Who Killed Oscar Kingara (and Hundreds of Other Kenyans)?

March 6, 2009

Kenyan police attacking slum dwellers in 2007

Kenyan police attacking slum dwellers in 2007

Another day, another set of assassinations. This time, however, the two people who have been killed are not the head of state and army chief of a West African nation, but two human rights defenders in Kenya, U.S. ally and bastion of the “War on Terror” in East Africa.

As the BBC reports “Oscar Kamau Kingara was shot dead along with a colleague hours after a government spokesman accused their group of aiding a criminal gang.”

Kingara and colleague John Paul Oulu were shot dead in their car, close to the Kenyan State House in Nairobi. After the, hundreds of students and activists took to the streets. The Kenyan police responded by firing into the air, and killing one of the protesters.

The manner in which Kingara and Ouli died is chilling. According to their colleage Cyprian Nyamwamu, “eyewitnesses on the scene saw the two vehicles create a jam, stop the traffic until they came out, gunned down these two human rights officers and paraded and ensured that nobody took these two to hospital until they were dead.” Clearly the police were not willing to intervene, yet they certainly could have. As it turned out, uniformed police only arrived two hours later, sparking accusations that they were complicit in the killings.

Yet there are many other questions surrounding the two murders that go to the heart of Kenya’s rotten state, which is propped up by largesse from the United States and the United Kingdom.

Kingara was on his way to a protest organized by the Oscar Foundation and the Kenya Centre for Human Rights, which investigates human rights abuses in the nation. As Reuters reports, the protests were intended to raise awareness of extra-judicial killings committed by the Kenyan police. The Oscar Foundation had been working on exposing such assassinations since the Kenyan state embarked upon a massive killing spree in June 2007, following the deaths of several policemen. Those deaths, in turn, were blamed on the “Mungiki” sect – a Kikuyu group commonly likened to the mafia – and the police subsequently ran riot, taking revenge on Kenya’s poor.

As the KCHR/Oscar Foundation found in a report released last year around 500 people have been ‘disappeared’ – or their remains have been found – “dumped in various locations such as forests, desolate farms, rivers and dams.” The report also documents harrowing “patterns of conduct by the Kenya Police that may constitute crimes against humanity.”

But it didn’t stop there. The report also argues that “whereas initially the police mainly used firearms to execute the suspects, they subsequently changed their modus operandi and have since been using such methods as strangulation, drowning, mutilation and bludgeoning. The change of strategy was to make members of the public believe that rival Mungiki gangs are responsible for the killings.”

The KCHR also suggested that a tactic of blaming such killings on dissident Mungiki groups was “a ploy to divert public attention and conceal the grotesque illegal conduct of the police.”

Damningly, it also found that “the police may be involved in an extortion racket where they arrest individuals and demand for money from their relatives to secure their release” and documented this extensively through terrifying case studies.

Shoeseller Geoffrey Kung’u was typical. The report found that Kung’u had been arrested twice – and was forced to pay police more money each time (about half the average annual wage in one case). The third time he was detained, he was abducted, killed and dumped outside Nairobi.

Then there was the case of Joseph Githutha who, having fought his case in the law courts, was acquitted of being a member of the Mungiki. That still did not prevent him from being “gunned down by police immediately after the acquittal.”

The report describes an atmosphere of arbitrary terror on the streets of Nairobi’s poorest areas. There are cases of people being simply snatched in broad daylight never to be seen again, alive. Patrick Mwangi, a bus conductor, was waiting for his driver when police arrested him and another unrelated man, taking them away.

Suspects were routinely beaten and then killed. Often, they appear to have been made to run, suffering gunshots to the legs, before a short range shot to the head. Grizzly scenes are reported from remote areas of Kenya, with one river having yielded 15 bodies.

Oscar Kingara worked on these investigations, which have laid bare one of the most brutal state structures on the African continent. This affirms journalistic accounts from June 2007, when Kenyan police invaded Nairobi’s second largest slum, Mathare.

In the words of the BBC’s Kate Allen: “Hundreds of residents, men women and young children lie face down in the mud” while “Every now and again one of the captives is plucked out, dragged into a corner and questioned…A woman in a brown dress screams in pain as she is questioned and kicked once again…A policeman claims weapons were found under her bed at home. She says she knows nothing.”

Allen documented an extra-judicial killing herself, recounting that “A man with a blue and orange sports jacket is dragged passed us into a dark room…Police follow him in – presumably to interrogate him…Out of view shots are head. An hour later a body is carried out by a group of terrified boys.”

A couple of days later, Reuters’ Jeremy Clarke witnessed similar scenes of horror and repression. Clarke found “groups of people piled face-down in the bloodstained dirt as police stood over them, whipping and caning” and saw “a group of police force a boy of about 10 to drop his trousers for a beating” while “Other officers hit a young girl, in full Islamic dress, with rubber whips.” He saw how police “tossed teargas canisters through open doors, sending choking occupants rushing out” and how “residents were put to work in the stinking river, trawling for body parts and police guns that were taken after…two officers were ambushed.”

33 people died in that episode, which was followed by months of detentions and murders. Yet the KCHR/Oscar Foundation report counsels that “The KNCHR continues to receive an alarming number of complaints of ongoing disappearances and extra-judicial killings attributed to the police and urges the government to urgently intervene to stop these human rights violations.”

