NGUGI: Beyond protests, ruling class must focus on grievances

Gen-Z represents collective cry of all Kenyans and laments about past and current leadership who are corrupt and unaccountable.

In Summary
  • Poverty, joblessness and lack of opportunities for the youth have incubated dissent and a generation of an angry, oppressed, and hopeless people.
  • An attempt at increasing taxes on an already overtaxed lot of the poor and unemployed  was certainly an attempt at plucking the hair of a hungry lion.
Police in patrol Nairobi streets ahead of the anti-Finance Bill protests on July 2, 2024.
MOMENT OF TRUTH: Police in patrol Nairobi streets ahead of the anti-Finance Bill protests on July 2, 2024.

Kenya is at a pivotal moment. The recent wave of youth-led peaceful protests (Gen-Z Revolution), sparked by dissatisfaction with the proposed Finance Bill, has revealed deep-rooted unresolved social, political, and economic issues that have gripped every facet of our society. Ignoring, dismissing or resorting to kidnapping, killing, or detaining suspected organizers and leaders of the Gen-Z movement will only postpone the build-up of discontent and dissent. It’s time to confront them head-on for a better Kenya.

By midnight of July 1 the announcement by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights that since the commencement of Anti-Finance Bill protests on June 18, thirty-nine people had died and three hundred sixty-one injured shocked the country. These killings were occasioned by the police despite the fact the Gen-Z protesters themselves operated under Article 37 of the Kenya Constitution that provides for protests conducted peacefully and by unarmed individuals. The Commission further cited 32 cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances and 627 arrests of protesters. KNCHR is the State Human Rights body mandated to promotion and protect human rights

Similarly, the public was informed of 24 deaths at the hands of police by the reporting Police Reform Working Group, six national-level associations of content creators, journalists, medical practitioners, lawyers, including the Law Society of Kenya, Medics for Kenya and the Bloggers Associations of Kenya and more than 22 human rights defenders’ organizations. They include the Defenders Coalition, Amnesty International, Kenya Human Rights Commission and Independent Medico-Legal Unit.

While their statistics on the injured, arrested and abductions tallied, rigorous authentication by families of victims before sharing data on fatalities that occurred at Rongai in Kajiado and other places explained the discrepancies on fatalities figures. The dead included twelve-year-old Kennedy Onyango of Rongai.

The high death toll, injuries and enforced disappearances raises serious concerns about the enforcement of public order management laws, implementation of human rights guidelines on policing protests that requires the Government has an obligation to facilitate the rights of protesters by providing security to ensure law and order. Article 238(2)(b) provides that national security should be pursued in compliance with the law and he utmost respect for the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.

The events of the past two weeks across all parts of Kenya illustrate disturbing pattern of police brutality and a lack of accountability. The police used live ammunition, tear gas, and batons upon unarmed demonstrators who were exercising their constitutional right to peaceful assembly. Such behaviour is only consistent with a force that views as adversaries the people it is meant to serve and protect.

The government's shocking response aside, the purpose for which the Kenyan youth organically mobilised and poured into the streets, unarmed, must not be lost.

The Gen-Z who now represent the collective cry of all Kenyans have lamented that the current and past political leadership is incompetent, corrupt and unaccountable. Those elected and or appointed to head public institutions are driven by greed but have perfected the narrative of commitment to public service. Their insatiable desire to enrich themselves has wreaked havoc on public institutions and national wealth, punishing everyone who relies on them.

Several calamities have befallen our country recently. Ever since the Covid-19 devastation on the people and economy, there has never been a breather. Drought and floods have caused unimaginable misery for families that wee otherwise self-sustaining. However, the real problem is the man-made devastation caused by corruption, the largess of the ruling class and attendant high taxation and increased public debt to sustain their free lifestyles. And they have the audacity to impose austerity measures on an already impoverished people by the global institutions, the IMF & World Bank,  and the arrogance and impunity of the rulers that have broken the camel’s back.

Poverty, joblessness, and lack of opportunities for the youth have incubated dissent and a generation of an angry, oppressed, and hopeless people. An attempt at increasing taxes on an already overtaxed lot of the poor and unemployed who are already sagging under the yoke of the high cost of living was certainly an attempt at plucking the hair of a hungry lion.

The public call for accountability over the use of resources at our disposal is not a far-fetched demand by Gen-Z. Where do the resources generated from Kenya’s wealth and taxes, which is the highest in the sub-region, go? Where is the cash borrowed, regularly referenced as national debt used for? An accountability check must be conducted, cases of all those close to power whose corruption cases were dropped by the Director of Public Prosecution must be revisited for accountability and justice; and swift and decisive action must be taken to remedy a dire social and economic situation.

It is alarming that despite clear evidence of misconduct by law enforcement agencies, there have not been significant investigations or prosecutions of the officers and their commanders involved in these brutal acts. Civil Society Organisations as well as the legal fraternity through the Law Society of Kenya, have called for independent inquiries, yet these calls have been ignored as officials downplay the incidents, blaming the protesters for inciting violence or engaging in the destruction of private and public property, including Parliament Buildings.

President William Ruto’s assurance that he would not sign off on the Finance Bill 2024 is a good start. However, he must urgently address the economic grievances that sparked these protests. His economic recovery plan contained in the Kenya Kwanza manifesto gave hope to those at the lower end of the economic ladder who voted in the government. The diversion from this social contract has diminished hope and trust in the government.

Those in power must take immediate steps to ensure accountability for the police's actions. Independent investigations into incidents of brutality are essential. Those responsible must be held to account, and systemic reforms must be implemented to prevent future abuses.

President Mwai Kibaki once found himself in the same or worse quagmire in 2007. His saving grace was inclusive governance and a radical shift to prioritise the grievances of the people. As was the case then, Kenya has the potential to emerge stronger from this crisis, but only if we commit to uphold the principles of democracy and human rights. The government must recognise that its citizens are not enemies to be subdued. Justice is not only the right thing to do but essential for our nation's stability and prosperity.

Executive director, Defenders Coalition

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