More than 300 including lawmaker arrested after Kenya protests

Police criticised for heavy-handed response to deadly protests, but interior minister says authorities will not tolerate ‘acts of lawlessness’.

Kenan riot police
Riot police officers prepare to lob tear gas canisters to disperse anti-government protesters in Nairobi on Wednesday, July 12, 2023 [Brian Otieno/Reuters]

More than 300 people including an opposition lawmaker have been arrested following violent anti-government protests in major Kenyan cities that left several people dead, according to officials.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga has called for civil disobedience and weekly nationwide demonstrations against President William Ruto’s government, recent tax hikes, and the rising cost of living.

Protesters clashed with police on Wednesday as they took to the streets of the capital, Nairobi, and elsewhere to protest against new tax hikes that were imposed despite a court-ordered suspension. Police were accused of a heavy-handed response and criticised for using tear gas against civilians, including at a school where dozens of children were hospitalised.

In a statement on Thursday, Kenya’s Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said “acts of lawlessness … can neither be accepted nor tolerated”.

“There is no relationship between lowering the cost of living and destruction of critical infrastructure built using public funds. That is hooliganism, lawlessness, and a recipe for anarchy,” Kindiki said.

He said 312 people “who directly or indirectly planned, orchestrated, or financed” the protests had been arrested and would be charged, including a member of parliament.

Local media identified him as Mavoko MP Patrick Makau, saying he was released following his arrest but was asked to present himself again to authorities on Friday.

Ruto’s government has insisted that the 200 billion shillings ($1.42bn) per year the taxes will raise are essential to covering the country’s costs.

But the opposition asserts that the tax hikes will only exacerbate the hardships faced by Kenyans, who are already struggling with the skyrocketing prices of basic commodities, including food. Odinga, who lost to Ruto in last year’s election, has pledged to keep up the street action until cost-of-living pressures come down.

The unrest has so far claimed nine lives, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), an independent watchdog created by parliament, which said the figures were shared by the police.

The rights body called for an investigation into reports of looting, vandalism and incidents of police brutality on Thursday, warning the country was “teetering on the brink of anarchy”.

Kericho Police Commander Geoffrey Mayek told AFP news agency that one person succumbed to injuries at the hospital as a result of clashes between rival groups in Sondu on the border of Kericho and Kisumu, the latter an Odinga stronghold.

Six people lost their lives when police opened fire on demonstrators in the towns of Mlolongo and Kitengela on Nairobi’s outskirts, and in Emali along the highway to Mombasa.

Two others were killed in Migori and Busia in western Kenya, KNCHR said.

In Nairobi’s Kangemi informal settlement, dozens of children were hospitalised, some unconscious, after tear gas was fired near their classrooms.

The National Gender and Equality Commission, a state authority, strongly condemned the incident.

“School children… who should be shielded from such chaos, were tragically caught in the crossfire,” it said, deploring the vandalism and rights abuses linked to the protests.

Already hit by soaring inflation, many Kenyans say the country can ill afford the disruption caused by the demonstrations.

Each day of protest costs the economy an average of three billion shillings ($21.2m), according to an estimate by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies