Kenyan police reportedly killed two unarmed teenagers on Friday afternoon (March 31) on a busy avenue in Nairobi’s Eastleigh business district.
The video footage shows an officer arguing with a young man in front of a crowd. The officer pulls the man in front of him. Shots are fired and the man is next seen lying on the ground. The officer then signals to a colleague, another policeman, to give him his gun. He stands over the suspect, with one foot on his back and shoots him. He then goes to load his gun, walks over to the suspect, and finishes him with a bullet to the head. The bloodied body of another man lies nearby.
The video, which surfaced on Friday, has prompted a national debate about extra-judicial killings in Kenya, one of the largest and most stable economies in Africa.
The police and an oversight agency have both called for an investigation. Human rights organizations have condemned the police’s actions. Nairobi’s police commander Japheth Koome said on Saturday that the men who were killed were part of a local gang called Super Power that had targeted police. Koome later told The Star newspaper that the video “was acted” as a way to discourage him from going after criminals.
But the most common, and problematic, response was that the suspects, who were reportedly teenagers, deserved to be killed and that enforcing law and order is a non-negotiable priority.
“As a community, with regards to this specific action of the police officer, I think 90% of the community are saying that he’s done a good job,” Ahmed Mohamed, a social activist in the Eastleigh area, told Quartz.
Criminal gangs in Kenya’s capital, famously nicknamed “Nairobbery” for its high crime rates, weigh heavily on the public mind. The government published a list last year of 90 gangs, which have been splintering and specializing in their operations, ranging from drug peddling to kidnapping, robbery, beatings, and killings. Many of them adopt exotic names like Super Power, Acrobatic, American Marines, Boston Boys, China Squad, and Taliban Boys.
Rising unemployment among Kenya’s youth, which stands at more than 17%, and the expansion of lawless and crowded urban slums, have exacerbated the problem. Thanks to high economic inequality, slums with extreme poverty abut neighborhoods of excessive wealth, which pushes young men to join gangs like Super Power and Gaza.
Kenyan security forces claim they are rooting out these gangs, but through dubious means. Kenyan police and military have been accused of carrying out enforced disappearances and torture, and killed at least 122 people last year, the highest in Africa, according to Amnesty International. These killings and disappearances have largely affected young people like the men killed on Friday, often in the name of counterterrorism.
The killings are not just restricted to young men. Journalists, opposition members, and civil society activists have also been killed by security agencies. The police have also been accused of colluding with criminal gangs, leaking information for bribes, or ignoring useful tips that might have led to investigation and arrests.
“The government has developed these reflexive methods of dealing [with criminals] whenever we have a contemporary security reality,” Abdullahi Boru, an East Africa researcher with Amnesty International, said.
“The fact that the public supports the execution and somewhat cheering is a thorough indictment of the lack of faith of the population in the entire criminal justice system,” Boru said. “If the system worked, people would have trusted the security agencies to arrest, investigate and the verdict is given.”