Political street protests in the city of Kisumu have historically been characterised by excessive use of force by the police. Not surprisingly then, the political demonstrations that were called by the Azimio La Umoja political coalition in March 2023 brought about a sense of trepidation in the lakeside town. These nationwide demonstrations were called by the coalition to draw attention to a number of issues, chief among which was the high cost of living.
Lives were lost during the demonstrations that took place between March and May. A ceasefire was called as the parliamentary teams of the governing Kenya Kwanza Coalition and Azimio la Umoja held talks in May and June to resolve the national crisis but with the enactment of the Finance Act 2023 on 21 June, the talks collapsed and tensions escalated, sparking three days of protests.
The police response to the demonstrations in Kisumu changed drastically in July, taking on a sinister tone.
While researching this story, I spoke to Maurice Otoyo who sells groceries in the Kondele area of Kisumu. Maurice suffered losses when rioters broke into his premises and stole his goods. It was not only in Kondele where property was looted or destroyed. Dala Pit Stop, a bar and restaurant near the Aga Khan Nursery School, was also broken into in broad daylight and soft drinks and alcoholic beverages were carted away by protesters. On 3 May, protesters looted the entire stock of Jamia Supermarket, which is situated opposite the Aga Khan Primary School in Kisumu.
Maurice observed that the demonstrations that took place up to 3 May were the ‘’normal’’ clashes between the police and protesters. The police fired tear gas while the demonstrators responded with stones, barricading roads using rocks, boulders and poles, sometimes for the entire day.
There were reports of skirmishes between police and protesters in other parts of Kisumu, notably in the Manyatta area opposite Kisumu Medical Training College, in Nyamasaria on the Kisumu-Nairobi road, and in Nyalenda along the outer ring road towards Tom Mboya Labour College. The Jua Kali area of Kamass was not spared, and nor was the Kisumu-Busia road around the Bandani area adjacent to Kisumu International Airport. Running battles were reported between police and demonstrators on almost all days.
Kisumu was visibly tense in the lead-up to the three-day protests in July, with citizens panic-buying food and other essentials. Although people went about their business, the tension was palpable. On Monday 16 July, a heavy police presence was noted in and around the Central Business District. Word on the ground was that police were going to block public access to Oginga Odinga Street, the town’s main thoroughfare.
Wednesday 19 July to Friday 21 July 2023 were horrific days for Kisumu residents. The demonstrations began with protesters congregating at various points, blowing whistles and vuvuzelas. Tyres were lit in Kondele and Kibuye next to Avenue Hospital. The billowing smoke could be seen from miles away and the roads into town were barricaded.
Police lorries and Land Cruisers were stationed around the trouble spots and, inevitably, clashes broke out after they tried to clear the roads. According to a report compiled by Amnesty International and aired on Citizen Television on 4 August, at least 107 people were assaulted by police, with 47 of them suffering gunshot wounds. Some of the victims claimed that they were attacked in their homes.
It is not exactly clear why the police operation targeted certain areas like Kondele, Nyalenda and Manyatta. However, residents of these neighbourhoods always come out when demonstrations are called.
I first visited the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital on 26 and 27 July to find out what had happened to my fellow Kisumu residents. On 28 July, a prayer service was held at the hospital for the victims which was attended by Otiende Amollo and Rozah Buyu, members of parliament for Rarieda and Kisumu West Constituencies, respectively. After the service, hospital staff took as around the wards and we were able to speak with patients and ask questions.
It is not exactly clear why the police operation targeted certain areas like Kondele, Nyalenda and Manyatta.
Fidel Castro Ochieng’, a student at Olembo Secondary School, was shot nine times. He had eight bullets lodged in his chest and one in his arm. Fidel was successfully operated on at the Hospital and all the bullets were removed. He was discharged from hospital on 28 July. Fidel said that he had been playing a game of cards with friends in Nyamasaria Estate when they were attacked by police.
