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BLOG: Dr Duncan Omanga - 'Appointment with God'; Facebook, Digital-Deathworlds and Extra Judicial Killings of Criminal Gangs in Eastlands Nairobi

last modified Apr 24, 2019 03:49 PM
Read the write-up of the event and listen to the audio recording! Yi Ning Chang, HSPS (Politics), member of CGHR's Student Group wrote about the talk given by Dr Duncan Omanga, British Academy visiting fellow at CGHR, University of Cambridge (2018/9) and a Senior lecturer of Media Studies in Moi University, Kenya

Audio Recording of Dr Duncan Omanga's talk at CGHR  



By Yi Ning Chang

On the 13thof February 2019, the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR) was pleased to convene a talk by Dr Duncan Omanga, a British Academy visiting fellow at CGHR and a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Moi University, on his current research on Eastlands Nairobi’s police culture of extrajudicial killings. Dr Omanga discussed the urban topography of everyday security practice in Eastlands. He situated this within the history of the ‘supercop’ motif in Kenya, and explored the discursive practices of police officers, gang members and the public on Facebook. 

Dr Omanga explained how Facebook profiling by the police is a common practice in Eastlands. He argued that digital spaces on Facebook’s platform have become ‘digital death-worlds’ where extrajudicial killings of gang members are foretold and announced as part of the routine of everyday security practice. Dr Omanga shared examples of posts that create these digital death-worlds by both police and residents. They share photos and videos about alleged criminals, including gory images of killings. Captions usually include information about the accused, which, Dr Omanga explained, create and legitimate a system of surveillance of residents that extends beyond the state apparatus. 

Dr Omanga argued that these practices on Facebook should be situated within the history of the Kenyan state’s security practices and extrajudicial killings. At the height of Kenya’s independence struggle, a white settler named Patrick Shaw became infamous for his extrajudicial killings of suspects of high-violence crimes; he came to be known as the ‘supercop’ and a ‘one-man judicial system’. In present-day Eastlands, Dr Omanga argued, residents and police carry on Shaw’s practices of reporting and exiling undesirable characters from urban spaces. Dr Omanga suggested that accompanying hashtags further reveal historical parallels. Giving the example of the hashtag, #GiveThemVaccines, he suggested that Eastlands is constructed as a space of disease. Such hashtags perpetuate another colonial legacy, for it was under colonial rule that Eastlands Nairobi emerged as a separate space where Africans, seen as vectors of disease, were made to live. 

Dr Omanga then turned to explore police officers’ discursive practices on Facebook. First, they would seek to use their Facebook accounts to humanise the police by posting photos of police officers suffering injury by tear gas or in the act of prayer.  These are in marked contrast to the bloody, explicit images of alleged criminals. Second, they would address the public as theirpublic. When they share videos of gang members committing violent crime, they tend to append questions such as, “You guys, if we find them, what should we do?” Combined with their post-hoc appeals to the public to accept killings as legitimate – appeals that receive 300 or more affirmative comments – police officers reveal a pattern of seeking legitimacy before and after extrajudicial killings. 

Dr Omanga concluded by suggesting that practices in our online worlds are more than a reflection of offline worlds. He argued it is important to trace continuities between offline and online practices and locate them within specific histories, such as that of colonial and postcolonial Kenya. In the case of policing in Nairobi, he suggested it is crucial to recognise how police have created a unique space by drawing on Facebook, where established rules of acceptable engagement have been suspended. This enables them to fashion rules of engagement according to their own logic. These rules, as he showed throughout the talk, are aimed at building their legitimacy through a space that convenes police and the wider public into the digital death-worlds of Eastlands Nairobi.