunday Nation.

A decision was made to select representatives from the women to engage the authorities on the incessant human-wildlife conflict. By 11am, normalcy was beginning to return at the bustling Masimba centre; then the GSU boys came. “Without warning or even talking to anyone, they started shooting, not in the air but at people,” Pastor Tigwe recalls.

Sunday Nation has since established that contrary to previous reports that the GSU had gone to support local police in dispersing the crowd, they were, in fact, travelling to Mombasa at the time.

There are claims the officers had been escorting a high-value consignment to Nairobi and were travelling back to Mombasa when the shooting occurred.

Stanley Ntidu, 52, a butcher at Masimba slaughterhouse, had just finished his day shift and was preparing to head home with his wife. “We were curious about what was happening in town, so we stepped out to check,” Ms Senchura Ntidu recalled.

No sooner had they arrived near the main highway than the shooting started. Stanley caught a bullet to the chest and died on the spot. An autopsy showed that he died from chest injuries due to a single bullet that perforated his lungs and lodged in the heart.

About 200 metres from where Ntidu was shot, Dennis Matheka, 26, was heading home after delivering water to a resident. Matheka worked as a water vendor. When the shooting started, he is said to have been more than 100 metres from the picketing women. He was shot in the shoulder and neck by a single bullet.

“There was no time to save him. He bled to death in a few minutes. When I got to him, he was already dead,” his father, June Matheka, told Sunday Nation.

An autopsy report shows the bullet severed his carotid artery and jugular vein, causing him to bleed out almost instantaneously. His father blames for acting recklessly, adding they were unjustified to use deadly force. “The whole purpose of being a police officer is to protect lives. These officers acted like mad men shooting people like animals,” a dejected Matheka lamented.

Wrong targets

In the melee, a county revenue officer, identified as Duncan Kanari, and Retore Topoika, a casual labourer, were also killed.

Initially, police had claimed that the officers were engaging rowdy rioters when the fatalities occurred. However, a review of the postmortems and witness accounts suggest that the four were not engaging the officers at the time of the shooting.

The postmortem reports seen by Sunday Nation revealed that the four victims were shot from long range, an indication they were not challenging the officers.

The nature of the gunshot wounds also suggest the trajectory was horizontal, meaning the officers opened fire directly on civilians, instead of shooting into the air as required when dispersing a crowd. Another six people, including a Kenya Defence Forces soldier, suffered gunshot wounds, all from long-range shots.

The incident drew heavy condemnation, including from the Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, who called for investigations. Already, the police Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa) are investigating. Police spokesperson Bruno Shioso, however, told Sunday Nation no arrests have been made yet, a month after the shootings.

For a police unit famed for its tactical precision, the high civilian casualty not only raised eyebrows over the decision to use deadly force, rights lobby groups also term the incident an epitome of a growing trend in excessive use of lethal force by police.

“It is clear that the use of excess force is a major problem. There are clear guidelines on when police should use lethal force and how they should use firearms. The problem is that the command structure has been compromised and there is lack of supervision of officers on duty,” Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU) director Peter Kiama says.

Following the Masimba incident, the National Police Service (NPS) would find itself yet again lurching onto a crisis over use of excessive force on civilians in what is emerging as a trend.

This was after a Form Four student, Whitney Atieno, 19, was killed during a police operation against a robbery gang on Lakeview estate in Nakuru County.

The Nakuru Central Secondary School student was at the time of the shooting in the company of her best friend, identified as Ruth Waithera, who was also injured.

Ipoa has since commenced probes, saying initial reports indicate police involvement. While casualties from stray bullets are ideally considered accidental, human rights activists want officers and the NPS to take responsibility for injuries and loss of lives.

Activists have argued that even fatalities caused by stray bullets should count as police killings.

“The issue of stray bullet does not arise at all. To fire a bullet, the police officer has to cock and aim. The bullet does not have a mind of its own to go astray. In the cases mentioned, the alleged stray bullet is actually in law an issue of negligence or recklessness,” argues Mr Edward Mbanya, senior programme attorney at the International Justice Mission (IJM).

Mr Mbanya maintains the rising cases of civilian casualties are an indication of recklessness amid calls for legal action against officers as well as continuous training and sensitisation. “The increase in such incidents of ‘stray bullet’ indicate that either the police officers are becoming reckless and are committing crimes against the public or there is a problem with their training, and they are not being trained in how to use and handle firearms.”

Data acquired from human rights lobby groups Missing Voices and IJM show that 57 people have been killed by police this year. In 2021, at least 187 people were reportedly killed by police.

Among those killed reportedly by stray bullets fired by police over the last two years are Alex Macharia, Jackline Mugure, Haila Asanake, Baby Angel and Darphine Morara. Only the case of Yassin Moyo has reached the prosecution stage. While police admit that there have been civilian casualties, they maintain they are isolated and are being investigated. “Our officers are well trained, but sometimes things go wrong. We can’t blame civilians who fall victim. But these cases are being investigated extensively from multiple fronts, including through IAU, Ipoa and, if need be, through a public inquest,” Mr Shioso told Sunday Nation.