Kenya: Killing of Pakistani journalist thrusts Ruto’s administration into spotlight

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Friday, 28 October 2022 12:19

Pakistan Kenya Journalist Killed
People attend the funeral prayer of slain senior Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

The killing of three foreigners by Kenyan police officers has thrust President William Ruto’s young administration into a diplomatic storm with governments demanding justice for their slain nationals.

On 16 October, the acting Inspector of Police Noor Gabow caught Kenyans by surprise after he disbanded the Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI) Special Service Unit, which had played a crucial role in tackling high-profile crimes in the country.

“The DCI Special Service Unit has been disbanded with immediate effect. This follows a directive from Noor Gabow. All officers serving in the disbanded unit have been recalled to DCI headquarters for further instruction,” the DCI said on Twitter.

The announcement came after reports linked the Special Service Unit (SSU) to the disappearance of two Indian nationals who were part of Ruto’s digital campaign team for the just-concluded elections.

The two Indians  – Zulfiqar Ahmed Khan and Mohamed Zaid Kidawi – and their Kenyan driver, Nicodemus Mwania, were abducted on 23 July near a hotel in the capital Nairobi and have been missing since, raising fears they might have been killed. Some of their clothes were recently discovered in the Aberdare Forest in Central Kenya.

The disbanded SSU comprised a team of highly trained officers, less than 50 in number, tasked with tackling deadly crimes, such as armed robberies, kidnappings, trafficking and motor vehicle theft in the capital and surrounding counties. However, their sting operations occasionally extend beyond the Nairobi metropolis.

Disbandment orders

A day after the disbandment, Ruto publicly confirmed he was the one who gave the orders.

“I am the one who ordered that the Special Service Unit, which was conducting extrajudicial killings, be disbanded. We have a plan on how to secure this country so that we avoid the shame of Kenyans being killed,” he said at a thanksgiving service in Kericho County.

Denis Itumbi, who was part of Ruto’s digital campaign team, alleged that the two Indians were tortured before they were killed by officers from the unit.

LSK calls for the establishment of a commission of inquiry because it is the only way the extent of extra-judicial killing and enforced disappearance will be revealed

“Sometimes when our team was overwhelmed and we needed graphics, I sent [materials] their way and they paused whatever they were doing and did me the favour,” Itumbi said in a Facebook post confirming that the foreigners were part of Ruto’s campaign team.

Even before the dust settled, a renowned Pakistani journalist, Arshad Sharif, was shot dead on 23 October by police officers at a roadblock in Kajiado County, which neighbours Nairobi.

According to the National Police Service (NPS), the vehicle that Sharif and his friend Khurram Ahmed were driving was shot at after they defied orders to stop at a roadblock during a search for a similar car that had been used in a child abduction case.

“The vehicle [approached] the police barrier, which they drove through. It is then that they were shot at,” said the NPS in a statement.

The murders have thrust President Ruto into a diplomatic storm less than two months since taking over power from his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta.

The killing of the three foreigners has attracted interest not only locally, but also abroad, with human rights activists suspecting foul play.

Harassment and intimidation

Sharif had left Pakistan in August after complaining of harassment and intimidation by authorities. He was a fierce critic of Pakistan’s military and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (no relations with the deceased), but a vocal supporter of the latter’s predecessor Imran Khan, who was ousted in April.

Journalists in the Pakistani city of Karachi recently held a demonstration, with some linking high-ranking government officials in Islamabad to the journalist’s murder.

Khan also labelled the incident as  “murder”, adding that the investigative journalist “paid the ultimate price for speaking the truth”.

However, PM Sharif has dismissed the accusations, noting that he has already spoken to President Ruto “who has promised  a transparent investigation into the matter”.

Sharif has also sent a team of investigators to Kenya to help with the ongoing investigations.

In neighbouring India, friends of Khan and Kidawi have also petitioned the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to intervene and ensure the families of the deceased get justice.

Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson for the Indian ministry of external affairs, said the government is “keeping a close watch”.

“As far as we understand, there were two Indian nationals, Zulfiqar Ahmad Khan and Zaid Sami Kidwai. They’ve been missing in Kenya since 23 July,” Bagchi told reporters in India, adding that the matter is at Kenya’s High Court.

Can of worms

The killing of the three foreigners in Kenya has yet again opened a can of worms on the controversial subject of extrajudicial killings, which successive  governments handled with kid gloves.

The issue has also left Kenyans divided on the role of special units in the country’s security system.

Even though a section of Kenyans has welcomed the disbanding of the unit, others are accusing politicians of politicising security matters by throwing the SSU officers under the bus.

Human rights organisations and the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) have already petitioned President Ruto in a bid to unearth human rights violations committed by special service units.

“LSK calls for the establishment of a commission of inquiry because it is the only way the extent of extra-judicial killing and enforced disappearance will be revealed,” says the organisation’s chairperson, Eric Theuri.

Dumping of bodies

The Independent Police Oversight Authority has also accused the SSU officers of being behind the dumping of bodies in rivers and forests.

“We have positively identified some of the bodies dumped in rivers. All of them had similar injuries meaning that they were tortured before being killed,” says IPOA chairperson Anne Makori, adding that all suspected police-committed deaths will be investigated.

However, John Kamau, who operates an MPESA (mobile money) shop in the sprawling Dandora estate in Nairobi County, says special units are critical in fighting high-profile crimes and have played a big role in getting rid of hardcore criminals in neighbourhoods such as his.

“There were armed gangsters in the estate who were notorious for robbing businesses in broad daylight. They were a law unto themselves and had been in and out of prison. It is the SSU officers who hunted them down and neutralised them,” says Kamau.

A police officer who did not want to be named concurred saying the disbanded unit played a key role in thwarting terrorist activities and fighting criminals involved in armed robbery, kidnappings and money laundering.

“Some of the criminals they managed to kill had powerful backers who always colluded with lawyers and judges to ensure cases against them collapse enabling them to continue terrorising innocent residents,” says the officer.

‘Politicisation of SSU’

He warns that if officers feel unfairly targeted “they will definitely sit back and let criminals and terrorists rule”.

The officer expressed his disappointment that some of the officers  from the defunct unit have been hauled to court for alleged murder of the two Indians “yet they normally act on orders from their superiors”.

Lawyer Danstan Omari, who is defending the officers in court, maintains that the DCI issue has been politicised, warning Kenyans to tread carefully on security matters.

“Special units exist worldwide, not only in Kenya. In Israel there is Mossad, in the United States there is the Federal Bureau of Investigations [FBI]. It is unfortunate that the issue has been politicised because some people did not want a particular individual to head the department,” says Omari.

He adds that SSUs are established by the country’s top security organ, the national security council, chaired by the president and the deputy president noting that the DCI has no exclusive powers to establish one.

Lawyer Ishmael Nyaribo also says it was a mistake for President Ruto to go public on the disbandment of the SSU.

“Security matters in any country are extremely sensitive and there are some decisions that should remain behind closed doors because criminals are watching every move the government is making with the hope of finding loopholes, which they can exploit.”

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