Post Poll Skirmishes : UN Honours Kenya GSU Police Officer
Joseph Musyoka Nthenge employed negotiating skills to avert post presidential election violence
The United Nations in Kenya, on the occasion of UN Day on Oct. 24, has decided to award the 2008 “UN in Kenya Person of the Year” to Acting Senior Superintendent of Police, Joseph Musyoka Nthenge.
Speaking for the UN, the Acting Director General, Inga Klevby said: “Today the United Nations family in Kenya recognizes Supt. Nthenge for his contribution to peace through dialogue [after demonstrators took to the streets following the December 2007 presidential election]. He is indeed worthy of the title ‘Kenyan hero.'”
Klevby added that, “Within a 48 hour period, Nthenge employed dialogue and negotiations four times to extinguish possible violent flare-ups. In addition to being seen on TV persuading a mob away from their destructive behaviour, he convinced two other mobs in the city as well as dissuading a group of Members of Parliament (MPs) to call off a march to challenge the banning of public gathering inside the city’s largest park (Uhuru Park) by the police.”
Amidst the scenes of bloodshed and mayhem that marked Kenya’s dark days following presidential election, the image of peace and judiciousness practiced by Nthenge stands out. The policeman was seen reasoning with an angry mob of demonstrators, and successfully convincing them to stop the destruction and turn back. “Mnataka kuharibu Kenya kwa siku moja, nchi ambayo imetuchukuwa miaka arubaini kujenga” (Kiswahili, meaning ‘You want to destroy Kenya in a day, a country that has taken us 40 years to build?’), the officer asked the young men. This was a rare feat for paramilitary officers mostly known for violently dispersing demonstrators.
Seventeen years earlier, in 1991, Nthenge had used reason and words to effectively quell inter-communal violence in a part of the Rift Valley Province. But it happened away from the glare of TV cameras and lights. Fortunately, the 2007/8 encounter was captured by a TV crew recording the violence sweeping the city, and splashed on the television screens across the country. He became an instant national hero.
Nthenge was in charge of a unit of the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) assigned to patrol a part of the city which was smoldering with tension and violence. On December 29, 2007, the unit encountered a mob of angry young men marching towards the city centre, protesting the delay in announcing the presidential results. They had already burnt some vehicles and were poised to burn down a petrol station when they encountered Nthenge.
Given the GSU’s reputation for ruthlessness in quelling riots and demonstrations, and the violent manner in which security forces had dispersed demonstrators in other parts of the city and country, what followed was totally unexpected — and now part of the folklore surrounding the Kenyan crisis.
After he was notified of the award by the UN, Nthenge said: “I am indeed honoured to be selected for this auspicious commendation on behalf of thousands of dedicated and selfless policemen and women who daily put their lives on the line for other Kenyans.”
He added that his guiding principal as a law enforcement officer is “to see the public as our customers and our role is to offer them service. People know their rights and we must respect these rights.”
Nthenge will be honoured at a special ceremony at 1 p.m. on Oct. 24 at the United Nations Complex, Gigiri.
This is the seventh time the UN Family in Kenya has collectively honoured an individual as part of its celebrations of UN Day, which is held every year on Oct. 24. “The United Nations in Kenya Person of the Year” is chosen based on their personal commitment towards achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
This year’s runner-up is Mary Makokha, the driving force behind the Rural Education and Economic Enhancement Program (REEP) in Butula, western Kenya. Beginning without any money or access to donors in 1997, REEP operated under a tree for two years. She also suffered threats of court action for acknowledging that AIDS was prevalent in Butula. Later, she was also excommunicated from the Catholic Church for encouraging the use of condoms. Many people in the community also took offence when she spoke out against widow/widower disinheritance.
Today REEP has 44 support groups of people living with HIV with nearly 5,500 members. REEP has grown from its modest beginning, to a beautiful complex called Firelight House, sponsored by the Firelight Foundation of the US, who recognised Makokha’s inspiring work. The organization has 15 staff in addition to over 1,000 community volunteers.
In a world affected by a complex web of issues — HIV/AIDS, poverty, negative cultural practices and beliefs — the commitment of people, like Makokha, are an example of how communities can change from the inside. Without developing home-grown solutions, the Millennium Development Goals will be much harder to achieve.
Commenting on Mary Makokha, Ms. Klevby said that the UN was also paying tribute to “the many men and women who work tirelessly in their various fields towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in the country. We need role models such as Mary Makokha to help us focus on why achieving the MDGs is so important: it is because it will mean improvements in the daily lives of millions on Kenyans and people around the globe.
The MDGs are a set of achievable development targets, which all Member States of the United Nations have pledged to meet by 2015. Last year, the UN in Kenya honoured Abbas Gullet of the Kenya Red Cross Society as the 2007 “UN in Kenya Person of the Year.”