It is not too late for justice for Francis Nyaruri, who was killed in 2009 after he wrote a story on police corruption. The murder comes against a backdrop of widespread extrajudicial killing. By Tom Rhodes with reporting from Clifford Derrick
By the edge of Kodero Forest in remote western Kenya, local hunters discovered the body of 31-year-old newspaper reporter Francis Nyaruri, decapitated and grotesquely disfigured, his hands tied behind his back to render him helpless. It was January 29, 2009, two weeks after the reporter had gone missing while on a trip to Kisii, about 30 kilometers from his home in Nyamira.
The gruesome killing haunts his wife. “The eyes were not even there–they had been gouged out,” Josephine Kwamboka Nyaruri recounted in an interview with CPJ. “Even his lower jaw was missing.” At the time of the murder, Nyaruri had just finished a story accusing a police official of corruption in the construction of facilities in Nyamira and elsewhere. It wasn’t his first piece questioning the performance and integrity of national police officials stationed in western Kenya.
A CPJ investigation, which included a review of law enforcement documents and interviews with people involved in the case, found evidence that senior officials engaged in a large-scale effort to obstruct the investigation into Nyaruri’s murder. “There is strong suspicion that police officers could have executed the deceased,” Attorney General Amos Wako wrote in a June 2009 letter, one of several official documents that also raise the likelihood of direct police culpability.
But nearly three years later, no police official has been charged or even questioned in the killing. Two men are being tried on murder charges, but Nyaruri’s colleagues and relatives believe that if the suspects were involved at all, they were bit players in a larger conspiracy. The murder comes against a backdrop of widespread extrajudicial killings in Kenya, which led U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston to conclude in February 2009 that “Kenyan police are a law unto themselves, and they kill often and with impunity.” The Kenya National Human Rights Commission continues to wage a campaign to highlight police impunity in extrajudicial killings. (Kenyan police are also implicated in a 1991 attack on photojournalist Wallace Gichere, who was severely injured when he was thrown from a third-story window. Gichere died in 1998.)
Despite the remoteness of its setting, the murder also reflects global issues for the press. Nine of 10 journalist murders worldwide involve local reporters such as Nyaruri, CPJ research shows. About 30 percent of victims worldwide had investigated corruption in the months before their deaths. Government officials are suspected in one in four journalist murders across the globe. And, as in the Nyaruri case thus far, journalist murders are carried out with impunity 88 percent of the time.
“The murder of Nyaruri could be conducted with impunity because none of the perpetrators feared arrest from authorities,” Nyaruri family lawyer Andrew Mandi told CPJ. “That’s because they represented the local authorities.”
The original investigating officer, Inspector Robert Natwoli, appeared to make fairly quick progress in the case. By March he had questioned a suspect, taxi driver Evans Mose Bosire, and by May he had detained another man, Japeth Mangera, a reputed member of a local gang known as the sungusungu. Originally a sort of community security force with ties to police, the sungusungu had increasingly turned criminal and murderous over the years.
In a statement to national police in Kisii on March 12, 2009, Bosire said he drove Nyaruri to the home of a Kisii town councilor named Samuel Omwando on the day of the killing. Omwando had promised Nyaruri a “big story,” according to Bosire, who said two police officers and two sungusungu members had gone along for the ride. Nyaruri grew nervous during the trip and attempted to leave, Bosire said in his statement, prompting one officer to strike the reporter with the butt of his gun. Bosire said the group dragged Nyaruri to the local councilor’s house in the neighboring town of Suneka and severely beat him. Around 7:30 p.m., the group took Nyaruri to Kodero Forest and killed him, Bosire said, although the statement did not provide details about the evident brutality used in the killing. The assailants dumped the body just meters from the road, and Bosire drove the group back to Kisii, the taxi driver said.
