Kenyans Say Tribal Divide Has
Reached Police Force
Victims of Mobs Accuse Officers of Standing By
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
NAIVASHA, Kenya -- Benson Onyango slipped behind the door of his
house, terrified as he watched about two dozen young men chase his
friend down the dirt paths of their neighborhood in this lakeside
town. His friend stumbled to the ground, and the gang began
beating him with clubs and iron bars.
Onyango scanned the neighborhood for anyone who could help, he
recalled, and felt a flash of relief when he saw 10 police
officers on a slope nearby. But seconds passed, and the police
just watched, he said. He called out for them to do something.
They finally fired several bullets into the air, but the beating
"At long last, they cut his neck," said Onyango, who now lives
amid heaps of mattresses and clothes at a local police station,
his only potential refuge, and still fears for his life. "The
police, they saw what was happening, and they did nothing."
"The police were from their tribe," the Kikuyu, he said of the
gang. "So they tried to defend their people to do what they wanted."
In the violent weeks since this country's disputed Dec. 27
presidential election, traumatized Kenyans have repeatedly accused
police of failing to protect them. They say officers have run away
from machete-wielding gangs and local militias, or stood by and
watched as their brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and neighbors
were butchered and their homes burned to the ground. In some cases,
officers are accused of egging on or assisting the attackers.
Opposition leaders have also repeatedly accused the police of
gunning down unarmed demonstrators.
In the best of times, the police here are a poorly paid force
often accused of human rights abuses and corruption. Government
officials say they are now simply overwhelmed or lack clear
But many Kenyans believe the police are as dangerously divided as
the country itself. Officers from President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu
tribe have been accused of allowing attacks on Luos and other
ethnic groups loyal to opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo,
while others say Kalenjin and Luhya officers have permitted
attacks on Kikuyus.
Meanwhile, amid the prevailing insecurity, gangs and tribal
militias are asserting greater control over swaths of western
Kenya and Nairobi's poorest neighborhoods, where groups that have
taken names such as the Baghdad Boys and the Taliban, as well as
an outlawed sect, the Mungiki, are recruiting hard.
The lack of trust in police protection is speeding the ethnic
segregation underway across the country, where more than 600,000
displaced people are heading for regions where they feel safe --
the Kikuyus to their ethnic homeland in central Kenya, and the
Luos, Luhyas and Kalenjins to the west.
"The only problem we have now is one," said John Oduri, a tailor
whose shop was torched by gangs. He was spending his fifth night
at the Naivasha police station, about 50 miles northwest of
Nairobi, wearing clothes stained with his brother's blood. "We
want to leave this place and go home."
A political split within Kenya's security forces and the military
remains one of the most dreaded scenarios in this once-stable and
prosperous East African nation.
Analysts say Kibaki has been reluctant to use the military more
fully to stop the violence because he is worried about losing
control over it. He has also become alarmed by divisions in the
police force, according to one high-ranking Kenyan diplomat with
close ties to the country's security apparatus. A recent transfer
of police commanders in western Kenya was intended to rid the
force of Kalenjin officers whose loyalty to Kibaki was in doubt,
the diplomat said.
"It is no longer a national police force, or even a national armed
force," he said on condition of anonymity because of his
involvement in ongoing negotiations between the two sides. "It is
skewed in terms of composition and command."
Analysts say the military and the security forces -- which include
the police and a paramilitary force known as the General Service
Unit, or GSU -- became heavily politicized when Kibaki took office
in 2002. Both forces had previously recruited according to census.
But Kibaki's government drew heavily from his own ethnic group and
began placing Kikuyus in high-ranking positions, causing some
resentment among the rank and file.
Many Kenyans had treated the police who patrolled their
communities like neighbors, but that trust has nearly disappeared.
"If they put tight security, we will not refuse to go back," said
Paul Karimi, who was forced off his farm in western Kenya. "But if
they put the regular ones, the regular police, no. We don't want
Karimi sat with hundreds of other displaced Kikuyus at his new,
temporary home, a schoolyard along a paved road winding through
the rolling, green tea farms of central Kenya, where he grew up.
When his farm came under attack after the election, Karimi said,
he and his neighbors frantically called local police officers,
many of whom they had known for years. Some were Kalenjin, a tribe
that supported Odinga. By Karimi's count, about 20 armed officers
showed up. They were faced with more than 100 local Kalenjin
militiamen armed with machetes and bows and arrows.
He and others screamed for help, expecting the officers to open
fire on the militiamen, he said, but "the police just ran away."
The militiamen descended on the farm, burning houses and piles of
maize, and Karimi escaped to the forest. He and hundreds of others
made their way to a police station. Karimi boarded a bus for
Central province two days later.
The other displaced Kikuyus told similar stories as they gathered
in lines for beans or sat on piles of mattresses and clothes.
Faith Wanjiru, 22, said about 30 police officers showed up when
militias attacked her farm, about 15 miles from Karimi's. The
officers watched as her house burned and the militiamen hustled
her and other screaming women into a nearby school.
"The police did not fire one shot, nothing," she said.
The women were trapped in the school for three days, and the gangs
began raping the Kikuyu women, Wanjiru said. During the day, she
could hear what she assumed was a police or military helicopter
hovering overhead, and several times the women ran outside to wave
"But they didn't help," she said.
After several days of attacks across the Rift Valley, the
government sent the GSU paramilitary force, which tear-gassed the
school, whisked the women away in trucks and later helped escort
the convoys out of the area.
When the Kikuyu gangs attacked Naivasha, however, the GSU was
nowhere to be found, and the local police force was left to fend
off several thousand young men who rampaged through the town
hunting down Luos, Luhyas and Kalenjins, apparently to avenge the
attacks in the Rift Valley.
Willy Ndagona, the top police official in Naivasha and a Luhya,
said his officers did their best under the circumstances. He said
that his police force is ethnically diverse and that he instructs
officers according to the law.
"I would like to believe they are working within the tenets of the
force," Ndagona said. "But on an individual level, I cannot know
what some would do."
Survivors of those attacks remain crowded at a police station
parking lot with their belongings, a scene nearly identical to the
one at the schoolyard.
"We had people butchered, and the police just watched helplessly,"
said George Ochieng, a hotel worker who said he wants to leave
Naivasha for his home village in Nyanza province, far to the
Many of those at the police station said that Kikuyus from town
taunt them at night and that they must pay the police to escort
them beyond the station gates.
When Ochieng returns home, he said, he will discuss whether it was
time to form a local defense force. "If the army will provide
security, okay. If they are reluctant, we will have to do it."