Kenyan police fight a War on Terror while fighting for a living wage

Corporal Mohammed Wehliye* stands at a checkpoint along the Garissa-Nairobi highway, screening motorists and passengers in north-eastern Kenya near, the Somali border.

Kenya has been on high alert since the terrorist group al-Shabab attacked Garissa University on 2 April, brutally killing 147 students.

It was the bloodiest terrorist attack on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi and it was al-Shabab’s most high-profile act of violence since the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

With a G3 rifle strapped to his shoulder, Corporal Wehliye,who has manned the busy checkpoint for the last five years, waves down the numerous cars and buses that pass through Garissa, asking passengers and drivers for their national identification cards.

“Some of the foreigners I encounter do not have proper identification but in return for a hefty bribe, my colleagues and I sometimes look the other way and let them come into the country,” Corporal Wehliye admits candidly.

As a father-of-four, Corporal Wehliye is one of many officers in the 40,000-strong Kenyan National Police Service who says he has to accept bribes because he doesn’t earn enough to survive otherwise.

As a corporal (one rank above constable), he earns a gross income of 36,000 Kenya shillings (approximately US$ 400), but his take home pay is much lower after tax and personal loan repayments.

When asked whether he is aware that his actions could undermine national security, he replied:

“Sometimes I have to go against my conscience to put food on the table.”

His chilling sentiments are shared back in Nairobi by Constable James Waweru*.

Newly-wed Constable Waweru works with the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in Nairobi’s Central Police Station.

“I have in the past few years been privileged to handle high-profile cases touching on the high and mighty, yet when I come home in the evening I am reminded of how unwanted a police officer is in this country,” Constable Waweru says.

He shares a two-bedroomed, corrugated iron house with two of his junior colleagues at the station.

He says it is not easy, even for the most staunchly patriotic or committed police officer, to resist the lure of hefty bribes when the living and working conditions for police officers are so poor.

“The irony is that the nature of our work is sensitive as we are entrusted to protect everyone in this nation, and yet, in return we are treated like rats,” says Constable Waweru.


“Serve and suffer”

The majority of police officers interviewed by Equal Times expressed similar sentiments.

They complain of low pay, poor housing and few, if any, benefits. A common refrain, particularly on social media in the wake of the Garissa attacks, is that police officers are there to “serve and suffer”.

“We should work for eight hours but we work for much longer. We don’t have the right equipment yet the pressure mounts for us to deliver with every new incident of terror or crime,” says Constable Waweru.

On average, a Kenyan police constable earns 27,000 shillings (approximately US$300) per month before tax.

A typical mid-income salary for workers such as bank clerks and middle-ranking civil servants is about 50,000 shillings (US$600) per month. This is considered a living wage in Kenya.

Until recently, police officers in Kenya worked without health insurance despite the dangerous conditions they work under on a daily basis.

They also lack adequate housing and most junior officers, especially those who are single, are forced to share a house with as many as three other officers.

“Over time these conditions dehumanise you because you have no privacy. You gradually learn that the state thinks you are worthless and that you are on your own,” says Constable Waweru.

Corporal Wehliye says it is difficult to move up the ranks as promotions are based on nepotism and favouritism.

“You could be diligent in your duties, but you have to ‘know’ someone at the top to push your case. I know a colleague who has spent thirty years in the police as a constable without promotion.”

On paper, Kenya has laid out ambitious reforms out to modernise the police service as part of Kenya Vision 2030, a blueprint which sets out the economic transformation of Kenya into a middle-income country by 2030.

The constitution, promulgated in 2010, also made demands for structural and welfare reforms within the National Police Service.

The reform agenda has been backed by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration which was elected three years ago on the promise of improving the lives of Kenyans by, amongst other measures, creating jobs and reducing crime.

But security institutions are still undergoing restructuring in order to meet constitutional requirements.

This has necessitated the formation of new institutions to bring about change.

For instance, the National Police Service Commission was established and charged with the responsibility of managing, regulating and supervising police reforms in the country.

Even then, the reforms anticipated in the police service are now way behind schedule. And now police officers say morale in the service is at an all-time low, thanks to the slow pace of reforms.

“We expected that the government would fast track their promises of improving our welfare but they have not,” says Constable Waweru. “All they keep doing is making promises in the media.”


War on Terror

This state of widespread disillusionment amongst rank and file police officers, experts say, is hampering Kenya’s renewed efforts to fight al-Shabaab.

“There is an urgent need to modernise the police service to enable it to be up to task to match the sophisticated nature of crime and criminals and terrorism,” says Casty Gatakaa Mbae of the Kenya Institute for Public Policy and Research Analysis (Kippra).

In Kippra’s ground-breaking 2013 study, The Achilles’ heel of police reforms in Kenya, the authors note that fifty years after independence, Kenya is still struggling to reform its police service.

Challenges, the report states, include “corruption within its ranks, extra-judicial killings, limited and/or lack of professionalism, poor housing, lack of modern crime fighting equipment, among numerous other challenges.”

The Directorate of Criminal Investigations, for example, does not even have a forensic laboratory to tackle sophisticated crimes despite repeated promises to procure one.

Meanwhile, vehicle patrols and responses are hampered by a lack of working patrol vehicles.

The effect of this – weakened responses and coordination during emergencies – was confirmed during the Garissa attack, as images were widely circulated of first police responders appearing on the scene without bullet-proof vests.

Intelligence reports independently verified by Equal Times also reveal that corruption, a lack of commitment to work and waning professional integrity have all contributed to a rise in crime and terror incidents in Kenya.

“Systemic corruption within the security agencies is discouraging patriotic Kenyans from volunteering information on terror suspects,” National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale told Equal Times.

In the aftermath of the attack, the Kenyan government has come under serious criticism prompting the suspension of nine top security officials.

Kenya’s interior minister, Joseph Nkaissery, said the two civil servants and seven senior police officers in Garissa appeared to have failed to mobilise ahead of the attack, despite intelligence warnings, adding that they could face charges of criminal negligence.

A senior Garissa police administrator corroborated claims of entrenched corruption within the force, saying that most officers in units including the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit and the Criminal Investigative Department, are complicit in taking bribes.

“We don’t know whom to trust within our units because rogue elements pass on crucial information to al-Shabaab members in exchange for money,” said the senior police official on the condition of anonymity.



However, it is not all doom and gloom, according to Deputy President William Ruto.

In an interview with Equal Times, he insisted that the government is on course to turn the National Police Service into a modern, efficient and effective police force that is equipped to tackle Kenya’s various security challenges.

He cited the purchase of 1,200 new police vehicles and the planned acquisition of modern communication equipment, as well as the recruitment of more police officers in a bid to address under-staffing.

“The government is also looking to improve the terms and conditions of service for security personnel serving the country,” he said.

But serving officers are impatient.

“The pace with which implementation of police reforms is being carried out is frustrating and I don’t think there is political will,” says Constable Waweru.
Nairobi based security expert Simiyu Werunga agrees:

“Until the human resource is well catered for and police officer welfare is treated with the seriousness it deserves the insecurity puzzle will not be solved easily.”