Held for several weeks, Bosire was never formally charged. He was granted leave for a family visit in late May 2009 and disappeared. (Later, a CPJ reporter who called Nyaruri’s former cell phone spoke to an individual who identified himself as Bosire. The individual hung up as the reporter began asking questions, apparently turning off the phone afterward.) Mangera, the second suspect, was found wearing a cap belonging to Nyaruri when officers picked him up, police records show. Mangera told police he had no involvement in the killing, although he pointed to two other potential suspects, according to his May 26, 2009, statement to police. Charged with murder, he remained in custody in late 2011, along with another sungusungu member who was detained later.
Omwando moved to an undisclosed location as the investigation got under way, local journalists told CPJ. Calls to a phone number identified as belonging to Omwando went to a disconnected service. There is no record that investigators ever questioned Omwando.
Journalists in western Kenya told CPJ that Nyaruri’s murder has cast a pall over their reporting, prompting many to resort to self-censorship. With a few exceptions, most local journalists have been too fearful to speak out on Nyaruri’s behalf.
Although Nyaruri used a penname, Mong’are Mokua, while reporting for the private Weekly Citizen newspaper, he was not a cautious reporter. “He reported on issues of corruption involving the police and local municipal officials in Nyamira. This made him an enemy to many,” recalled Samuel Owida, a friend and former reporter for Kenya’s main daily, The Nation.
“He just wouldn’t be intimidated by anyone,” KTN reporter Fred Moturi said, “but he also didn’t take any precautions. Often, he would rush to a story without letting others know what he was rushing to. He would just hang up the phone and he was off before we knew where he was going.”
Derided by establishment journalists as part of the “gutter press” for its sensational and sometimes thinly reported coverage, the Weekly Citizen also produced hard-hitting stories on subjects ignored by Kenya’s major newspapers, said Esther Kamweru, former director of the Nairobi-based Media Council, an industry ombudsman’s office.
One of those stories focused on the construction of housing for police recruits in Nyamira and two other locations, a project valued at 20 million shillings (US$203,252). Nyaruri caught wind of allegations that substandard iron sheets were being used for roofing on the project. His story in the Weekly Citizen accused Lawrence Njoroge Mwaura, the national police officer in charge in Nyamira, of defrauding the government in the construction.
The story was published on January 19, 2009, four days after Nyaruri went missing, but its findings were widely known beforehand. Before the piece was published in the Weekly Citizen, Nyaruri had discussed his conclusions on two local radio stations, Egesa FM and Citizen Radio, family lawyer Mandi said. Nyaruri had taken on the police before, notably in a 2008 piece accusing Mwaura of using police vehicles to transport prostitutes, the lawyer said. The reporter’s father, Peter, said police officials had threatened Nyaruri after the 2008 story appeared, forcing him into hiding for several weeks.
Mwaura was not happy with such critical coverage, according to Mandi, who said he witnessed the officer threaten Nyaruri in early January 2009. “One day when I was in the company of Francis we met the police chief as he was going to his house for lunch. He confronted Francis in my presence and warned him of dire consequences if he did not stop writing about him,” Mandi told CPJ. Inspector Natwoli also recalled his supervisor expressing dissatisfaction with Nyaruri in a December 2008 conversation. “He simply told me that the government was not happy with the way Nyaruri was writing stories about the police that embarrassed the government. … He then informed me that Nyaruri was to be dealt with once and for all.”
In an interview with CPJ, Mwaura denied that either conversation took place as recounted. He said that he bore no ill will toward Nyaruri and that he had no knowledge of why the reporter was murdered or by whom. “In fact, Nyaruri was my best friend. I had no single problem with this young man,” Mwaura said. “He did not die in my district. I don’t really know for sure why he was killed.”
Life became increasingly difficult for Inspector Natwoli after he arrested the two suspects in spring 2009. “Soon after, Mwaura and his deputy came to my station and ordered that I be charged with disciplinary offenses of idling, negligence, disobeying lawful orders, and acts prejudicial to good order and discipline in the force,” Natwoli stated in an affidavit he filed in connection with the murder investigation. Natwoli was transferred out of the jurisdiction in June, the first in a series of transfers involving officers assigned to the case.
