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Reports of extra-judicial killings and injury of citizens by police officers point to the need for an independent body, like the one established in Kenya, to oversee the operations of the police service.

Last month a prominent journalist, Daudi Mwangosi, was killed during a public assembly in Tanzania, whilst interacting with police. The week before Mwangosi’s death, a newspaper vendor, Ally Zona, died in a protest that the police were trying to shut down. Both public assemblies were being held by Chadema, the opposition party in Tanzania. That same week two people were shot dead by the police after allegedly trespassing at the Canadian-owned Barrick gold mine in Tarime district. This followed earlier shootings at the mine; in May at least five people were reportedly shot dead by police after allegedly invading the mine. There were reports that some victims were shot in the back, and that one person was just a bystander. In February, at least two people were shot dead by the police at another public demonstration, whilst later that month 16 prominent human rights activists were arrested in Dar es Salaam on the grounds of unlawful assembly.

These events raise serious questions about the use of force by police and, significantly, emphasize the need to establish a permanent independent body to oversee the police.

What would be the use of such a body? A specific independent body to oversee the police is a key way to ensure that the police are accountable to the public - the people they are employed to protect. Such a body could impartially investigate all complaints of serious misconduct by police officers, and report on their findings to the public. The body could also investigate all deaths and serious injuries that were caused as a result of police action, as the newly established Kenyan Independent Policing Oversight Authority will do.

This will mean that the actions of the police that significantly infringe on people’s rights, such as causing a death or a serious injury, will be checked. If the police were acting lawfully and appropriately in the situation, then this will be shown in the outcome of the investigation. If the police were not following the law, then the independent body could recommend prosecution or appropriate disciplinary action.

This body could also audit the investigations of the internal police investigation unit, to check that such investigations are being carried out satisfactorily.

This will mean that ad hoc inquiries, such as the one established to investigate the death of Daudi Mwangosi, will not be required. Instead a permanent body, made up of people independently selected and then appointed by Parliament, will automatically investigate such matters.

Police would be one of the main beneficiaries of such reform. Although the Tanzania Police Force might initially be wary of a body that checks on their actions, in reality it will actually be a good thing for the police. Oversight of police actions by an independent body will help redeem the public image of the police that has suffered a battering after the deaths and injuries caused throughout 2012.

This, however, could change if there was a body to check on the police and report their findings publicly, improving the public trust in the police force, leading to police officers once again gaining the respect and confidence of the public. In turn, as trust increases, the public will feel ready to come forward and assist the police in their work.

Further, establishing such a body would ensure that the government can meet its obligations under the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Under the UPR, last year, the government of Tanzania agreed to establish an independent body to investigating complaints enforcement officials.

Let’s hope that such an independent body is set up in the near future, to continue to strengthen the Tanzania police and its reputation as a leading police organisation in East Africa.


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* Sarah Mount is a programme officer, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.