Kenya protests simmer after deadly week of anti-finance bill demonstrations

High Court rules in favour of a petition demanding a halt to the use of potentially deadly weaponry by police.

Women react outside a mosque during prayers for Ibrahim Kamau, 19, who was shot dead during a demonstration [Monicah Mwangi/Reuters]

Hundreds gathered for the funeral of a teenage demonstrator killed during Kenya’s antigovernment protests as the death toll from days of unrest rose to 27.

Three more protesters died overnight Friday as police continued a violent crackdown with the Kenyan High Court ordering security forces to halt the firing of live rounds, rubber-coated metal bullets, tear gas and water cannon into crowds.

The turmoil unfolded as young activists successfully forced the government to shelve $2.7bn in tax hikes this week, and now focus on ending years of what they see as endemic corruption and shoddy governance.

Protesters say the finance bill that President William Ruto abandoned on Wednesday was only a symptom of the problems plaguing a country, where many young people have few job prospects despite strong economic growth.

After pledging to scrap the tax plan, Ruto now faces growing pressure to resign.

The High Court ruled in favour of a petition submitted by a lawyer representing the political opposition and human rights groups demanding a halt to the use of potentially deadly weaponry by police against protesters. It also ordered police to refrain from “extrajudicial killing, abduction, and torture” against the antitax demonstrators.

Demas Kiprono, acting executive director of the Kenyan Section International Commission of Jurists, told Al Jazeera the move by the High Court to ban violent police tactics shows an acknowledgement that “something has gone wrong”.

“The petition claims the weapons and tactics used by police during the protests were egregious and violated a raft of human rights from expression, assembly, to the right to life,” said Kiprono.

But he noted the court does not have any mechanism to ensure police comply with the ruling. “So it is upon other instruments of government – the national police service commission, the executive – to respect this order.”

‘We want better living conditions’

Writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola said most of those involved in the recent protests were motivated by legitimate, strong grievances against the government.

“Until those grievances are addressed, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be willing to make concessions.”

How the diffuse and leaderless movement, which largely organised via social media, pursues its objectives remains an open question – and a source of internal debate.

Christine Odera, co-chair of the Kenya Coalition on Youth, Peace and Security, a civil society organisation, said it needed to formalise its structures to advance young people’s interests and speak to the government.

“If we go organically then we might lose the whole conversation,” said Odera, who participated in the protests. “The president has said we need to have conversations. All of us cannot sit in a stadium and have a conversation.”

Others disagree. Ojango Omondi of the Social Justice Centres Working Group, a community activist group in a poor district of Nairobi, said establishing structures and national representatives could allow the movement to be corrupted by politicians.

“We don’t need to negotiate anything,” he said. “All we want is better living conditions. All we want is the leaders to stop using our resources … to sponsor their lavish lifestyle.”

Another moment to watch for could be the government’s next proposal to raise revenues. Some protesters suspect it will still try to ram tax rises through. In a country where protest has traditionally been driven by ethnic affinities, the current youth-driven demonstrations have stood out for building unity around common grievances.

‘Class and wealth disparity’

But cracks are already emerging. Despite Ruto’s U-turn on the tax hikes, some protesters called for a planned march on his residence to go ahead on Thursday in an attempt to remove him from power. Others rejected the idea as a dangerous gambit. In the end, there were smaller protests in several cities.

In Ruto’s hometown and political stronghold of Eldoret – where thousands from different ethnic groups took to the streets on Tuesday – a human rights activist said some tensions resurfaced since the president withdrew the tax bill.

Nicholas Omito, CEO of the Centre for Human Rights and Mediation, said demonstrators from Ruto’s Kalenjin ethnic group argued protests should end now, while ethnic Kikuyus insist they should continue until Ruto resigns.

Protesters posting on social media accused local politicians of trying to incite trouble to undermine the movement.

Nyabola, the writer, said she did not think that ethnic divisions posed a risk to a movement that distinguished itself with its sense of national purpose.

“You’re never going to get rid of it completely,” she said. “But for now, the class and wealth disparity between politicians and ordinary people has been the focus.”

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Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies