Is there a difference between gun-toting thugs robbing and murdering at will and a trigger-happy police force killing “suspects” daily without fear of consequence?
Four gunshots that crackled outside my downtown Nairobi office one September morning pushed this moral riddle to the front of my mind.
The first was like a starter’s pistol that caused my heart to run. That sounded like a gun, I thought. Was it?
A second later, answers came like a whip striking sticks of dynamite. Crack! Crack! Crack!
Just before noon in the middle of one of Nairobi’s busiest intersections, six men wearing bulletproof vests under their suit jackets moved from a station wagon they were abandoning to a car they were stealing.
One fired an AK-47 into the air to scare the driver of the car out of his seat.
Hundreds of pedestrians lay on their stomachs with their faces buried in the pavement.
The crew jumped in and sped off. Moments later, about a dozen cops arrived waving their Billy clubs in an almost comic display of powerlessness.
In a town full of automatic rifles, they didn’t have any.
The shooting, which turned out to be a botched bank robbery and subsequent escape, is the only violence I’ve witnessed in Nairobi despite the city’s reputation.
It was a reminder, however, that gun-wielding thugs haven’t disappeared, but have been forced out of the city core.
The end of the once endemic crime in downtown Nairobi is thanks to the police’s war against a quasi-religious sect known as the Mungiki, say locals.
The sect is similar to Hezbollah, policing slums where the police don’t go and giving jobs to aimless youth.
But it’s also notorious for extortion and violence, and has recently been linked to dozens of murders, including beheadings.
Fear of the Mungiki borders on the supernatural.
They are sub-humans who drink blood, take drugs and kill without scruples. Whatever needs to be done to destroy them, so be it.
The result of this unquestioning support, combined with a lack of a civilian-oversight body for the police, is cops who kill suspects rather than arrest them.
The daily news is filled with body counts of “criminals” presented like sports scores.
If anyone asks tough questions, the answer is usually “Mungiki.”
But signs are appearing this free hand has gotten out of control, even for a society all too familiar with violence.
Since July, more than 40 bodies have been discovered in remote areas of the city.
The media is openly questioning if cops were behind the trigger.
The police say no.
The Kenyan Human Rights Commission, however, is investigating.
On Sunday, it will release a study that examines the killings, which are apparently close-range gunshots to the head that allow bullets to be recovered and prevent them from being traced, according to a source.
How unsettling, then, for a discussion focused on the scourge of gun violence in Africa to conveniently take a pass on this moral dilemma.
This week, Nairobi, Kenya, Switzerland, and the United Nations Development Program are hosting discussions with countries from across Africa on the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development.
The declaration, so far endorsed by 51 countries since its creation in 2006, is much like the international landmine treaty.
It links the scourge of violence from guns with economic and social development problems and seeks concrete ways to solve it.
The numbers are chilling.
Between 1990 and 2005, the cost of armed conflict in Africa exceeded $300 billion — about the same amount as the foreign aid the continent received during the same period.
There are an estimated 30 million firearms in Africa, with 80 per cent owned by civilians.
The continent contains 18 per cent of the global toll of firearm deaths, the majority of which are homicides.
Police in Accra and Nairobi are repeatedly accused of lending civilians guns and clothing to rob people — they call them “pobbers,” or police robbers.
And Nairobi holds the 2006 crown for the highest victimization rate of armed robbery, at 37 per cent.
But police violence was an unfriendly discussion at a news conference for the armed violence meeting.
“You talk about the police killing people — I talk about the kids in the police force,” said Kenyan Foreign Minister Raphael Tuju, when questioned about the cost of recent successes in stemming violence in Nairobi.
“They are sometimes as young as 20 and they have to deal with seasoned criminals who are tough,” he said. “Mistakes happen and I seriously regret them. But the alternative to this is to say, ‘We don’t want any accidents and we’ll therefore do nothing.’”
Officials from the United Nations looked on and said nothing.
For those lucky enough to work in the downtown core, Nairobi today is a safer place.
But for those stuck in the slums, especially young men, Nairobi has become more dangerous, as a gang with guns faces off against a publicly funded gang with guns, neither side hemmed in by anything resembling the law.
Former Yukon News reporter Tim Querengesser now lives in Kenya.