Hussein Moyo releases a soft chuckle, sitting on a couch in his home in the Karamaiko area of Mathare, a low-income neighborhood in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. He is watching a video of his late son Yassin, a thirteen-year-old who police shot and killed while enforcing a COVID-19 curfew in 2020.
“This is how he would wake us up every morning,” forty-eight-year-old Hussein says, smiling and showing me numerous videos on his cellphone of Yassin energetically dancing to ’80s American R&B; the young boy, who was attending primary school, is seen excitedly convincing his father, brothers, and sisters to join him, teaching them his innovative dance moves. “He was a very funny boy, full of life.” Hussein’s eyes become blurred with tears as he lovingly sifts through photos and videos of his son.
“If you met Yassin, you would never forget him,” says Hadija, Yassin’s thirty-seven-year-old mother. She is cradling a newborn, whom she gave birth to just two months before my visit. They named the boy Yassin in memory of their slain child. “Our house is cold now,” Hadija continues. “He gave us so much joy. And the police took that bright life away for no reason. Our lives will never be the same without him.”
Yassin’s murder made international headlines, putting the rampant police violence experienced by youths in Kenya’s low-income neighborhoods into global focus. The officer allegedly responsible for Yassin’s killing was charged with murder, a rarity in Kenya’s judicial system. The first hearing is expected to take place next month, in February. Yassin’s family, however, has little hope the courts will bring them adequate justice.
“Help Me. I Can’t Breathe.”
Kenya’s endemic police violence dramatically escalated amid the country’s COVID-19 restrictions, which handed unprecedented powers to the police, providing them an excuse to unleash extreme brutality on the country’s poor.
Police killed twenty-four people while enforcing COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the government, according to Missing Voices Kenya, a coalition of organizations that documents extrajudicial killings. Scores were arbitrarily arrested, beaten, or extorted for actually or allegedly violating coronavirus policies, such as mask-wearing requirements.
Yassin was killed by police on March 30, 2020, within the first ten days of Kenya’s enforcement of its nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew to curb the spread of COVID-19, which was finally lifted in October last year. The teen, along with his mother, two sisters, and three younger brothers, had gone to the top balcony of their multistory home after hearing a noise outside.
“It was around 7 PM,” Yassin’s seventeen-year-old sister, Hawa, tells me. “We always liked to sit on the balcony, just chilling and telling stories. And this day we heard some noise so we all went to the balcony to see what was happening.”
“We saw a group of men; some of them were wearing police uniforms, and some of them were wearing black robes,” says Hawa, adding that there were about thirty officers in total. “One of them walked toward our home. I got confused and asked my mom why he was walking toward our house. My mom replied, ‘Don’t worry. It’s just the police doing their job.’”
Soon after, Hawa recounts seeing a laser pointed from one of the police officers’ guns before a single gunshot rang out into the night; beneath them the streets were empty. “I was startled and turned to the officer, and he had already turned his back and was joining the rest of his group. Yassin fell from the chair he was standing on. Then I heard my mother start screaming.”
Yassin had been shot in the stomach. “My younger siblings were screaming and crying and holding onto me. They kept saying, ‘Kwa nini kuna damu?’ [Why is there blood?], and they would not let go of me; they were so scared.”
Yassin’s eldest sister, who is now twenty-one, carried Yassin downstairs and into the family’s living room. “He kept screaming and calling for me and my mom: ‘Please help me. I can’t breathe,’” Hawa remembers. “We couldn’t do anything for him, and we didn’t know who to call because it was the police who shot him.” Hussein, Yassin’s father, was outside of the house at the time and rushed home after receiving news of the shooting.
Neighbors quickly arrived on the scene, carried Yassin into a private car, and transported him to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. The media initially reported that Yassin had been killed by a stray bullet. Viewing the family’s top balcony from the ground, where the officer was standing, this story seemed highly unlikely. The police officer would have had to be aiming their gun at an uncomfortable angle for the bullet to reach Yassin.
“That police officer knew what he was doing,” Hawa says. “There are large security lights that shine on the balcony. He could see us. He targeted Yassin. There was no stray bullet. He came out that night wanting to kill someone and chose Yassin. He shot him, and then he walked away as if he had done nothing wrong.”
“The young children are still terrified of going to the balcony at night,” she continues. “They are scared of the police coming to shoot them. Even when people let off fireworks, they get so terrified. They think the police are here, killing people. Some of them still haven’t fully grasped that Yassin is gone.”
“There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t see my dad cry,” Hawa adds:
We were following the government’s protocols. We were inside and respecting the curfew. And they still shot my brother dead as if his life meant nothing. I don’t know why that policeman did what he did. But he has hurt our family deeply.
Out on Bail
A few months after the shooting, in June 2020, Duncan Ndiema, from the nearby Huruma police station, was charged with murder over the killing of Yassin; he has pleaded not guilty. The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), which was established in 2011 to provide civilian oversight of Kenya’s police force, has taken up Yassin’s case. The IPOA has stated that the bullet head recovered from the body of the slain teen matched the pistol carried by Ndiema.
