Protesting during a pandemic:
Confronting civil rights abuses in Kenya

Kedolwa Waziri woke up at 4 am on 7th July 2020. It was bitingly cold but the brisk weather did not get in the way of her mission that day— to take part in a march to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Saba Saba march and to protest police killing of innocent people particularly those living in informal settlements. 

“There were some things that we still needed to add to the petition we were going to submit after the march so I woke up early to just give it one last look then I was going to meet a friend so we could go to Mathare to deliver the petition at about 8.30 am,” she recalls. 

“We had barely made our way there when our comrades there called us and told us that they had been arrested,” said Kedolwa.

From COVID to Chaos

Ever since COVID-19 started spreading all over the world in early 2020 moving from country to country, continent to continent, most nations took precautions to protect their citizens. After the first case in Kenya was reported on 13th March, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the first official COVID-19 restrictions on 15th March. Among other things, these included suspension of travel, mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for Kenyan nationals getting into the country and a ban of all congressional meetings such as weddings and night clubs.

On 25th March when the number of cases in the country had reached 28, these restrictions were further amended to include a nation-wide curfew from 7 pm to 5 am. Only those offering critical or essential services such as health workers, food dealers and distributors were excluded from the curfew. 

The first day of the curfew was marked with extreme violence meted out on citizens as the Kenya Police Service enforced the curfew. Reports trickled in from the coastal city of Mombasa where police had thrown teargas at hundreds of commuters waiting to board the ferry at Likoni to make it home before the 7 pm curfew.

“We were horrified by excessive use of police force which is contrary to the functions of the Police laid out in Article 244 of our constitution. Police indiscriminately threw teargas, frog-marched & beat up members of the public trying to get home in time for the curfew,” Amnesty International said in a statement the following day.

This wanton use of force led to the death of 13-year old Yassin Moyo who was shot as he stood in the balcony of his family’s home in Kiamaiko, Nairobi-Eastlands watching police brutally enforcing the curfew in the streets below.

The Human Rights Watch reported that at least six people died from police violence during the first 10 days of the curfew meaning that by that time, the police had killed more people in Kenya than the virus which the curfew and other regulations were supposed to contain.

Amidst the killings, the Ministry of Health diligently announced new cases each day, the numbers recorded soaring with each sunrise. Despite this, the political and social elite, with impunity, continued to roam across the country willy nilly ignoring the partial lockdowns, ignoring the curfew, holding public gatherings and failing to wear masks in public.

By mid-April, the majority of Kenyans, who were mostly sheltering in place while following work from home regulations and with restricted movement in and out of COVID-19 hotspots such as Nairobi, Mombasa and Mandera, were getting fed up. Not only was the government oblivious about the suffering of poor people being forced to pay for their own quarantine, but it also failed to test those quarantined in non-hospital facilities. Most of these quarantine facilities were used by the police to hold people arrested for allegedly breaking the curfew. The threat of being ‘arrested’ and taken into forced quarantine proved to be a great opportunity for the police to extort money from a hapless and helpless citizenry. It is only in early May that the government ineffectually acted to try and reign in the violence against the poor.

“13yr old Yassin Hussein Moyo was exactly where the curfew requires people to be— home. But he still got shot in the stomach by police for playing on his balcony. He is now dead. What do we say? How should we say it so police can stop killing the poor?” lamented Scheaffer Okore, vice-chairperson of Ukweli Party and former head of programs for civic engagement at Siasa Place.

President Kenyatta apologized generally about police use of force, but he did not specifically instruct the police to end their use of excessive force.

By 12th June, the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian oversight body on the work of the police in Kenya had received over 95 complaints since the curfew started. The complaints relate to deaths, assaults, shootings, sexual assaults, harassment and inhuman treatment among others. Investigation is still ongoing to establish if there is police involvement in each of these cases.

Calvin Omondi, Hamisi Juma Mbega, Yassin Moyo, Eric Ng’ethe Waithugi, Yusuf Ramadhan, Idris Mukolwe are just three of the more than 100 people reported to have been killed by police since January 2020 according to Missing Voices, a consortium of community, national and international human rights defenders committed to ending enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Kenya.

‘We have been living in a pandemic all our lives’

As Kedolwa headed to the Nairobi CBD with her friend on the day of the Saba Saba March, she was already a bundle of nerves. When she got to one of the agreed meeting points, The Kenya National Archives, her fears were confirmed when she noticed scores of riot police.

“Each place we would gather in a group of 4 or 5 people, 2 or 3 cops would come and disperse us. We could tell the march was infiltrated from early on. There were many cops in plain clothes,” she said. No sooner had they sang the opening bars of their first protest song than the police descended upon them with teargas.

