By Ngina Kirori

Kenya | Seven days of rage

This past week was the week of Kenya’s youth, which came out in thousands on the streets of Nairobi to reject austerity, new heavy taxation, and government corruption. What follows is reporter Ngina Kirori’s diary of the protests.

Tuesday, June 18

Today is the day that sets the wheels in motion. Citizens are planning to occupy Kenya’s parliament to protest the proposed high taxation that threatens to burden even further the many who are already struggling financially. The dress code for the protestors is all black. This protest, unlike others in Kenya, has no face or leadership. It is represented by young Kenyans: our generation Z.

I get to Nairobi early, passing several heavy-duty police trucks on standby. The atmosphere is tense. Small clusters of protestors, recognisable by their clothing and placards, begin to form, then turn into a large crowd as the clock strikes midday.

Screams of panic

I hear the first teargas canister being shot in the air. A loud sound, to be followed by many more the rest of the day. Suddenly, I am in the middle of police and protestors, running on the side before a police officer pushes me back. He believes I am a protestor based on my black shirt and blue jeans, despite my press card being on display. A second canister is fired and lands a few feet away from me before it explodes, sending screams of panic through the crowd of protestors who choke on the fumes.

But then one bold participant runs to the cannister, picks it up, and throws it back to the police, encouraging the crowd not to be scared. “When we lose our fear, they lose their power!” he screams. Suddenly the crowd swells back together, chanting his words.

“When we lose our fear, they lose their power!”

The police look stunned and fire more teargas in the air, but that only attracts now-delighted screams from the emboldened protestors. A police officer rushes forward with a baton and clobbers the man who picked up the canister. The crowd charges at the policeman. In the ensuing fight between police and protestors, some are bundled into police lorries, still shouting, “Reject the finance bill!”

Then more reinforcements from the police make a dramatic entrance. A water cannon truck arrives, making a heavy, screeching noise as it breaks to a halt. Its churning sounds resonate amidst chants from protesters: “We are peaceful!”

Pink water

Seconds later, pink water sprays out of the truck at such a high pressure that several protestors fly off the ground before landing. The pink water marks those sprayed. Is this so that they can be arrested later? As I move to another street, I see blood on the sidewalk. One police officer has lost both of his hands as a teargas canister he was attempting to lob exploded in his hands.

Nairobi’s police county commander Adamson Bungei has stated that the protests are illegal, since no one applied for a gathering or picketing permit. Boniface Mwangi, a human rights defender, disputes this on social media, posting a letter he had sent notifying authorities about the protest. But the police also argue that parliament is a protected area.

A little later, we come to know of the first government responses. The chairman of the National Assembly Finance Committee, which has been spearheading activities around the contentious finance bill, is holding a press conference. Videos show the chairman, flanked by President William Ruto and other leaders, with satisfied grins on their faces as they talk about perhaps exempting bread from the proposed 16% VAT.


Image by Ngina Kirori

The politicians talk about perhaps exempting bread

Generation Z, out in the streets with mobile phones, follows it all. They are not impressed. The new chant is clear: Reject, not amend!

Conspicuously, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, usually ready to comment, does not issue a statement. Many of the placards accuse the US-aligned International Monetary Fund of testing Kenyans with this finance bill. It released a report in January, which included recommendations such as motor vehicle circulation tax. The report itself had said more taxation could trigger unrest. Were these powers testing Kenyans as if they are lab rats?

It's not only the US. At the end of day one of the protests, most of the ambassadors in Kenya from the Western world are silent.

Wednesday, June 19

A day of rest and regrouping has been announced.

In a statement, President William Ruto emphasises that Kenya is a democratic state which respects the right of the people to protest.

The streets will be full again tomorrow.

Thursday, June 20

29-year-old Rex Masai is the first death. He had joined a group of protestors on his way home from work, before a plain clothes police officer took out a pistol and shot Rex as he fled. The bullet hit him in the back of his thigh, causing him to bleed profusely. A friend rushed him to hospital, but it was too late. Rex was dead.

Rex Masai is the first death

This is not how many people thought the day would end, considering Ruto’s statement yesterday. Earlier today, police had exercised more restraint than they did two days ago. We have even had rare incidences of understanding: police officers and protestors sharing amicable moments, with some of them greeting each other, protestors handing out roses to police officers as a sign of peace, and even giving some of the police officers water to drink and wash their faces.

However, as protestors try to advance into parliament, the same cycle of violence breaks out and the police water cannon trucks swing back into action, accompanied by teargas.

Live ammunition

Today, protests continue until late. I hear live rounds of ammunition fired into the air by police officers until approximately 8pm. It was one of these bullets that was fired into Rex Masai’s body. Another protester, we hear, has died after a teargas canister hit his groin area.

