What you need to know:
- As many as 40 cases of enforced disappearances were recorded in 2021, a steady increase from the previous years.
- Amnesty says enforced disappearances keep rising because there are no tough measures taken against officers that break the law.
- This is made worse by inadequate public awareness, and the failure of the country to ratify the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearance.
“Give up your life or lose your family.” The order came via phone call to Michael Njau on the morning of Friday, April 24, 2020, at his house in Kayole, just hours before he, his cousin and his driver went missing.
Two years and four months later, his wife Ann Njeri stands before a crowd at Kayole Community Justice Centre.
Her tears flow freely, her voice hoarse, as a human rights defender comforts her.
The memories she has of her husband are still fresh, and every day, she looks longingly towards the door, hoping he will walk in.
Her beloved Njau, the father of her three children, spoke to her and the children on the night of April 23, 2020.
He said he loved her, words that he didn’t usually utter. The next day, he left the house in the morning, saying he would be back.
“Before he left the house, he received a call, and I could hear the person on the other side telling him to give up his life or lose his family,” says Njeri.
At 4 pm, as Njeri made supper, she called her husband, but his phone switched off. An hour later, and many times that night, she called, but the calls went unanswered.
Not far away, the same night, her mother-in-law received a call from Njau’s cousin, asking whether he had arrived home. The next day, she called Njeri to tell her Njau was missing.
Since that day, life has been one painful journey for Njeri. Every hospital, police station and mortuary in Nairobi has recorded the footsteps of Njeri and her mother-in-law.
At home, her sons say there is a voice missing in the house, as her daughter, who was an infant, constantly asks when she will see her father, and whether, when he eventually comes home, he will bring her a pink bicycle.
“The older children know what happened, but I don’t know what to tell them anymore. The eldest son, who just completed secondary school, encourages me often, saying that his father will come back home one day. But I wonder because we have searched every hospital and mortuary but we have not found him,” says Njeri.
Her second-born adored his father. So affected has he been by his father’s disappearance that he has gone mostly silent.
He is also unsettled. His performance in school has nosedived, prompting his mother to hire a tutor.
A month after her husband’s disappearance, Njeri says, she received a call from the officer handling the case at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) telling her to stop looking for her husband.
“He said, ‘If you keep looking deep, you will also disappear’. I later learned that he was transferred because he was digging too deep into the case. Now, we have no peace or closure. We would be at peace knowing we have buried him,” she says between sobs.
“When I look at my children, I am reminded of him. There is a voice missing in my house. I sleep on the couch nowadays, because, in our bedroom, I often can’t stop imagining him walking in through the door. I see his clothes and wish he was here. We miss him so much. I hope we get justice, and our Michael comes back to us,” cries Njeri.
A few metres away, Waithera Macharia and her daughter-in-law Pauline Anyango sit side by side, in distress, wondering where Samuel Kamau is.
At 10 pm on Thursday last week, Anyango’s husband was chased by two white Toyota Probox cars, before he was caught and thrown into the boot by police officers in civilian clothes.
The day before, he had left his house at Chokaa at noon, and headed for his mother’s house at Kariobangi.
“He had not left any money for supper, so I called to ask, and he told me to visit an M-Pesa shop to make a withdrawal. Thereafter, I went back home to prepare the meal. At 10 pm, I called, and he said he was coming. I did not call again, and went to bed, knowing he would eventually be home,” says Anyango.
“The next day at 6 am while preparing my daughter for school, I called again, but the calls went unanswered. I called throughout the day and sent messages that went unanswered. At 5 pm, the phone was unreachable. I called my mother-in-law then, asking whether they had spoken,” recalls Anyango.
They had last spoken the previous day, at 7 pm, as he left his mother’s house. When his mother called him later, he said he had arrived home, Anyango recalls being told.
Then Kamau’s friend arrived at her house, gave her fare for a motorbike and told her to visit Kayole police station in Matopeni.
“It was almost midnight. At the station, I met an officer who told me they had not arrested anyone matching my husband’s description. They only had drunkards, he said. On Saturday and Sunday, we went to all the police stations looking for him. The officers would open the cells to us, but he wasn’t there,” says Anyango.
On Monday, the two women went to Nairobi City Mortuary, just in case Kamau’s body was there.
After looking at all the unknown bodies and not finding him, they left their contact and headed to the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) emergency unit.
However, he was not in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) fighting for his life, and nor was he in any ward. Even at the KNH mortuary, where they thought they had a matching description, they didn’t find his body.
“We are told that he was being chased alongside another resident, by two white Probox vehicles, one with a KBL number plate. At some point, he stopped running and started walking. We are told that there was a large group of police officers at the scene and that a directive had been given to capture the two. However, he was the only one caught. The other man hid,” says Anyango.
“We have never had any issues with the police. He wasn’t a commercial boda boda rider carrying passengers, he would only do private deliveries. We are also told that the residents around protested when he was being searched and that the two men that were holding him held up their guns, causing the residents to flee,” says Waithera, Kamau’s mother.
Waithera says that one of the officers is famed for wearing a dreadlock wig, and even though no resident knows his name, most of them claim that they can identify him. The officer is said to hail from Dandora.
These two cases, explained Irungu Houghton, the director of Amnesty International, are not isolated.
As many as 40 cases of enforced disappearances were recorded in 2021, a steady increase from the previous years.
“These are cases in which state officers have decided that somebody is an enemy of the state, and rather than taking them through the process of investigation, prosecution and adjudication, they are arbitrarily detained, sometimes tortured and intimidated,” says Houghton.
“In 2021, we saw a spike in enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, 70 per cent of whom were people suspected of serious crime. The other 30 per cent were suspected of terrorism,” he says.
In November 2021, Amnesty International, together with the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) and the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (Supkem) visited Cabinet Secretary for Interior Fred Matiang’i to demand that the 40 cases be investigated and those abducted be released or charged in a court of law. After the meeting, 10 missing men were reunited with their families.
Houghton notes that cases of enforced disappearances keep rising because there are no tough measures taken against officers that break the law.
This is made worse by inadequate public awareness, and the failure of the country to ratify the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearance, and to operationalise the Prevention of Torture Act and Coroners Service Act, that would speak to such cases.
“The purpose of enforced disappearance is not to eliminate a person per se, but to create fear in the community where the person comes from. It is designed to ensure that people keep their mouths shut and look the other way as the officers do what they like with some individuals,” he adds.
Happy Ola, the convener of community social justice centres, also adds that every week, there are reports that a person has gone missing, only for their body to be found days later.
“How can someone just disappear and they are never seen? What kind of torture does this bring to the family and community? We are here to mark this international day of victims of enforced disappearances, albeit with sadness and fear. In our streets, if you see a white Probox, you flee, because you may be the next victim. We need answers,” he says.