NAIROBI, Kenya – Suspected cattle thieves hid on a high hill and ambushed and killed at least 34 police officers pursuing them over the weekend in northwestern Kenya, a gruesome and powerful attack on government security forces that an official said Monday highlights the need for more reforms in the police force.
Samuel Letipila, who represents the affected area in the local council, said 34 bodies of police officers and reserves had been recovered from the Baragoi region of northwestern Kenya. Seven officers still missing, he said.
The police were killed over the weekend after being ambushed by bandits from the Turkana region who are suspected to have stolen another tribe's cattle.
The region where the killings took place, the Suguta Valley, is far removed from modern society. Roads and communications are bad, and few security officers are stationed there.
Since Friday Kenya has been holding public interviews to select an official for the newly formed position of the Inspector General, as part of police reforms introduced by a new constitution that Kenya adopted in 2010.
Civil society organizations and human rights group have for decades been advocating for the independence of the police force, which has long been used by those in power to quash opposition political members. Police officers have become notoriously corrupt because of poor pay and lack of independent oversight of their conduct.
The impetus to conduct the reforms in the police force came from international pressure after Kenya's postelection violence in 2007-08. More than 1,000 people were killed and 600,000 displaced after President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner over opposition candidate Raila Odinga in a vote observers said was flawed.
A 2008 government report said one of the reasons violence flared was the lack of trust in public institutions, including the police, which was seen as taking sides in the conflict.
The weekend slaughter — and the high-powered guns the tribesmen apparently used in the attack — raises concerns that Kenyan officials will not be able to stop violence that breaks out during the country's next presidential election in March.
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe, who was one of the candidates interviewed Monday for the Inspector General's position, spoke candidly for the first time about the problem bedeviling Kenya's police force. He said the death of the police officers in Baragoi was a tactical error which was compounded by a lack of equipment.
Kiraithe said that under normal circumstances a tactical team pursuing the raiders should have had helicopters at their disposal because of low visibility in the region. Kiraithe said more than 100 officers were deployed to pursue the raiders.
"The enemy noticed the advance of the deployment and moved up to a hill so the team was receiving fire from a tactical disadvantage," he said.
Kiraithe said the killings highlight the challenges the police face because the officers did not have bullet proof vests or armored cars. He said more than 400 police stations in Kenya, East Africa's leading economy, lack scene of crime investigators, patrol vehicles and other basic needs which would enable police to prevent and investigate crime.
Officers are poorly paid and live in deplorable housing conditions, Kiraithe said. He also admitted that corruption is a big problem in the force and he said some police officers collude with criminals to defeat justice. "Corruption in the police force is deep and wide," he said.
Kiriathe said if he is selected as the Inspector General he would transform the police into a service-oriented organization by ensuring that officers are well paid and kicking out corrupt elements.
The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights said the government needs to invest in better training and equipment for police. It said more than 30 police were killed in the weekend attack.
"At a time when the country is gearing up for elections, security is one of the most paramount factors that must be guarded and respected for law and order to prevail," it said. "lt is therefore worrying that such episodes will undermine public confidence in the security sector as the country awaits the appointment of the Inspector General of Police."