Natwoli told CPJ he continued to face threats from police and sungusungu–including an episode in which shots were fired at his home–prompting him to go into hiding briefly and eventually to leave the police force entirely. “For simply carrying out my professional duties, my life was turned upside down,” Natwoli told CPJ.
Throughout the summer of 2009, the head of the national police force, Commissioner Hussein Ali, authorized the transfers of several other police officers assigned to the case. No explanations were given at the time, and deputy police spokesman Charles Owino later told CPJ he could not comment on the transfers. But the transfers clearly undermined the investigation, according to local journalists and lawyers. “The investigation is at a complete standstill,” prosecutor Mary Oundo told CPJ in October 2010. “All those investigating it in the beginning were transferred.”
In his 2009 findings, U.N. Special Rapporteur Alston singled out Commissioner Ali for obstructing investigations into extrajudicial police killings. Describing a climate of “zero internal accountability,” Alston went on to say, “the police who kill are the very same police who investigate police killings.” Alston urged that Ali be dismissed, although President Mwai Kibaki decided instead to name him chief executive of the Kenyan postal service. By late 2011, the International Criminal Court at The Hague was questioning Ali about his alleged role in the rampant violence that followed the disputed presidential election of December 2007.
Ali did not return messages left at his postal service office seeking comment for this story. Kenya police spokesman Eric Kiraithe denied official obstruction in the Nyaruri murder. “There is no senior officer who is under any obligation whatsoever to protect an officer who has broken the law,” Kiraithe said.
As early as June 2009, however, Attorney General Wako directed the investigating officer to examine the potential role of Mwaura in Nyaruri’s murder. “From his conduct, it is clear that he must have participated in the crime in one way or another,” Wako said in a letter. “He should therefore be investigated.”
The directive does not appear to have been followed. The senior criminal investigative officer now assigned to the case, Sebastien Ndaro, said he could not arrest Mwaura, but he declined all other comment. Wako, who stepped down in September 2011, was himself heavily criticized by Alston for his ineffectual handling of extrajudicial police killings. Mwaura was transferred to a similar supervisory position in Turkana.
In February 2010, police did arrest a second suspected sungusungu gang member in relation to Nyaruri’s murder. The suspect, Wilfred Nyambati, denied any involvement and said he was traveling at the time, according to a police statement.
The case dragged on because of procedural delays–one judge abruptly postponed a 2010 hearing, saying he wasn’t taking new cases–before the two suspects were finally brought to court in November 2011. At the hearing, Peter Nyaruri testified that his son had confided that Mwaura had threatened his life. Proceedings were adjourned until March 2012.
“God help Kenya” was the last voicemail greeting that Francis Nyaruri recorded on his cell phone in January 2009, recounted Jack Nduri, an old friend. Nduri said he tried to call Nyaruri on the day of the murder. “At that point he must have known he was going to be killed. His phone was switched off soon after I made that call.”
For Nyaruri’s family and colleagues, divine intervention seems more likely now than any human action to bring the perpetrators to account. “I have lost hope we will see any justice in this case,” said the reporter’s wife, Josephine. “They are just playing games.” Nation reporter Owida, whose reporting helped expose Nyaruri’s murder, said he has endured threatening phone calls warning him that he will “share Nyaruri’s fate.”
But it does not have to be that way. “While the existing situation is bad, it is far from intractable,” Alston wrote back in 2009. “If it so chooses, Kenya can significantly reduce the prevalence of unlawful killings. Much of the institutional and legal structures needed to carry the reform process forward are in place. … Kenyan citizens are politically engaged, and civil society is professional and serious and contributes substantially to the protection of human rights by monitoring abuses and proposing reforms.”
CPJ has written to President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to appeal for a full and thorough prosecution. Due to Inspector Natwoli’s early detective work, much of the investigation is well documented. It is not too late for justice for Francis Nyaruri, and it’s not too late for Kenyan citizens to wrest back a law enforcement system that has been turned on its head.
Tom Rhodes is CPJ’s Nairobi-based East Africa consultant. Clifford Derrick is a freelance writer and former CPJ consultant.