Beyond policy accountability: responses to police abuse by people at Kenya's urban margins
Molony, Thomas; Cooper Knock, Sarah Jane; other
Police abuse of power has been a persistent problem in Kenya from the colonial era to
the present day, and disproportionately impacts people belonging to marginalised groups.
Over the decades, there have been calls for the government to address this problem. The calls
for police reform gained momentum in the 1990s, as part of the clamour for democratisation.
However, significant efforts to reform the police emerged in the 2000s, triggered by the
ascendancy of the opposition coalition into government in 2002 and the subsequent post-election violence that rocked the country in 2007-8. Police accountability was widely
advocated as the way to address the problem of police abuse. These proposals were adopted
into policy in the wake of constitutional reform in 2010 that saw the restructuring of the state
police and the establishment of accountability institutions, of which the most potentially
powerful is the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian-led police
oversight agency that receives and handles complaints against the police. Understandably,
many studies have addressed the relative successes and failures of IPOA. In this thesis,
however, I argue that there is a need to broaden our analytical lens and move beyond state-centric mechanisms of police accountability to understand how victims respond to police
abuse, and why.
This thesis is focused on Kenya's urban margins, where many people are frequently
subjected to police abuse. It draws primarily on interviews, focus groups and observation with
people belonging to marginalised groups who are frequently victimised by the police,
including poor, young men, political protestors, sex workers and queer people. My research,
conducted between October 2018 and January 2021, was primarily focused in Kenya's three
largest cities: Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu.
This study makes an empirical contribution to studies of state policing in Africa by
providing a reappraisal of responses to police abuse, ten years after the instigation of IPOA.
While some studies have provided valuable glimpses into this issue from the perspective a
specific group or organisation, this study provides a comprehensive account of responses to
victimisation by multiple groups on the urban margins.
The study also makes an important theoretical contribution to the study of police
accountability by moving away from state-centric analyses to focus on the perspectives and
experiences of the victims of police abuse on the urban margins. As a result, rather than
focusing on responses to police abuse as an institutional state process, I frame them as a social
negotiation. In this process, people deploy individual and collective self-help strategies, and
recruit intermediaries to help them counter power imbalances, navigate officialdom, and
avoid further harms. By tracing the responses of victims we see that seeking accountability
for police abuse through the state becomes one of several justice outcomes that victims may
pursue. Moreover, victims may value multiple forms of state action, which stretch beyond
prosecution or career-based sanctions and, in the process of pursuing these goals, informal
and formal procedures blur. Alongside this pursuit of justice outcomes sits a range of
strategies that victims employ to limit or resist police abuse. These vital responses to police
abuse are missed in state-centric accounts, which focus on the success or failure of formal
The complex responses of victims to police abuse demonstrates that the strategies that
people use and the ends that they seek are dynamic. These shifts over time are mainly due to
access to additional information or the responses of other actors. Thus, I argue that people
make strategic decisions on how to respond their victimisation by the police, at any point in
time, based on their structural condition, their political subjectivity and the resources they are
able to deploy in their response.
police abuse of power; Kenya; marginalised groups; Independent Policing Oversight Authority; police abuse; power imbalances; pursuit of justice; victimisation by the police
The University of Edinburgh
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Type of publication|
Thesis or Dissertation; Doctoral; PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Edinburgh - University of Edinburgh
Added to C-A: 2022-09-05;09:00:08|
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