Those known to be critics of the regime, as well as personalities who were outspoken during the protests, inform others via social media that they have been arrested by police, including a medic who helped injured victims at a mosque.

Friday, June 21

Protestors visit the city mortuary to mourn Rex and the second victim, whose name we have not gotten to know. Rex’s family is here, waiting for the police file so that a postmortem can be conducted. The police take five hours to bring the file. We all wait until the postmortem results are communicated. “Excessive bleeding” is the verdict.

From the mortuary, the crowd then moves to attend Jummah Prayers at the Jamia Mosque. Water is handed out to those leaving after the prayers.

Saturday, June 22

Generation Z is called to visit all its usual bars and clubs. It is announced that all music will stop at midnight, and chants “Ruto must go!” and “Reject finance bill!” will reverberate through the towns.

Sunday, June 23

Citizens are called to deplatform politicians in church. “Don’t allow any politician who voted YES (to the finance bill) to speak in your church,” the pamphlets say. At the Nyahururu Anglican church of Kenya where President Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua will speak, the security is of a heaviness never seen before. No protestor can get in here. But the crowds are outside, chanting “Ruto must go!” and “Reject the finance bill!” at the presidential convoy when it leaves.

Monday, June 24

Today is the day of visits to MPs. The campaign calls to boycott the businesses of “these traitors who voted YES” to the finance bill. The aim is to “ostracise them for betraying 54 million Kenyans” and to collect signatures to recall them.

Tuesday, June 25

Protestors have promised the mother of all protests today. Occupy Parliament and Total Shutdown are the hashtags, and they deliver just that. The march gets into parliament, but not all participants make it inside. An estimated five protestors die after being shot by police. Others sustain gunshot wounds.

For those that make it inside, they make their message clear to the members of parliament who they say refused to listen to them. They wreak havoc on furniture, walls, roofs, and offices, sending MPs scampering for safety in an underground tunnel. With police officers’ focus on parliament, many of the protestors within the central business district are left to their own devices and walk around freely chanting. A few blocks away we hear popping, crackling sounds in quick succession rending the air. “Are those firecrackers?” one protestor shouts. “No,” comes the response. “Those are live bullets.”

One protestor limps through the crowd, wailing

The crowd begins to run away from the direction of the bullet sounds. One protestor limps through the crowd, wailing. His leg is drenched in blood. Protestors rally around him as one of them calls an emergency number; an ambulance comes and picks him up.

Eerily silent

Murmurs start circling amongst protestors that the military has been called in, leading to the crowd dispersing. By the time military officers arrive in their lorries, the central business district is eerily silent, almost as if nothing had happened – except for the debris left behind by the looting after the masses leave the CBD. I see a separate group vandalising electronics shops, banks, forex bureaus.

At 9pm, President Ruto holds a press conference. As audience members wait with bated breath, Ruto’s speech takes a tough line against violence and anarchy, adding that he will provide a full, effective, and expeditious response to what he calls a “treasonous event” that has been “hijacked by dangerous individuals.” He fails to acknowledge the deaths that have happened. Neither does he mention reports that residents in an area known as Githurai outside the capital are being shot at indiscriminately.

His flat response irks citizens across social media and in public forums. They call it a tone-deaf speech which fails to address the critical needs of the people and their cries to the government.

Various embassies issue a flat statement

Equally, a joint – also rather flat – statement from various embassies including the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and others is met with outrage. The Western countries are accused of being responsible for the challenges many Kenyans are facing because of their collective historical and current decisions concerning our country. These countries have never offered public acknowledgment or a response to our cries. Kenyans lash out at them for siding with the government for their economic benefit, citing the recent deployment of Kenyan police officers to Haiti and the contentious IMF loan as an example.

Wednesday, June 26

The aftermath of the protests is in full glare. A section of the capital’s City Hall has been torched. Outside, several shells of cars which were razed down sit on the road and business owners sweep up the glass that vandals left after they broke into their shops.

President Ruto holds another press conference. He now says that he will not sign the Finance Bill of 2024. He states that austerity measures will be taken by the government to find another way of strengthening the economy, including cutting down on unnecessary expenditure. He finally acknowledges the killings and the arrests that have been made and says that the government is putting in place a plan to deal with these issues. He does not specify what the plan is.

It is not over

24 people have lost their lives so far.

Outside in the CBD, life is starting to resume as “normal.” But to the protestors, it is not over. Not as long as corruption reigns and ordinary people are squeezed while the government elite lives the good life. There is still a long way to go.  A security guard listening back to the president’s speech through a radio alongside his colleague cheerily tells him that young people should never be underestimated in Kenya.

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