NAIROBI — It’s unclear at first: Are we reading a true-crime novel, or are we on Twitter?
“The 45-yr-old dad, a local Jua Kali artisan, had gone to his son’s house to enquire on his habitual absenteeism from school,” the script begins, using a Swahili term for a metal worker in the informal sector.
He barges into his 21-year-old son’s room, “only to find him enjoying a romantic moment with a lady.”
We are, in fact, on Twitter, and this is the account of Kenya’s esteemed Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI). And yet the language only becomes more florid, even Shakespearean.
A patricidal stabbing allegedly occurs. The older man does not simply die: He “profusely bled, sliding into his death.” Our narrator assures us the younger man is in custody despite escaping an “infuriated mob.”
In recent months, the directorate’s Twitter account has become some of the most titillating reading in Kenya. The director, George Kinoti, the country’s top detective, was blunt about why.
“For a very long time in Kenya, police have been thought of as killers. See a policeman? You run. Nothing good could come of it,” he said. “If we want the public’s confidence, we have to show them we are not all like that — we do work for them.”
During the pandemic, outrage over police violence here has only grown. At least 20 people were killed during the enforcement of a curfew that has been in place for 11 months. Most were brutally beaten with batons. A 13-year-old boy was shot on his balcony while he sat there with his mother.
The wielding of the badge as a license for brutality is nothing new. At least 778 people have been killed or “disappeared” by police in Kenya since 2007, according to Missing Voices, a group that tracks official and other reports of extrajudicial killings. 166 of those were last year. The number of police convicted in these killings is in the single digits, according to Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority.
The force, with its numerous branches, including the DCI, has not been significantly reformed since colonial times, Kinoti acknowledged, back when British overlords used it to subjugate rebellions. Polls show that more than half of Kenyans think police are a threat, not a service.
The police, in other words, have some serious PR work to do.
That’s where the recounting of high-octane searches for the suspected perpetrators of “heinous acts,” such as child sex abuse, horribly botched circumcision rites, or the chopping up and burning of the body of one’s murder victim, comes in.
Jonah Kimani, 29, is the man at the keyboard, tweeting to a following that has recently ballooned to almost 700,000.
Kimani has a penchant for scandal, evidenced in part by his choice on a recent day to wear a tan suit in the tradition of one of his idols, Barack Obama. In his spare time, he bolsters his vocabulary by listening to other favorite orators, such as the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
“Kenyans from top to bottom have embraced Twitter as their source of information,” said Kimani, who once dreamed of becoming a journalist but ended up a police constable. “What I’ve learned is that people want thrills. You must feed your followers. That’s how the word gets out.”
Kinoti, the director, would know. Before taking the nation’s top detective job, he was a spokesman for the police’s inspector general, known for his approachability.
He also knows a thing or two about dramatic police action: When terrorists stormed an upscale hotel and office complex in Nairobi in 2019, taking dozens of hostages, he rushed in locked and loaded, and was inside for 18 hours until the siege ended. He occasionally retells the story of how he was shot 28 times during an assassination attempt in 2005.
Under his leadership, the PR team has grown to eight, all of whom are younger than 35. A few others work in a new call center across a drab hallway, where dozens of actionable tips flow in each day, mostly via Twitter.
“A lot of information slides directly into our DMs, especially now that we are tweeting more often,” said Inspector Michael Mugo, who leads the team. “I’d like to think we’ve made crime fighting more accessible to people, by speaking their language.”
Kenyans are famously online. The hashtag #KOT — Kenyans on Twitter — is a cultural and political force. Judging by the kinds of comments Kimani gets on his posts, he thinks it can be a force for good when coupled with his agency’s detective work.
That said, it is Twitter.
After a recent post cautioning motorists not to settle fender benders on their own after one man was swindled for a “whooping” half-million Kenyan shillings, one user took issue with Mugo and Kimani’s prized vocabulary.
“I recommend @DCI_Kenya to download Grammarly,” he wrote, referencing the popular editing app. “It’s a sting [sic] of conscience to use words inappropriate. What is “whooping”. The last time I checked whooping it meant to utter a loud shout or cry.”
Above all, the DCI is hoping increased engagement on Twitter will help it fight crime.
All too often, Mugo feels as if his team is tweeting about a “mastermind, who escaped our dragnet by a whisker.”
He wants more examples of the “thunderstruck neighbours who witnessed the incident informed our detectives who responded swiftly and effected his arrest.”
“It’s one way of showing we don’t just go out shooting people indiscriminately,” Mugo said. “We want to show that there is justice — that the police really do something useful.”