Police, Boda Boda Drivers Tackle COVID-19 Together

In Kenya, face masks, reflector jackets, and dialogue are repairing relations between police and youth.

By Dominick Mwambui and Eoin O’Leary

Kwale County, Kenya — It’s 10 a.m. when the police officers arrive.

The mid-morning sun has begun to scorch, its rays glinting off a row of parked motorbikes and the young men seated on them, all squinting through the glare as they wave and call out to potential passengers. This is one of the stages along the Likoni-Msambweni highway where travellers know that they can find “boda bodas”, or motorbike taxis.

As the police approach, several boda boda drivers start their engines and speed off. Near the front of everyone’s mind is the recent public outcry over the death of a boda boda driver along this same stretch of highway, reportedly as a result of violent police enforcement of the COVID-19 lockdown measures that had just come into force.

In Kenya’s Kwale County, locals rely on an informal transit network involving boda bodas to move through the region: the driver who died on the first night of lockdown was returning after transporting a pregnant woman to hospital. The boda boda network is a crucial source of employment and revenue for young Kenyans and an important pillar of the local economy.

Yet, despite the importance of boda bodas for the local economy and personal mobility, the young drivers occupy a marginal, precarious position. Conflicts with the police are common, even before the recent tensions. For the police, the issue is delinquency and frequent breeches of road safety measures (and now COVID-19 measures); for the drivers, the conflicts are rooted in corruption and harassment from the police.

But for the drivers who stay to greet the two uniformed police officers, the scene is very different today. The police are accompanied by local health officials and peace activists. They carry supplies of facemasks and reflective jackets emblazoned with the European flag and the Swahili phrase “Inuka!”, or “Rise up!” — the name of a Search for Common Ground project that is inspiring hope along the Kenyan coast. Today, the police are here to talk, listen, share, and support.

“I know we can’t avoid friction amongst ourselves, but let’s cooperate and work together,” says Senior Sergeant Magdalena, speaking to the young drivers now wearing protective masks. “We are also human beings just like you. Whenever you have any challenge, just explain to us. We will listen and understand you.”

For young Kenyans with limited job opportunities, driving a boda boda can provide safety, dignity, and stability, reducing the appeal of criminal and violent extremist activities. Still, safety, dignity, and stability are far from guaranteed, as some drivers find themselves mixed up in ferrying criminals as part of their normal work.

Across Kenya, many communities face dire security challenges. After a decade of heavily securitized measures to combat crime and violent extremism, civilian trust in authorities is low, particularly among the minority Muslim population concentrated in coastal counties like Kwale. Relations between civilian communities and security forces are especially fraught. Repairing the social contract between authorities and young people, including young boda boda drivers, can go a long way toward building a healthier community.

For the past two years, Search for Common Ground has been working with young Kenyans, communities, authorities, and security forces across the coast to do just that. Then came COVID-19, injecting new complexities into the situation.

“These preexisting frayed relations have made ensuring public health measures a major challenge and contributed to the high rate of violence and deaths associated with lockdown enforcement,” says Dr. Kash Jermaine from Human Development Agenda, a community-based organization working for Search for Common Ground on the Inuka! program. “In turn, this violence is exacerbating those already tense relationships, creating a vicious feedback loop and risking further security challenges in the future.”

But shared COVID-19 concerns can also allow for new outreach — like today’s meeting. The talks between drivers and police touch on measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, as well as road safety awareness and improving relationships between police and road users.

Through these shared challenges, actors from different backgrounds can join in common efforts, building powerful trust and relationships.

“Police are human beings,” one of the drivers says. “This officer here is our sister; she is our mother. Why do we boda boda fear her? Why do we like running away when they approach us? We need to cooperate with them for our own safety.”

This is just one meeting, but the word will spread through the boda boda network. And the mutual trust built here today and in other Inuka! outreach initiatives will spread as well, even as the new awareness and facemasks will help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The European flags on the facemasks and jackets connect this roadside meeting to a wider international agenda. For the past year, Inuka! has been backed by EU funding for creative initiatives that work to involve young Kenyans as active participants in solving the political, social, economic, and security problems facing their communities and nation. Under a new initiative, Pamoja dhid ya Corona, or Working Together Against Corona, the EU is also funding Search for Common Ground to build up a comprehensive response to the social and misinformation challenges posed by the pandemic in Kenya and five other countries.

As the talk comes to an end, the police officer and boda boda operators give each other fist bumps, hopeful that things will be different in the coming future. Although they will drive off in different directions, they now share the same road.