Police turn face masks order into cash cow

Tuesday, June 9th, 2020 00:00 |
David Ochieng, a tailor in Kibera, Nairobi, displays some cloth masks he has made for free distribution to residents. There are claims police are soliciting bribes from anyone found not wearing masks even in rural farms. Photo/PD/JOHN OCHIENG

Although a majority of Kenyans are reeling from the negative impacts the coronavirus pandemic has imposed on their lives, a few individuals are reaping big.

While most Kenyans are praying for the immediate discovery of a vaccine for the virus, a section of police officers, particularly in rural areas, are wishing otherwise.

An April 7, 2020 directive by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe that everybody must wear face masks to slow the spread of the virus has now been turned into a cash cow by officers in rural areas.

Taking advantage of the low level of education and awareness, poor rural folk are now being charged by some unscrupulous police officers between Sh2,000 and Sh5,000 for not wearing face masks.

Countless reports have been made of how some illiterate farmers have been dragged from their farms or homes and hauled to kangaroo police cells where they are forced to part with money for not wearing face masks.

Fight spread

So ruthless are the money-hungry police officers that they are said to be patrolling villages looking for individuals tilling their land without wearing face masks.

The trend has prompted Uasin Gishu county commissioner Abdirisack Jaldesa to urge officers to exempt those tilling their land from arrest for not wearing masks.

“The government says that it is a must for one to have a mask only when in a public place such as markets, supermarkets, hotel, and also while travelling in a public service vehicle,” said Jaldesa.

Speaking to the press in Eldoret town, Jaldesa ordered the officers to stop harassing farmers in rural areas on the ground that they are not wearing face masks in efforts to help fight the spread of Covid-19.

He said his office had received numerous complaints from farmers in rural parts of the county over frequent harassment by the law enforcers relating to wearing of masks.

The commissioner said there was no way one can be compelled to put on a face mask while busy tilling his or her land.

He said the government will not allow innocent farmers to be subjected to unnecessary arrest under the guise of failing to put on a mask while working on their farms.

Jaldesa issued the guideline following protests from the local farming community who expressed concern over frequent arrest by the police,whom they accused of extorting money from them under the pretext of enforcing the Ministry of Health’s guidelines.

Secure release

“The police have formed a habit of carrying out operations against those not wearing mask in villages. Surely, how do they expect us to put on mask while tilling our maize crop?” asked David Koskei, a small-scale cereal farmer in Ziwa area.

Koskei recounted how the officers pounced on him as he was coming from tilling his two-acre of piece of land under maize crop despite the fact that he was alone.

When he inquired from the law enforcement officers what crime he had committed to warrant their action, he was told that he was not wearing a face mask to protect himself against Covid-19.

“I tried to argue my case by telling them I have not committed any crime since they found me alone while heading to my house after working on my farm, but they could hear none of it,” said Koskei.

He claimed that at first the officers threatened they would take him to one of the Covid-19 isolation centres if he failed to give them Sh1,000 to secure his release.

Koskei claimed that it was after he pleaded with the officers to reduce the amount to Sh300 that he was released and asked to proceed to his house.

In Kisumu county, officers are accused of forcing locals to part with between Sh500 and Sh2,000 to be set free for not wearing masks.

 “Cases of police officers conducting patrols targeting people not wearing masks has become a norm in various parts of the county. 

“They pounce on individuals disregarding the regulations of putting on the masks and later demand for cash from them,” said Michael Owino, a resident of Kobongo village in Nyakach Sub-county.

Owino said many people especially visiting the local trading centres have ended up in the hands of the police for not wearing masks and are forced  to pay bribes to secure their release.

Silvester Odongo, a resident of Kolwa Central in Kisumu East Sub-county said many locals had been arrested and forced to pay bribes before they were released.

“We ask the government agencies to swing into action to stop the vice which is fast infiltrating the villages,” he said.

The government introduced mandatory wearing of face masks as a measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Transform Empowerment for Action Initiative (Team) executive director George Collins Owuor said complaints of police officers harassing residents and collecting bribes from them while on the roads or patrols were notably on the rise.

Owuor wants the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa) to investigate the conduct of police officers linked to bribery acts during the enforcement of the directives on wearing masks.

“We want Ipoa to investigate the conduct of police officers accused of collecting money from poor citizens while in the mission of ensuring compliance with the masks directive,” said Owuor.

 He said those arrested for flouting the guidelines on wearing face masks should be quarantined in line with the government rules.

Kisumu County Commissioner Susan Waweru said her office would dig deeper into the complaints to establish a course for action.

In Kisii, Bomachoge Borabu Constituency Jubilee Party chairman, George Bibao claimed police officers at Kenyenya market, Kenyenya Sub-county were demanding between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000 respectively for a child and an adult, if  found not wearing a mask.

Enforce directives

“Kenyans are suffering due to the disease. They have no money even to buy food. We do not want law enforcers to make their conditions worse,” Bibao told People Daily yesterday.

He said some police officers were using excessive force to enforce the directives and cited an incident at Kenyenya market where a police officer allegedly hurled a teargas canister at a woman and injured her on the head.

Similarly, Marani ward representative Dennis Ombachi has accused some chiefs and security officers of raiding homes in villages to force residents to wear masks on their farms.

 “You do not expect a person digging in a farm alone or cutting nappier grass for his cows to wear a mask. 

“It is wrong to force such people to wear masks and yet they are not a threat to anybody,” he said.

In Kiambu county, residents claimed they were being charged between Sh500 and Sh1,000 for failing to wear a mask.

Many said they could not access face masks, and accused police of turning the situation into a “cash cow” by threatening to arrest and charge those caught without the protective gear.

“We have had to part with bribes if you are found on the road going home past 7pm or failing to wear a mask. 

“It does not matter even if you are alone and not in a crowd,” said Peter Ngugi, from Mang’u area of Gatundu North.

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