It was, by any measure, a vicious assault. At least 15 people were hospitalized following Monday’s attack on protestors and bystanders by police during demonstrations meant to press for the ouster of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission officials. The scenes beamed around the world of citizens being chased down, clobbered and left to lick their wounds in the street, were a throwback to an era many had assumed was behind us.
Public attention has focused on the particularly brutal beating meted out to Boniface Manono and the image of his crumpled form lying on its side, his body in the street, his head resting on the kerb and menaced by a police officer’s raised boot, has become iconic.
Mr Manono is far from an ideal victim. His story about how he supposedly stumbled on the protest doesn’t appear to gel with the pictures being flashed around social media. What appears to be a stone in his back pocket as he endures police kicks and clubs hints at a more complicated picture than those who would wish to paint a vista of clearly defined villains and victims might wish.
But it is precisely because he is not perfect that we need to pay attention. This is not to endorse any violent or illegal behavior on his part, but to assert a simple truth: the law protects everyone or it protects no one.
In his famous play, A man For All Seasons, Robert Bolt penned a dialogue between a dialogue between Sir Thomas More and his daughter's suitor, William Roper in which the former argues for giving the Devil the benefit of law. “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” he asks the young Roper. “I'd cut down every law in England to do that!” comes the reply. “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?” counters Moore. “Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.”
It is for our own safety’s sake that it should not matter whether or not Mr Manono was an innocent bystander or a violent criminal. The idea that the actions of the policemen assaulting him would be any more acceptable if he were a thug should be an anathema to all. For if we allow the police to ignore the law, to cut it down to get after the Devil, we will one day wake up to find that they are ignoring all manner of law in places we had little imagined. After all, the laws we have put in place exist as much to protect us from criminals as from abuse by public officials and officers of the terrible power we bestow upon them.
Similarly, online contestations over whether Mr Manono is a fake stand-in for the supposedly deceased real victim of the battering miss the point, as do the official protestations that he did not die. While the fate of the victim is undoubtedly important, it has no bearing on the legality of the police action and does not render the assault any less atrocious. And the despicable politicizing of the incident threatens to introduce a new and dangerous standard for public assessment of police conduct: did the victim die?
All this distracts from the real issue we should be coming to grips with which is the failure of security sector reforms undertaken thus far to transform the National Police Service from what the 2009 Report of the National Task Force On Police Reforms, better known as the Ransley Report, described as “a punitive citizen containment squad” into a modern institution that lives up to the motto of “Utumishi Kwa Wote”.
Reforms undertaken to date have largely been cosmetic, and haven’t addressed the culture of impunity and cruelty bred by over a century of being the enforcers of a corrupt and thieving political elite. In these circumstances, providing the police with better equipment, as the government has done, just makes them more effective oppressors of the very people they are meant to serve.