Discrimination and violence by the police is a daily occurrence in Kenya. There is a strong sense of distrust between the young Muslim population and the predominantly Christian police force. Meanwhile, terrorist organisation Al-Shabab is taking advantage of the circumstances and calls for the killing of non-believers. In this challenging situation, Mensen met een Missie, together with her Kenyan partners KECOSCE (Kenyan Community and Support Centre) and IRCK (Interreligious Council of Kenya) manages to create trust between young people and the police.
Imagine this. It’s late in the evening, you’re hanging out with your friends in the streets. Escaping the heat of your small, crowded home. Somewhere, turmoil erupts and people are screaming. A shot is fired. The police are on patrol. Suddenly, you and your friends are forcefully arrested and thrown into jail.
It was a daily reality for many young people of the Kenyan cities of Kwale and Mombasa. The region in which these cities are located has always been disadvantaged. The government was absent and investments in public education were not made. As a result, a large part of the population lacks schooling. There is little employment and poverty reigns.
“The government is seen as an intruder”, says Phyllis, the 47-year-old director of KECOSCE. “We started a project to change the image that communities, young people and police have of one another. ‘Breaking the myth’ – it was a success.”
According to Al-Shabab, Christians are to blame for the poverty, unemployment and feelings of hopelessness amongst Muslims.
Outlining the situation in Kenia
Phyllis outlines the situation in her country: “The little employment in our region is often given to Christians. Attracted by tourism jobs in the coastal town, they come to Mombassa from other regions. They are often better educated than the local people and as a result, more Christians are also appointed to positions with the police and government. This leads to tensions. And Al-Shabab cleverly responds to that.”
They abuse the levels of inequality and difference in religious beliefs to convince local people that Christians are to blame for the poverty, unemployment and feelings of hopelessness amongst the Muslim population.
Islamic schools filled the gap that the government left in the field of education. Jihad was called for in these madrasas and in the mosques. Radical ideas were promoted and Christians were given the mark of ‘non-believers’.
“This led to additional violence”, Phyllis continues. “Attacks were committed under the motto ‘kill the infidel invaders’.” The answer? Tough police action. With many innocent victims as a result. Low-educated Muslim youth who had nothing to do with the violence were arrested and killed.
“And so we were in this vicious circle. The negative image of the police was intensified, hatred of Christians grew, making it easier for Al-Shabab to recruit young people. ”
The police are corrupt, bad and will kill you.
Breaking the cycle of violence
Phyllis started an investigation three years ago. “We asked a thousand young people about what they thought of the police. And how they think about themes such as safety. What we found out? Although they never visited a police station, their image of the police was very negative. ‘The police are corrupt, bad and will kill you’, a youngster told me. And that image is passed on from generation to generation.”
Phyllis was surprised that at the same time the young people told her that they cannot do without the police either. ‘Seeing police patrolling the street makes you feel a little bit safer, even though you know they are corrupt’, they said. And also: ‘We need the police. Otherwise, we will be completely at the mercy of criminals and the terrorists of Al-Shabab.’”
They also asked the police about their experiences and ideas. Phyllis: “They blamed the communities for the poor security situation in the region. They did not feel supported in their work. They told us: ‘The communities expect protection from us, but at the same time they do not give us any information. So how can we do our job properly?’ The police were frustrated with their relationship with the communities. And afraid that people support Al-Shabab.”
Filling the trust and information gap
“We saw a clear gap between the police and the community. A gap that was partly caused by people not knowing how our legal system works. And what they can expect from the police. Because the police are visible in the streets and neighborhoods, the police were blamed for everything. If a minister turns out to be corrupt, the police are blamed. That insight determined our starting point. Sharing knowledge of and about each other. ”
The Kenya Community Support Centre started a collaboration between communities and thirteen police stations. Three offices in Kwale and ten in Mombasa.
They provided information about the various departments within the police, their responsibilities and duties. And explained how the justice system works.
“With a number of religious and traditional leaders, we visited police officers to tell them about the culture and customs of the communities. And especially that of the young people.
We visited the police stations with residents. We broke the myth. The myth that the police are only bad and corrupt. This is how we grew trust between the communities. That was a long process, which certainly did not go smoothly. ”
Cooperation is increasing and that improves the feeling of safety.
The next step was to establish community councils. “There was a council created for each community”, says Phyllis. These councils are made up of religious and traditional leaders and women. These councils and officers meet monthly at the police station in that region.
“The police are discussing the status of the cases they are working on. Explaining why someone who is a suspect is still roaming the streets. That they are free until the case goes to trial, and not because they have paid a bribe. It is important to explain that a suspect has certain rights until a judge determines that someone is guilty.”
This is working out well. “We see that the image that the police and the communities had of each other is shifting. Cooperation is increasing and this improves the safety situation.”
Just send the commissioner a text
We haven’t talked about the young people yet. They are actually the most important party involved. It is the young people who most often fall victim to police brutality and are the target of recruiting fighters.
Phyllis started a youth forum for them. “In the forum, young people talk to the police. They also visit police stations to build trust. They should see each other as partners for peace.”
And then the WhatsApp groups. “This was also a long process”, says the director.
“We set up a WhatsApp group with young people and the police commissioner at each police station. The young people regularly visit the police station to do voluntary work. They now see the police as a service that is there for them. But also a service to which they have to contribute themselves. If a young person is now arrested, they can discuss this directly with the commissioner. In this way, misunderstandings are cleared up and police brutality decreases. ”
I’ve been sleeping so well lately because I’m no longer woken up by gunfights.
Not everyone is happy with the activities of Phyllis and her team. This makes their work not without danger. Yet, they remain committed. What keeps Phyllis motivated?
“Last week, someone told me, ‘I’ve been sleeping so well lately because I’m no longer woken up by gunfights’. That motivates me to continue.”
The community policing project is part of the Freedom of Religion and Belief programme of Mensen met een Missie in Kenya. Funding for this programme comes from the Human Rights Fund of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.