Africa
13 days ago

Kenyan activists rethink strategy after protests turn violent

A protester carries a casket during a demonstration over police killings of people protesting against the imposition of tax hikes by the government, in Nairobi, Kenya, July 2, 2024.
A protester carries a casket during a demonstration over police killings of people protesting against the imposition of tax hikes by the government, in Nairobi, Kenya, July 2, 2024. Photo : REUTERS/John Muchucha/File Photo

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Activists behind Kenya’s anti-government protests are rethinking their strategy after demonstrations on Tuesday were marred by violence and looting that they fear could undermine the movement and its efforts to push President William Ruto to resign.

The activists say the violence was the work of “goons” hired by politicians to either discredit legitimate demonstrators or advance their own agendas. Some called on social media for the next planned demonstration on Thursday not to go ahead.

“It seems the state has realised that the only way to counter this movement is by using goons to incite violence, break into people’s property, loot, and tarnish our cause,” Ojango Omondi, an activist in the capital Nairobi, told Reuters.

“It’s time to go back to the drawing board and strategise on how best to overcome this violence and keep our protests focused on their true objectives.”

Kenya’s government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement on Tuesday, Interior Minister Kithure Kindike blamed violence on “hordes of marauding criminal gangs” and said there was an attempt to “politicise crime”.

The initial protests last month against proposed tax hikes were overwhelmingly peaceful, although the police fired tear gas and water cannon at demonstrators.

The mobilisation of Kenyans from across ethnic lines around common economic demands marked a break with previous protest movements that have typically been organised by political figures with ethnic grievances often at the fore.

The protests became violent as some demonstrators briefly stormed parliament last week and the police opened fire, killing dozens.

The next day, Ruto withdrew the tax increases. But protesters vowed to carry on, issuing a range of demands, from anti-corruption measures to Ruto’s resignation.

Almost from the outset, protests on Tuesday were marked by violence. Stone-throwing young men clashed with police in Nairobi and other towns. Looters stormed businesses, leading shopowners to arm themselves with sticks and clubs.

Foi Wambui, a young actress who had come to protest in downtown Nairobi, said she was heading home because of the chaos.

“What has happened is that peaceful protesters are deterred from coming to town, and we are deterred from actually coming and practising our civic duties,” she told Reuters.

DISCREDITING THE MOVEMENT

In official statements, Ruto and the government have generally distinguished between peaceful protesters and those they brand as criminals that have hijacked the demonstrations.

But their allies have seized on the violence to try to discredit the movement, popularly known as Gen Z protests for their youthful following.

Dennis Itumbi, a political consultant close to Ruto, posted a video on X of a group of young men robbing another man in the streets. It was not clear where or when the video was taken.

“Congratulations Gen-Z for your Peaceful and democratic protests along the streets,” Itumbi wrote. “The police should not interfere with your moves.

Gerald Bitok, the communications director at the presidency, said young people were beginning to turn against the protests.

“The Gen Zs and the young people of this country have made it crystal clear that going forward, they will not be part of the demonstrations that are now synonymous with terror,” he said on X.

On a public forum on X on Tuesday evening that was attended by over 400,000 people, one supporter of the protest movement said it bore some responsibility for the chaos by continuing to call for demonstrations after Ruto withdrew the tax hikes.

“You are equally culpable if you are still beating the drums of war,” he said.

Other speakers said what they referred to as paid goons were to blame, but several agreed that demonstrators should take a step back and call off Thursday’s protest.

“We will have more casualties and we will not achieve what we want,” said one. “Let’s go back. Let’s strategise.”

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