The curfew was announced on March 25 for an unspecified period. Kenya has 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19 but given limited testing capacity, the number of infections is likely higher.
The curfew started off on the wrong foot, with police across Kenya reportedly using excessive force, beating and tear gassing crowds of people on their way home from work. In Mombasa, media reported that police started beating people who were queuing to board the ferry, the only means of transport home to the mainland after work, more than two hours before the curfew. Local television stations and social media showed footage of police apparently beating journalists covering the events in Mombasa.
Although the government said curfew is one of the measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, the way some police are implementing it could backfire by forcing people together.
In Mombasa, police forced crowds of people to lie down together, in some cases on top of each other, as they beat, kicked, and slapped them for allegedly violating curfew. The crowds of tear gassed travelers, who did not have protective gear, coughed and yelled hysterically as police descended on them with batons, kicks, and blows.
In downtown Nairobi, due to the curfew and fear of police violence, people were stranded without public transportation in city centers, forced to sleep standing side by side against the walls of buildings.
Police themselves were at risk. Two police officers I spoke to said officers were dispatched in trucks to enforce curfew, huddled together without protective gear such as face masks or hand sanitizer.
Rights groups, media, and political leaders have widely condemned police violence, but the Kenyan interior cabinet secretary blamed Kenyans for their lack of discipline.
It’s not likely we will see accountability for these excessive enforcement actions. Kenyan police have a history of rights abuses, including during law enforcement operations, and the officers involved are rarely investigated or held to account. During and after the 2017 presidential elections, Human Rights Watch documented more than 100 cases of opposition supporters killed by police and pro-government gangs. Authorities have never investigated the killings.
The authorities should ensure police respect the law and avoid abusive conduct while enforcing the curfew. Otherwise, excess use of force could undermine government’s ability to win popular support and cooperation in an effort to control the spread of the virus.