Protesters holding up signs amidst teargas during the Saba Saba march, July 7, 2020. Image: Ed Ram

Protesters holding up signs amidst teargas during the Saba Saba march, July 7, 2020. Image: Ed Ram

Even journalists covering the event that day were not spared. “After a teargas canister was shot into the crowd of protesters, I went on the side of the road and started filming,” said Maurice Oniang’o, a freelance multimedia journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Nairobi. He was then hit by a canister on his leg, sustaining some injuries.

Lena Anyuolo, a social justice political activist from the Mathare Social Justice Centre described it as a march for the people and by the people with no particular leader or leading organization.

“Saba Saba march is a historical march with roots from 1990 when people met at Kamukunji grounds to advocate for multiparty democracy,” said Lena who also works for the Women in Social Justice Centres and Ukombozi Library.

“Our decision to go on the streets despite the situation that is happening [COVID-19] is because our backs are against the wall. And when we looked at our communities we saw that truly, we have been living in a pandemic all our lives,” said Lena.

The May 25 murder of George Floyd by a white policemen in the United States triggered protests all over the world. Protestors prioritized the fight for their freedoms despite the risks, with even the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus endorsing the fight for equality. While protests in most Western capitals focused on anti-racism, Kenyans and other African countries had a different urgency. Protestors in Africa and other developing countries took the opportunity presented to protest against gender-based violence in Nigeria, femicide in South Africa and extrajudicial killings that mostly affect poorer neighbourhoods in Kenya. 

“COVID-19 is just a symptom of the disease of capitalism which has created the conditions for this poverty. Whichever way you look at this situation, the end is the same—we die.  The government has issued directives to stay at home but provide us with no food, there’s no water. The militarization in our communities has increased almost ten-fold during this pandemic,” said Lena referring to the heavily armed police who have since the pandemic been deployed to enforce the curfew.

Missing Voices reports that 712 people have been killed by the police or reported missing since 2007 with only 26 having been charged with a crime for these cases which include enforced disappearances. These cases are more rampant in poorer neighbourhoods. 

It is not a coincidence that most of those who turned up for the march were women, the youth, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled and other marginalised groups who have been worst affected by the pandemic and the regulations instituted to control the spread of the virus. Those protesting were demanding basic needs and rights as outlined in the constitution. The right to food, clean water, quality and free education, proper healthcare, justice and the right to life.

Rising frustrations

Compounding the COVID-19 situation were several other events within the country -  flash floods in Western Kenya, locust swarms in Northern Kenya that were quickly spreading towards Central Kenya, a spike in the number of teen pregnancies and indiscriminate evictions that left thousands homeless.

Mid-July, one of the coldest months of the year in Kenya, found residents of the Mau and Embobut Forests homeless and stranded due to evictions carried out by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). 

In 2017, the Ogiek people of the Mau Forest, used to frequent evictions by the Kenya government,  won a case at the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights declaring their habitation on the Mau Forest legal seeing as it is their ancestral land but the Kenya government insists that their occupation of the forest is hampering conservation efforts. 

The situation is similar for the Sengwer people in Embobut Forest. “The very recent evictions have involved the burning down of 28 houses by the KFS. This is one of the evictions that have really hit us differently because it’s evictions during COVID times. It’s evictions when children are not in school and they’re playing in the glades and from nowhere they’re just being rendered homeless. Additionally it is during the coldest season in the year up in the mountains. This is a gross violation of basic human rights,” said Milka Chepkorir, a representative of the Sengwer people during a press briefing.

Additionally, thousands of Kenyans have been laid off since March, accelerating a trend that started last year. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) reports that in the first quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate was 13.7%, a deterioration from the 12.4% recorded in the fourth quarter of 2019. The highest rate of unemployment is among the youth—those aged between 20-24 had the highest proportion of the unemployed at 12.5%.

The pandemic has especially affected casual workers and gig workers making it harder for them to pay rent and feed their families. 

“Delivery has decreased compared to before COVID-19,” said Jackson Wanjala, a rider who usually delivers food, drugs and parcels on his boda boda. 

Though with increased use of the internet and masks industries such as the telecommunications sector and manufacturing sector have seen a surge in business even as economic growth has been stunted.

A protester being arrested during the Saba Saba march July 7, 2020. Image: Ed Ram

A protester being arrested during the Saba Saba march July 7, 2020. Image: Ed Ram

COVID-19 restrictions edging the line

Benson Shamala, who is the Kenya Country Director at the International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organization that partners with local authorities to rescue victims of violence, confirms that justice is slow to come for victims of police brutality. Over the curfew period, IJM and its partners have linked 20 cases of police killings and enforced disappearances (EDs) to COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, only 2 police officers have since been taken to court for prosecution,” said Shamala. “Police Constable Beckham Osoro Orwaru was the first officer to be charged with the shooting to death of Karani Kinyiri, 26, in Mathare Area lV, Nairobi on April 13, 2020. The other officer is Duncan Ndiema who is facing a murder charge for killing 13-year-old Yassin Moyo in Mathare,” he said.

