NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The senior police officers sat in front of the vetting panel and squirmed. They could not explain how they acquired property that is in their names nor the large sums of money in their bank accounts.
One, doubtful he may survive the process, suggested the panel not fire him because "you'll start finding some of us in the obituaries of the newspapers." The vetting panel was undeterred and fired Deputy Commissioner of Police Eusebias Laibuta on Friday.
Those responsible for the vetting also could end up dead, according to anonymous threats.
Commission chairman Johnstone Kavuludi and one of his members received a death threat this week in a hand-written letter on official police letterhead. It warned the committee to go slow, or risk mortal danger.
But Kavuludi said, "We do not fear death and we must fulfil our mandate as provided for in the Constitution and other laws."
Last August, a severed head was delivered to his office.
"It would appear that the human head we delivered to your office did not send any signal to the dangers you are exposing yourself to through this exercise," said the letter, delivered Tuesday. "We are therefore warning you that as officers, aggrieved by the vetting exercise, which has left our families mourning, we will not hesitate to ensure the same fate befalls you."
Kenya is vetting nearly all its 71,000 officers in an attempt to transform the Kenya Police Service— the most vilified public institution in the country known for corruption, impunity and human rights abuses — into a professional, efficient and ethical organization. The National Police Service Commission intends to fire unprofessional, corrupt and unethical officers to clean up the tainted image of the police and restore confidence in law enforcers. The commission is an independent body charged with hiring, firing, promotion and looking into the welfare of police officers.
Out of 30 officers vetted since December, five have been fired, including Laibuta. The commission recommended three officers for further investigation and cleared 22 to continue working.
Many think they will not get a fair hearing, including four officers who insisted on anonymity so that they are not victimized.
They told The Associated Press that low pay leads many officers to take bribes. Police here make only about $200 a month on average. If you had to feed a family of four, you would only have enough money to rent a shack in a slum.
Police reforms are among proposals made to prevent a repeat of the 2007-2008 postelection violence, when more than 1,000 people died in tribe on tribe violence sparked by a disputed presidential election. A 2008 government report said police were accused of taking sides in the conflict.
A 2013 report by a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which covered the period from Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963 to 2008, said the police have been the main perpetrators of human rights violations including massacres, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence.
Anti-corruption crusaders and human rights activists say a professional police could change the course of the country whose economy, East Africa's biggest, has been dragged down by widespread corruption in part because of the lack of law enforcement. Police here are willing to take a bribe rather than arrest perpetrators.
"A professional police would definitely reduce corruption," said Samuel Kimeu, executive director of the local chapter of Transparency International. Kenya is ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world at position 136 out of 177 countries in the corruption watchdog's 2013 survey.
Kimeu said the vetting process has brought a sense of accountability to a force accustomed to getting away with questionable conduct.
He commended the commission for taking the "bold step" to vet police officers, but said public participation in the process was wanting.
Peter Kiama, the executive director of the Independent Medico-Legal Unit, said a survey carried out by his organization in 2011 found that one out of every four Kenyans had undergone some kind of torture and police were responsible for more than half of the torture cases.
"Kenya would be a great country if we have a professional police force," Kiama said.