Observations on policing the Gen Z protests in Kenya

The involvement of undercover officers has sparked concerns

In Summary
  • Hundreds of demonstrators have faced illegal arrests or detention, while others have sustained injuries.
  • Tragic incident involved the fatal shooting of an individual as they attempted to flee by a known police officer
Protesters ralling against kenya proposed finance bill in Nairobi on 20th June.2024
Protesters ralling against kenya proposed finance bill in Nairobi on 20th June.2024
Image: FILE

In just under two weeks, the Gen Z population has demonstrated to Kenya the art of protest, showcasing a remarkable display of agitation.

The #OccupyParliament protests is an ongoing campaign initiated to oppose the Finance Bill and exert pressure on the Kenyan Executive and Members of Parliament to reject the proposal that outlines the Government of Kenya's revenue generation strategy to support its budget.

The present Bill seems to dig deeper into the pockets of the common Wananchi while simultaneously expanding government spending. So far, the demos have been mainly marked by confrontation between police and the demonstrators.

The handling of security measures at the #OccupyParliament demonstration has been marred by police blockades that limit the demonstrators from accessing parliament, the use of disproportionate force against the protestors, incidents involving the firing of live ammunition, wielding of batons, use of water cannons and deployment of tear gas grenades have been widely observed and reported to be indiscriminate and widespread.

Peaceful assemblies, being inherently peaceful, should ideally be allowed in all public spaces or areas accessible to the public. Moreover, these assemblies should be permitted near their intended audience or at a location significant to the assembly's purpose.

While some limitations on the time, location, and manner of peaceful assemblies is acceptable, any restrictions should still enable participants to gather within sight and hearing distance of their target audience or at a location crucial to the assembly's objectives.

The intended venue for the #OccupyParliament demonstrations was Parliament Buildings located at the heart of the Nairobi central business district.

Throughout the past week, the demonstrators made multiple attempts to reach Parliament buildings without success due to police blockades. The act of preventing a peaceful assembly targeting legislators at or near parliament buildings goes against the international standards for such gatherings.

UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officers, 1979, and the UN Use of Force Principles, 1990 as well as paragraph 79. of General Comment No. 37 which provide that, "Only the minimum force necessary may be used where it is required for a legitimate law enforcement purpose during an assembly.”

Once the need for any use of force has passed, such as when a violent individual is safely apprehended, no further resort to force is permissible. Law enforcement officials may not use greater force than is proportionate to the legitimate objective of either dispersing an assembly, preventing a crime or effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders.

The involvement of undercover officers has sparked concerns, prompting the Police Reform Working Group to call for the removal of plainclothes police personnel from policing protests.

Hundreds of demonstrators have faced illegal arrests or detention, while others have sustained injuries. A tragic incident involved the fatal shooting of an individual as they attempted to flee by a known police officer, with the distressing episode captured and circulated on social media. Another distressing event captured on camera was the detonation of a tear gas grenade resulting in severe injury to the officer handling it, causing the loss of both hands.

The precise count of those injured in these protests remains uncertain at this time. Due to the peaceful demeanor of the demonstrations, instances of unwarranted police force have been readily discernible. This group has adopted a strategy of holding accountable those officers who misuse their authority by publicly profiling and reporting or shaming them.

Amid the ongoing protests, there have been instances where individual police officers displayed empathy and compassion. Some officers went beyond their regular duties to assist the injured, utilizing police vehicles for transportation. Notably, one officer was observed distributing water to members of the public affected by tear gas exposure.

In addition to these acts of humanity, various civil society organizations have stepped forward to provide support for the demonstrators. Among these organisations, the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP), and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) deserve special recognition for their roles.

The Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union has been camping at Jamia Mosque providing medical aid to injured protesters.

Led by its council, LSK lawyers have been visiting police stations around Nairobi to demand for the release of arrested protesters. ODPP made a significant public decision to reject baseless charges against protesters, including prominent human rights advocates Boniface Mwangi and Matthews Shipeta.

Few prosecution cases linked to the protests have been documented so far. IPOA swiftly intervened in investigating the case surrounding the tragic death of Rex Kanyike Masai. ODPP requested to review the investigation file in 21 days.

In conclusion, the Kenya government is facing an unusual opponent with the Gen Z Nation protesters. Traditional political tactics and official propaganda are unlikely to sway them. This group is not your typical politicians; they are a highly organized mass leveraging technology and expertise across various professional fields to operate efficiently.

Due to unemployment or misemployment – they have time to regroup, research and reflect. They counter rhetoric with depth and solid facts, while showcasing beauty, boldness, and brightness. It is clear that they are not going to fade away easily.

Conventional Kenya government methods of fighting ideas with brute police force is proving ineffective against them. It is time for the government to listen, reflect, and devise new strategies in response.

Aggrey Juma is a Senior Manager, International Justice Mission - Kenya

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