Night curfew

Commuters queue to board matatus along Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi on April 19, 2021 just a few minutes before the night curfew.

| Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Curfew chaos: High-handed police not helping matters

What you need to know:

  • A couple taking an infant to hospital said they had been held there for two hours.
  • Stay-at-home order was imposed on Nairobi to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Two nights of chaos, police high-handedness and utter disregard for the law. That would best sum up the Saturday and Sunday nights mayhem on the Thika superhighway, a key artery into and out of the capital city. 

The chaotic scenes were largely avoidable, were it not for the overzealousness of the police who refused to let through those who had curfew permits; including doctors, ambulance drivers and families taking patients to hospital, as well as journalists on duty or heading home from work.

The police had blocked the entire outbound section of the road, including the service lane, creating a massive gridlock that extended more than a kilometre. Kasarani divisional police boss Peter Nyaga instructed his juniors not to let anyone through, and even unleashed officers on motorists who attempted to plead with him. They were all pushed back into their cars.

“Do not tell us how to do our job,” he responded when Nation asked him on Saturday evening what would happen should there be an emergency that required vehicle passage, or why he was not letting through those who had legal permits to be on the road at the hour.

Night curfew

Police vehicles on standby at Thika Superhighway's Exit 7 as police officers await to block curfew violators in Nairobi on April 19, 2021.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

It didn’t take long for that emergency to present itself. After hours of queuing in the dark, an ambulance driver walked to the barrier and protested that he had a patient who needed immediate medical attention. 

He said a woman was in labour in his ambulance and could lose her life if he was not let through.

The scene erupted in public protests. Motorists, held for hours and quickly losing patience, demanded that the police create room for the ambulance to pass through. 

But there was a problem; there was not an inch of wiggle room in the gridlock, and the ambulance, its sirens blaring in the cold Nairobi night, was still held back more than a kilometre away.

The police were forced to remove the barriers and let go tens of motorists ahead of it, before quickly returning the barricades. Nation counted at least three ambulances that were caught in the gridlock, their sirens blaring helplessly in the dark.

Distressed mother

Mr Nyaga refused to explain why there had been no planning to ensure that such emergencies were eased through without losing valuable time.

Among those held in the traffic was a doctor who told Nation that he was heading to work, truck drivers ferrying commodities to the city and beyond, and a young couple taking an infant to hospital. The couple said they had been held there for two hours. The mother, visibly distraught and rocking her baby quietly in her arms, was too distressed to talk.

The Nation team attempted follow the ambulances and the couple to hospital but, despite producing work permits, was denied passage and remained at the roadblock until a few minutes past 11pm, when the police suddenly removed the barricades, boarded their vehicles, and left.

The police are an integral part of the enforcement of Covid-19 movement restrictions. As enforcers of the rule of law, they are on the frontline of protecting law-abiding citizens and punishing those who break regulations, as Mr Hilary Mutyambai, the Inspector-General, noted on Sunday. 

However, health and community advocates protested that, when senior police officers refuse to plan their operations well, they end up creating confusion and meting out collective punishment in breach of the same law they purported to have been enforcing.

President Uhuru Kenyatta late last month rightfully imposed more stringent measures to slow down spread of the Covid-19 pandemic at a time when Kenya’s infection curve had taken a sharp upturn.

But the lack of coordination on how the 8pm to 4am curfew is being enforced around the city and high-handedness by police officers has raised questions on the command structure within the service.

Despite an assurance made on Sunday by the Interior Ministry that “traffic management will be reviewed and enhanced to facilitate smooth transition into curfew hours”, the roads in Nairobi continued to be chaotic at night.

The most notorious of them all is Thika Road, where motorists were on Sunday night not only blocked from going home but police officers even lit a bonfire for those they had stopped.

Road block

The officers manning the road block erected at the Garden City Mall exit stopped everyone resulting in a traffic snarl up on both sides of the highway stretching for kilometres. 

Similar scenes were witnesses at the Kayole junction on Kangundo Road, Wilson Airport on Langata Road, Mwiki, Junction Mall, Ruai, Shujaa Mall in Kayole, Astrol in Utawala and Two Rivers Mall . 

At the centre of this mass punishment of Kenyans is the punitive Public Order Act that has given the police powers to ensure everyone is at home during curfew hours.

“Any person who contravenes any provisions of a curfew order shall be guilty of an offense and liable to a fine not exceeding Sh10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months,” states the law.

Night curfew

Police vehicles on standby at Thika Superhighway's Exit 7 as police officers await to block curfew violators in Nairobi on April 19, 2021.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

While security officers are barred under the Act from using excessive force to enforce the curfew during the declared hours, the same law gives them sweeping powers to use reasonable force.

What is being witnessed in Nairobi, however, is not only use of excessive force, but is also a total disregard by the police of the same curfew they are supposed to enforce.

At the receiving end are ordinary Kenyans especially in Nairobi who are being forced to reach home way past the curfew hours that they are trying to beat.

The last time such scenes were witnessed was in March last year, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when police meted brutality on Kenyans leading to dozens of deaths.

President Uhuru Kenyatta was even forced to apologise to Kenyans after it emerged that the brutality of the police at that time was killing more people than the coronavirus itself.


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