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We must put the shine back on Kenya’s police

I had an interesting encounter with a policeman last week.

I was flagged down for allegedly committing the heinous offence of obstructing traffic. I pointed out that what I had done was arguably not wrong at all – at best, misguided, at worst, an honest mistake. To no avail. The policeman entered my vehicle to take me to a nearby police station.

So far, so commonplace. But the story changes from here. En route, I made some quiet points to the policeman. That I endeavour at all times to obey traffic laws, no matter how inconvenient. That I never knowingly do the things so many drivers do every single day: overtake dangerously; drive against oncoming traffic; block other users; park anywhere. Yet, even if I make an isolated mistake every few years or so, I will be the one hauled to court alongside murders and rapists and made to waste time and pay fines. The true law-breakers generally go scot-free.

How, I asked my passenger, will society advance if the innocent are punished and the guilty run riot?

The policeman, interestingly, looked uncomfortable. He acknowledged the problems of impunity in society and debasement of its law enforcers. And agreed that this state of affairs was deeply dispiriting for the good officers in the police force. Yes, policemen like this – smart, disciplined and thoughtful – still exist in Kenya.

I have written here before: we cannot keep looking away from the extremely deep-rooted problems in the police. In 2003 I asked: If you give a man a gun, ask him to risk his own life in order to protect you, and then proceed to pay him a pittance and give him little respect, is the outcome in doubt?

If you additionally place the man with the gun in an atmosphere of rampant extortion and corruption, where quick wealth is applauded and honesty is mocked, then even more bad things are going to happen. By and large, they have.

Most Kenyan governments to date have looked away from the problem of reforming the police force. Lip service has been paid, and lipstick has been applied, but the problems remain. It has suited politicians to keep policemen weak and dependent, and to use them for personal ends.

We have a new government, a new Inspector General of police, a new institutional structure. We must not shirk the opportunity this time. We cannot achieve rapid economic growth if we do not fix the problems of insecurity, impunity and disdain for the law, once and for all. Look at the curve of history: economies that do not have strong law enforcement mechanisms soon sputter out.

Poor remuneration is a major part of the law enforcement problem, but it is only one part. The greater challenges are around leadership, management, motivation and culture. We need sweeping changes: in leadership style and role modelling; in rewards and incentives; in systems and processes; in checks and controls. And we must recognize all institutions are populated by human beings, not numbers. Holistic reform is needed, and is overdue.

If we do it this time, we will take our society to a much stronger place. There remain many good police officers in place, trapped in a bad culture. Being a member of the police is no ordinary job; those who protect a society and safeguard its rules of behaviour are special people being asked to do a special thing. They should be highly respected, well-appreciated members of society.

Kenyans need a day to come when their policemen and policewomen are held in high esteem rather than viewed with suspicion. When the law is the same for all, and no exceptions are made for the wealthy and the powerful. To get there, the Jubilee government must give law enforcement the utmost priority, and lead the change from the top.

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