“I was rescued by a motorcyclist who took me away from the scene but one of my colleagues was not as lucky as he was shot and died on the spot.”
Nineteen-year-old Raphael Onyango, a student at Siaya Institute of Technology, was caught up in running battles with police in Kondele area. He was shot in the hip and he broke his leg as he tried to run away. Elium Michael, a second-year student at Kisumu National Polytechnic, died of a bullet wound.
At the hospital were three other victims, 20-year-old Collins Ochieng’, 21-year-old Tony Onyango and 19-year-old Calary Ochieng’, all awaiting surgery to remove bullets from their bodies. Owigo, a student at Great Lakes University, was shot in the knee in Nyalenda Estate.
Brothers Brian Oniango and William Amulele were not as lucky. They spent days admitted at the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit before succumbing to head injuries inflicted by uniformed police officers at Nyalenda Estate. Eyewitnesses in Nyalenda said that the two brothers were playing a game of draughts in the house when police broke down the door and attacked them with batons, leaving them unconscious.
William Odhiambo was accosted by police as he went about his business in Nyalenda. He was beaten on the head, had his arm broken and his genitals severely assaulted. I met him on the first day of August as he returned to the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital for a checkup. His right arm in plaster and held up in a sling, Odhiambo walked with difficulty and complained of blood oozing from his genitals.
Another victim of police brutality who did not wish to be named also complained that police had attacked him and assaulted his private parts. He recalled that four police men cornered him in the Nyalenda area, knocked him down, spread his legs and stomped on his genitals as they hit him with batons. He passed out from the pain and came to at the Kisumu District Hospital where well-wishers had taken him.
Odhiambo walked with difficulty and complained of blood oozing from his genitals.
Was it a coincidence that some victims were assaulted in the genitals? Were the police executing orders? Why did the police ignore the standard protocol which is to make arrests and arraign those arrested in court to face charges?
In her book Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England, Alexandra Shepard observes that attacking a man’s manhood is using “violence to enforce discipline on the male honour. This was used both as a tool for enforcing the patriarchal imperatives of social order and one of the primary means of undermining them, either by lending weight to counter-codes of manhood, or, more commonly, featuring in assertions of manhood claimed independently of a patriarchal agenda. Violence was a form of discipline, a demonstration of male strength and authority, and a method of territorial demarcation. These are boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable violence, using cases of assault in order to show how male honour codes both bolstered and countered patriarchal codes of order, depending on the context of the dispute and the status of those involved. This was used in England between1500-1700”.
Viewed in this light, the violent actions against civilians in Kisumu was an attempt to use violence to enforce discipline on the male honour.
This is not the first time police have used excessive force in Kisumu and its environs. The history of the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital is covered in the blood of innocent victims. On 25 October 1969, a clash between President Jomo Kenyatta and Opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga at the official opening of the New Nyanza Provincial Hospital (today Oginga Odinga Hospital) led to police opening fire and left dozens dead and others wounded and maimed.
In 1992, police shot dead a student who had gone to collect his O-level results at Kisumu Boys High School after political demonstrations between the Forum for Restoration of Democracy Party – (FORD) in Kisumu Town spilled into the school. In November 2005, the referendum campaigns pitting the No (Banana) and Yes (Orange) teams over the clamour for a new constitution resulted in the death of a 13-year-old pupil from Josana Academy who was shot dead by police as he was walking home from school.
After the disputed presidential election results in December 2007, many innocent people were killed or maimed as a result of police violence. The death of six-month-old Baby Pendo, whose skull was crashed by a policeman’s boot in her parents’ house, is still fresh in our minds.
Yet, here we are again, mourning new victims, who have met their deaths while hidden behind the illusionary safety of their own homes. Police brutality in Kisumu continues to escalate and the bodies of innocent victims continue to pile up with no resolution or justice in sight.
As the African proverb says, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. For how much longer will the people of Kisumu continue to suffer the brunt of police violence?