There is little chance of that happening. The report was met with derision by Kenyan officials. Police Commissioner General Hussein Ali called its compilers “meaningless busybodies” and branded its allegations “infantile.” Such official intransigence led the human rights groups to send the report to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, yet such institutions can do little to influence Nairobi, particularly as the government has strong U.S. and British backing.

Indeed, while the activities of the International Republican Institute in Kenya seem to have been intended to ensure “stability” by backing Mwai Kibaki during the 2007 elections, the Kenyan police justify their brutality by claiming to be guarding order. The Mungiki had reportedly threatened to topple the government.

Such claims by the authorities might seem a little less credible given the report’s finding that the Kenyan police have dressed up extra-judicial executions as Mungiki killings and appear to have been responsible for a large part of the mafia-like extortion reported in slums such as Mathare that had been attributed to the Mungiki.

These latest assasinations were almost certainly intended to protect “stability” as well – and to keep the people disciplined. The activities of the Oscar Foundation and the KCHR have exposed the oligarchical (and massively corrupt) Kenyan state to criticism. The police, which protect the bloated elite from masses of marginalized, angry poor Kenyans, has been partially unmasked.

In that sense, it is easy to see why Kingara became a target.

But there is more to it than that. Kingara wasn’t just a human rights defender. He was also in the process of building a grassroots movement to challenge the Kenyan elite.

As documented on the Oscar Foundation’s website, Kingara was one of the organizers of “The Liberator,” an potentially revolutionary social movement which demands an end to the manipulation of tribal politics, an end to the extraordinary salaries of MPs, an end to the looting of Kenyan public services and, naturally, an end to extra-judicial killings.

It’s an ambitious project – and the students gathering to protest in Nairobi on the day that Kingara was killed were presumably part of it. Claiming to have “active and operating networks in all 210 constituencies of our beloved country” its manifesto states that “if our leaders can not see the written signs and heed to our demand now, we promise a peaceful liberation of this country by making it ungovernable for them. We will fight them with the power of our numbers through civil disobedience, mass processions, and public defiance.”

If Kingara’s death means that such a project is derailed, then it is a massive loss to Africa and the world. On the other hand, his blatant assassination could catalyze resistance – anything is possible.

However, there is little chance of progress unless the United States demands changes from its Kenyan client. Given the obedience with which Mwai Kibaki has carried out his role in the War on Terror, facilitating the attack on Somalia and rounding up terror suspects, this is unlikely. Pressure will have to be exerted on Barack Obama from U.S. society, if change is to occur.

The U.S. bears responsibility for the deaths of those killed by Kenyan police, including Oscar Kingara.

As academic Daniel Vollmam reports, U.S. military assistance has been extensive and lethal. The Pentagon sent $1.6 million in weapons and training assistance in 2006, while Kenya received $2.5 million in 2007 via the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales Program and it has also bought $1.9 million worth of arms from private military firms.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has continually trained Kenyan police officers, announcing $400,000 worth of funding in 2005 and setting aside $550,000 on the task in 2008.

All of that pales into insignificance besides the much larger “East Africa Counter-Terrorism Initiative” which, Vollmann notes, has distributed $100 million to governments in the region to bolster their armies and security services. The U.S. has also been instrumental in creating new units within the Kenyan police, including the Antiterrorism Police Unit (in 2004).

This all adds up to an intimate relationship between Washington and Nairobi. And it’s a relationship that has survived numerous human rights related tensions. From the Somalian renditions, to extra-judicial killings, the violence surrounding Kenya’s elections and the mass murder of people in the Mt Elgon region (documented by Human Rights Watch), the relationship has gone from strength to strength.

Yet, of course, Kenyan politicians are not in line for an ICC warrant, or anything like that, but it seems like some of their underlings may be, which just brings home what a mockery of international justice we actually have to endure.

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5 Responses to “Who Killed Oscar Kingara (and Hundreds of Other Kenyans)?”


  1. […] a minister in Mwai Kibaki’s tainted Kenyan government is no indication of moral qualities. Yet Maathai has been insulated from criticism, becoming famous […]


  2. […] to be responsible for some grizzly killings – perhaps hundreds. But as I discovered in reporting on the death of human rights campaigner Oscar Kingara, the Kenyan state has been responsible for similar, if not far worse, crimes. Those crimes have […]

  3. Mpelelezi Says:

    The shooter is was a notorious Kwekwe officer called Owino; also responsible for many other government ‘hits’. The one who gave the order is none other than John Michuki. Kwani tutadoo what?:(


  4. […] Assassins, almost definitely government operatives, ambushed them on March 5, 2009 during rush-hour traffic. The aftermath was even weirder. University students moved Oulu’s body into a hostel. When the police tried to retrieve it, they fired live rounds, killing one student. The police answered to the call a whole two hours after the shooting despite the nearest police station being a walking distance away from the crime scene. […]


  5. […] Assassins, almost definitely government operatives, ambushed them on March 5, 2009 during rush-hour traffic. The aftermath was even weirder. University students moved Oulu’s body into a hostel. When the police tried to retrieve it, they fired live rounds, killing one student. The police answered to the call a whole two hours after the shooting despite the nearest police station being a walking distance away from the crime scene. […]


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