According to Gacheke Gachihi, coordinator of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), police officers in Kenya rarely face accountability for brutality, extrajudicial killings, or enforced disappearances. “If they do face charges, the cases are dragged out in the judiciary,” Gachihi says. “Then at the end of the day, the witness will disappear, the evidence will be eroded, and no one will get justice. This has continued for many years in Kenya, since the Moi dictatorship,” referring to Daniel arap Moi, the second and longest-serving president of Kenya, in power from 1978 to 2002.
“Yassin’s case is just the tip of the iceberg,” Gachihi adds:
He was very young and a student in primary school, so this profile made it so his case was shown on headlines. But there are many other cases like Yassin’s across the country that do not get publicity. Police killings in Kenya are systematic and historic.
Kenya’s COVID-19 policies intensified this widespread state violence. During the first weeks of the curfew, “people did not have access to their basic needs,” Gachihi explains. “Houses are very poor. There’s no way you can lock people up in houses with nothing to eat. Some people don’t have homes, and others are living with several people sleeping on one mattress.”
“So, people resisted in the early weeks of COVID-19 because it was either you die from corona or starve in your house,” he continues. “So, the police used violence to contain the people. There was more police brutality and arrests. It was chaotic. A health care crisis was transformed into mass criminalization. Instead of helping people, the government criminalized them.”
In another high-profile case in August last year, twenty-two-year-old Benson Njiru Ndwiga and his nineteen-year-old brother, Emmanuel, were beaten to death by police in Embu County in the eastern region while in custody over allegedly flouting the country’s curfew.
In 2020, the Kenyan police killed 157 people, up from 144 in the previous year, according to Missing Voices. Last year, Missing Voices documented at least 169 cases of police killings and thirty-two cases of enforced disappearances. Since the coalition began keeping track of police violence in 2007, it has recorded at least 1,159 police killings and 270 enforced disappearances.
Most of these killings occur in poor neighborhoods, where police commonly execute youths for actual or alleged petty crimes. According to MSJC, the government and police often justify this “shoot-to-kill” policy in the impoverished urban settlements in Nairobi as an “effective measure to curb crime.” This unsubstantiated belief has led to scores of youths being shot dead. Locals in the city’s informal settlements, or slums, often refer to police officers as “serial killers” for having murdered dozens of youths with impunity.
Despite Kenyan citizens and activists lodging thousands of complaints against police to the IPOA since its establishment a decade ago, only a handful of officers have ever been convicted of a crime. Gachihi believes the entire Kenyan police system needs “an overhaul, not just one criminal act being prosecuted.”
“We need a complete revamp of the police service and a new foundation where police follow the law and are not the law unto themselves,” he says.
One major hurdle in prosecuting police officers, according to human rights groups, is a weak state witness protection program, which fails to adequately protect witnesses or families of victims from retaliation. This has resulted in witnesses or families of victims being threatened, harassed, and sometimes killed. Along with fatigue induced by a prolonged criminal justice process in which cases take very long to go to trial, the failure to provide protection to witnesses makes it so many who witness police brutality or killings avoid coming forward to authorities.
Just two weeks after his high-profile arrest, Ndiema was released on a 1 million Kenyan shilling ($8,818) cash bail, despite the IPOA informing the court that Yassin’s family had already been threatened and intimidated by people suspected to be associates of Ndiema. The Moyo family has been living in fear ever since.
Hussein tells me they no longer allow their children outside of the compound, out of fear they could be kidnapped or harmed by Ndiema’s acquaintances to coerce his family into dropping the charges. “I’m always on my toes because anything could happen,” Hussein says. “The police can even send their friends to do something to us. It [the government] has not provided us any security.”
Before Ndiema was arrested, Hussein was approached on the streets in Mathare by a police officer, asking him to meet with him and handing Hussein his phone number. It turns out one of the men who was with the officer at the time was Ndiema himself.
“They obviously wanted to intimidate me into dropping the charges,” Hussein says:
Who knows how far they could take that? Maybe they were planning to try and bribe me or eliminate me. We are now living in fear. Maybe they are watching us right now. Our faces and our home have been all over the media. We feel very insecure here.
Hadija says that releasing Ndiema, without providing the family protection, has shown that the government “is not taking the case seriously.” Still, she is hopeful that Ndiema will face consequences. “Even if that officer is sentenced to life in prison, it will not bring Yassin back,” Hadija says. “But maybe if there are stricter laws put on the police, then in the future they will not kill so easily.”
“I never had much of a problem with the police before,” Hadija continues, gently rocking her newborn back and forth in front of her chest:
I used to raise my children to respect the police. But now I hate the police. I don’t want to hear anything about the police. Even if I hear about the arrest of a young person in Mathare, it brings back all my pain. I can feel what his mother feels.
“My children know that the worst thing they could possibly do in their lives is become a police officer.” she adds. “A mother can nurture a child for nine months, give birth to him, and raise him for years. And his life can be taken away in a second by these police.”