Log into your member account to listen to this article. Not a member? Join the herd.

On 18 June 2024, demonstrators attempted to congregate in front of parliament to continue to bring pressure to bear on members of parliament as they debated the Finance Bill 2024 many provisions of which have been widely rejected by Kenyans. As was the case during similar protests in 2023, the government elected to unleash police violence on the visibly peaceful protesters.

Writing on X, formerly Twitter, ahead of the planned protests, activist Boniface Mwangi said, “It’s a peaceful protest, and we believe [police] officers are being mobilised to protect us,” adding, “Koome [the Inspector General of the National Police Service] is well aware that the constitution… gives every Kenyan the right to protest, and picket anywhere.”

Mwangi did well to remind IG Koome of the provisions of Article 37 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, which states that, “Every person has the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assembly, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions to public authorities.” Clearly, the IG had lost sight of these provisions last July when demonstrators were killed by police during protests held by the opposition against the Finance Bill 2023. Events of the last week show that Koome has still not localised his copy of the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

Indiscriminate attacks on demonstrators point to two interconnected factors: the use of police by the political class to settle scores and the impunity that the force enjoys. The attacks are also an indication that it will be very difficult to bring reforms to the police service so long as the ruling elites remain unwilling to put an end to police partisanship. It will be even more so if the government’s stance remains one of outright denial. Responding to concerns raised by the African Commission on Peoples’ and Human Rights (ACPHR) during the 44th Ordinary Session of the African Union’s Executive Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers in Addis Ababa in February this year, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign and Diaspora Affairs, Musalia Mudavadi, affirmed that police brutality and the use of excessive force are unknown in Kenya. 

Mudavadi’s response is cynicism of the highest order. In effect, between January and September 2023, the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) monitored 22 protests in 15 counties and documented 67 cases of extrajudicial executions and 228 cases of torture and related violations following police brutality on protesters. Most of the demonstrations had been called by the opposition to protest the high cost of living while others were provoked by dissatisfaction over the frequent and prolonged lack of essential services such as water and electricity.

Mudavadi’s response to the concerns raised by the ACPHR would seem to suggest a very optimistic reading of the findings of the National Task Force on Police Reforms set up by President William Ruto in January 2023. Only months earlier, on 16 November 2023, the report of the task force chaired by former Chief Justice David Maraga had flagged “a culture of impunity and a glaring failure to effectively enforce the law” that are “slowly driving the country into a state of lawlessness and anarchy”. 

Indeed, lawlessness and anarchy are what the police seem intent on provoking during the peaceful protests that began on 18 June and are ongoing. Youthful protesters wielding nothing more lethal than the Constitution of Kenya 2010 were met with teargas, water cannons and live bullets. Unable or unwilling to comprehend that it was faced with the revolt of a youthful generation inured to the broken promises of the ruling elites, secure in the knowledge of their rights and unafraid, the government reached for the colonial-era rule book and deployed the security forces in much the same manner that it has for the last six decades when faced with contestation on the streets.

But the events of the last week have shown the limits of colonial-era methods as a means of quelling dissent. The government has been outmanoeuvred by a youthful, tech-savvy demographic that has used social media to devastating effect. Gen Zers have filmed and photographed every move by the police, documenting and sharing on social media every act of police brutality. This has to some extent served as a deterrent, with police officers moving away shamefacedly when confronted by phone-wielding Gen Zers, unwilling to be filmed in the act of visiting violence on unarmed demonstrators.  

To ensure that the protests would be peaceful and to deter the infiltration of agents provocateurs, Gen Zers had drawn up a comprehensive code of conduct but, alas, their vigilance was not sufficient to save Rex Kanyeki Masai, the first Kenyan to die in the protests, allegedly gunned down by police. The second victim of the state’s violent response to the protests, Evans Kiratu died at Kenyatta National Hospital while awaiting treatment, succumbing to injuries allegedly sustained from an exploding teargas canister. Peterson Orandi ended up in hospital with four bullets lodged in his body but lived to tell the tale. Demonstrators have been picking bullet casings off the streets

And while protesters have been released without charge by courts that have affirmed their right to peaceful protest, the police continue to make arrests. The government will not be deterred by the provisions of a progressive constitution or citizens’ access to communication technologies that allow them to amplify its every transgression; it has now taken recourse to the more sinister methods dating back to the darkest period of Kenya’s history – the abduction of perceived dissidents. But even the abductions of those whom the government perceives to be the protest leaders – like Shadrack Kiprono – are being recorded and the footage shared on social media. Amnesty International reports that at least 12 people have been abducted over the last five days, their whereabouts unknown, leaving families in the grip of fear for the welfare of their loved ones. 

The ACHPR has called on Kenya to criminalise enforced disappearances, defined by the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons Against Enforced Disappearances (ICPPED) as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by the refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, thereby placing them outside the protection of the law”.

Kenya signed the ICPPED in 2007 but has yet to domesticate the convention. The government made a public commitment to ratify the ICPPED during the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights held at Nairobi’s UN Complex in Gigiri last December but has yet to do so, denying human rights defenders an important instrument when seeking justice for victims of enforced disappearances. In effect, there is no law in Kenya that criminalises enforced disappearance which makes it extremely difficult for the families of the disappeared to get justice.

As the government’s brutal response to the protests became apparent on 18 June, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights released a statement reminding the Kenyan government of its citizens’ right to peaceful protest as enshrined under Article 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and calling for the immediate release of those arrested during the protests. The Commission also urged the government to “explore alternative measures to alleviate the financial burden on ordinary citizens”.

But after a week of protests that have spread from the capital, Nairobi to other parts of the country, the government remains intransigent, intent on imposing its will on an equally determined Gen Z.

Now #RejectFinanceBill2024 and #rejectWILLIAMRUTO are trending on twitter worldwide. The human rights violations being committed by the Kenyan government against peaceful protesters are there online for all the world to see. Kenya liberates herself as the world watches.