Every time I watch the horror tales coming out of Shakahola in Kilifi County, I can’t help but recall a comment made by a participant during a forum on neighbourhood security and safety at a Nairobi hotel recently.


“When we were in school, we used to be told that serikaliikonamkonomrefu (the long arm of the law),” he said, adding:“We thought the government, with its mkonomrefu (long arm), could sort us out so that we can spend the day peacefully and sleep comfortably at night. But with time, we have come to realise that as individuals and as residents, we have a role in making our neighbourhoods secure.”

That was about two weeks before Kenyans and the rest of the world learnt that scores of members of a cult had starved themselves to death allegedly on the advice of their leader.

More than 110 bodies have been exhumed and more graves have been marked for exhumation. How could such atrocity go on for so long unnoticed? Why didn’t the “long arm of the law” get wind of it?

The Shakahola massacre, as it hascome to be known, is an indictment of community policing in Kenya. The introduction in 2015 of community policing, commonly known as NyumbaKumi, was motivated by the realization that police needed to partner with communities to combat crime.

To succeed, there needed to be a good relationship between policing agencies and local communities. But that relationship is still largely characterized by mistrust.

A 2019 research by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra), for instance, found that community policing in Kenya was hindered by lack of trust between policing agencies and local communities.

“Various studies and reports have documented that interactions between policing agencies and communities have been repressive and punitive. This has made local communities to loathe any encounter with officers from policing agencies,” the study said.

It is a sentiment I hear a lot among members of neighbourhood associations. Many are hesitant to share information with the police, fearing being victimised. Some say some police officers share the information they give in confidence with suspected criminals.

During the forum mentioned above, security experts and community leaders were unanimous that the adversarial approach to law enforcement by police officers had undermined the effectiveness of community policing.

Perhaps that is why some Shakahola residents and relatives of some of the victims, who have since confessed that they knew what was going on, did not report the matter to the police or local administration.

Tanzania where we borrowed the NyumbaKumi concept from has successfully embraced community policing as a shared responsibility between policing agencies and citizens. According to the Kippra research, Tanzanian police in 2006 decided to enhance the relationship between the police and citizens by releasing (to community members where officers operate) private telephone numbers of senior police officers to facilitate contact between members of community and police officers.

Closer home, some neighbourhood associations such as Garden Ridgeways Residents Association in Nairobi have done well in strengthening relations with the local police and other security agencies with a view to ensuring their neighbourhoods are safe and secure. Some have created WhatsApp group that incorporate members, local police and security agencies. Result? Security in those neighbourhoods has greatly improved.

It is only through such collaborations between organised community groups like resident associations and the police that community policing can succeed.