A Response to Al Jazeera’s ‘Inside Kenya’s Death Squads’

Al Jazeera English released an investigative report on extra-judicial killings in Kenya by Kenyan security forces titled, ‘Inside Kenya’s Death Squads.’ This report, published on YouTube on 7 December 2014 was critical of Kenya’s security forces, sympathetic to the families of the deceased persons and supportive of human rights when it came to the deceased. However, the report was conspicuously silent the plight of terror victims in Kenya. It sought to demonize the West and Israel as complicit actors in the extra-judicial murder of terror suspects.

The exposé caused a stir in Kenya. Many have advanced arguments against these killings while other have advanced arguments in support of them. The arguments on both sides fail to take into account the nature and scope of extra-judicial killings, the presence of opposing forces with unequal powers and the clash of ideas or cultures.

Extra-judicial killing is the murder of suspects by the State or otherwise authoritative agencies without subjecting the suspects to due process under structured and objective laws. It is important to note that the presence of these suspects is unnecessary under these structured rules, and so is their defense. However, the objectivity of such laws is necessary for sanctioned killings to stay judicial i.e. for them to stay within the realm of just actions. One can even argue that part of this objectivity includes a modified defense on behalf of the suspect with or without his or her knowledge. This kind of objectivity is an ideal situation, and it is seldom the case in any governed state.

The United States, with all its advanced laws, is responsible for the deaths of thousands under its drone program of targeted killings. Britain denies giving its MI6 agents the license to kill which is a bit unbelievable given that MI6 started in 1909, but Britain officially recognized it in 1995. That is 86 years of waiting for a simple recognition of the organization. Imagine how many years it would take for Britain to admit what the organization actually does? Israel is more upfront about targeted assassinations carried out by its intelligence agency, Mossad, than other Western countries. Death squads in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Russia and South America are the norm. In fact, most if not all countries have death squads under various names, laws, and agencies. The function of these death squads remains the same though the mode of execution differs from country to country.

Thucydides had quoted Athenian statements to the Melians before the Athenians conquered the latter. The Athenians told the Melians, “… right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power.” The Athenians then concluded this statement by saying, “… the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” These statements echo what happens in our societies today. A dominant force with the instruments of compulsion carries out extra-judicial killings regardless of international or local laws. In democracies, this dominant force justifies such killings through sophisticated legislation and terminologies that confuse the ignorant masses but fail to justify the actions of their governments morally. Remember, everyone wants to trust his or her government making it easy for the dominant force to rally its people behind extra-judicial killings disguised in judicial structures.

The question now is why would a dominant force with a monopoly or near monopoly of compulsive instruments within its sphere of influence go to such great lengths to eliminate a less dominant force. Why not force it to succumb to its rule of law? What would the elimination of the less dominant force achieve? The answer lies in looking at extra-judicial killings from a cultural perspective. The dominant force pursues a particular kind of culture including religious belief, system of governance, language and even social modes of interaction. The dominant force only wishes to destroy the less dominant force because the latter is slowly changing the prevailing cultural makeup of society. It may also want to destroy the less dominant force because the mere presence of this force would require a change in prevailing cultural norms or practices favored by the dominant power.

For example, the US cannot allow the expansion of Islāmic fundamentalism to continue unabated because it is a threat to current norms in the US. The key is to eliminate all possibilities of such an expansion in a clandestine way preferably but explicitly if necessary. Another example is the Kenyan police who murder Mungiki suspects indiscriminately. They do this because the mere presence of these suspects would draw them from their corrupt activities and force them to invest time, money, and resources into solving crimes. Those in power would also prefer the deaths of such criminals as opposed to working for an end to socioeconomic disparities. It is a quick solution that allows the police and the powers that be to continue with their lives as normal.

It is clear extra-judicial killings have nothing to do with democratic systems or policing structures. Countries considered lawful, democratic and peaceful carry out extra-judicial killings in one way or the other. Extra-judicial killings are a response to imminent threats posed by a smaller force with a capacity for growth. The dominant force acts out of fear that the present setup it favors will no longer exist in the future if it does not eliminate the smaller force. Society should take note of the prevailing setup and the setup that the smaller force represents. Society should then ask which of these two setups is favorable. It can also look at changing either setup to achieve a desirable state.

For example, criminals represent lawlessness, and the Kenya police represent an agency that does not wish to work harder to solve crimes or invest more in solving crime. The goal here would be to reform the police force so that a new culture takes root in the organization and then change the ruling class so that new socioeconomic ideologies take root. Terrorists represent a shift to Islāmic fundamentalism while the current setup is multicultural. The goal here would be to maintain our multicultural setup, but the reality is that terrorists will never relent because they pursue an expansionist agenda.

Bob Marley once said, “The people who are trying to make this world worse, are not taking a day off. How can I?” The only recourse for society is to protect a multicultural setup by taking the fight to those who pursue an expansionist agenda. The goal is not to reduce such threats but to eliminate them. Ideological, economic, judicial and diplomatic elimination is an option but so is extra-judicial elimination. As mentioned earlier, democracies especially global powers create fancy laws and legal jargon to justify the last option making it legal and lawful so why should we single out individual countries for what every country does. Thomas Hobbes once said, “It is not wisdom, but authority that makes the law.” The morality of extra-judicial killing is in doubt, but the legality of it is a matter of interpretation enforced by authoritative power, not reason.

A primary concern for Kenyans would be that these killings happen to their fellow citizens unlike in the West where their governments undertake extra-judicial killings of nationals from other countries. In addition, extra-judicial killings in Kenya mostly happen to maintain a certain socioeconomic setup as opposed to protecting Kenyans citizens against an emerging cultural or ideological threat. For example, there is a general assumption that KDF is in Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab. It may have started that way, but there is more profit to the war than there is concern for Kenyans. “The transitory interests of royal houses may be advanced in war; the real interests of all people are furthered by the peace” – Kenneth Waltz. KDF is deliberately prolonging the war in Somalia to profit from it. It allows Al-Shabaab to regroup and remain active to justify its continued presence in Somalia.

In the end, we find that extra-judicial killings happen in all societies though they should not happen in any society. Extra-judicial killing should be the last option for the State, but it is an option. Remember, “States in the world are like individuals in the state of nature. They are neither perfectly good nor are they controlled by law” ― Kenneth Waltz. The basic instinct of the State as with individuals in the state of nature is to survive and as such, the State can and should do all that is within its power to survive. However, this survival may come at the expense of its people when it turns on them to preserve itself. Therefore, “it is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government” – Thomas Paine.


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