On May 13th, Okiya Omtatah, Executive Director of Kenyans for Justice and Development (KEJUDE) filed a lawsuit challenging the manner in which some of the government's measures against the Covid19 pandemic were formulated and are being implemented.

“We must applaud government for the actions they are taking to suppress the spread of COVID-19, however, there has been a disproportionate application of powers and excessive use of these powers without there being a legal grounding and basis at times,” said Sigi Mwanzia, a Digital Policy Consultant at ARTICLE 19 which is an international human rights organization with a specific mandate and focus on the defence and promotion of freedom of expression and freedom of information.

The Public Health Act is what Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe is using to generate the regulations put in place to curb the spread of the virus. “It is vaguely and broadly worded and so it allows his office to craft rules to cater for this particular pandemic. What Okiya Omtatah is drawing attention to is that the office of the Cabinet Secretary is creating offences which as Omtatah noted is not within its mandate. That is the mandate of the legislature, which is clearly defined in the constitution. And so it is disturbing to see how the Cabinet Secretary is taking power into his own hands because these offences are not being grounded in the constitutive framework,” explains Mwanzia.

ARTICLE 19 also noted four cases where sections 22 and 23 of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act of 2018 were used to target internet users, namely bloggers, politicians and citizen reporters whose posts on social media countered the government’s official COVID-19 narrative. One of them, Member of Parliament John Kiarie, was summoned by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) following a Twitter thread he posted. The DCI alleged that the post was ‘alarmist’. Kiarie was not formally charged but he clarified his thread in another post after being released.

This follows the warning given by Health CS Mutahi Kagwe at the end of March, “These rumours must stop... but because I know empty appeals will not work, we will proceed and arrest a number of them to prove our point.” 

Where should we focus our efforts?

All these actions have been carried out in an attempt to strictly enforce the curfew. But how does a curfew help during a pandemic?

“What a curfew tries to do is to reduce the number of contacts that people have during a day, said Dr Jeanette Dawa, a Medical Epidemiologist at Washington State University, Global Health Programs in Kenya. 

Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports show that these measures contributed to the significant drop in social interaction. 

However the move to the 9pm to 4am curfew may be less effective. “A lot of the population is already at home. The question is, who is it targeting because who is out at that time anyway? If you want to target more of the population, your curfew may have to extend closer to the evening times and early morning,” said Dr. Dawa.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement is buying time and reducing the pressure on health systems but on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics. The point of these actions is to enable the more precise and targeted measures that are needed to stop transmission and save lives.”

For example, Ghana is implementing the Ghana Coronavirus Alleviation Programme  where medical workers are exempt from taxes from April through June 2020. Utilities such as the Ghana Water Company Ltd and the Electricity Company of Ghana have been ordered not to disconnect anyone due to lack of payment as these costs will be catered to by Ghanaian government between the months of April and June.

In the meantime, the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU) reported that the government is yet to hire more health workers as part of their COVID-19 response plan three months after advertising positions and instead brought in 30 doctors from Cuba.

While curfews are an effective strategy to curb the spread of the virus, the Kenya government is largely ignoring the effects of pay cuts and job losses is having on people’s ability to shelter in place.

‘We are orphans’ 

Kedolwa, Lena and more than a reported 50 other young Kenyans were bundled into vehicles and taken to different police stations on 7 July.

In a twist of irony, hardly any social distancing or wearing of masks was being adhered to even as the crowds of protestors were booked and charged for everything from terrorism to breaking COVID-19 rules and regulations to picketing.

“Kenyans contributed funds to get us bailed out that day. The bail amounts ranged from Ksh 5,000 to Ksh 6,000 per person depending on which station you were taken to,” said Kedolwa. These charges were later dropped. Their petition remains undelivered.

30 years after the first Saba Saba march in 1990, Kenyans still felt the need to take to the streets amidst a pandemic to fight for their democratic rights, as stipulated in the constitution. 

“During the march one of the officers even told us we have been abandoned by the government. We are orphans. And whatever the government says, we should dance to that tune,” said Lena. “It confirmed to me what I already knew. The police exist to protect the interests of the rich. They are planning to murder us but we have to fight back.” 

As Kenyans grapple with the impact of the pandemic, the regulations being implemented and the manner in which they are being enforced have further exacerbated the social inequalities that exist. Protesting during a pandemic can be dangerous but for those without access to basic services, it might be the only way to get their voices heard. 

Photos by @Edr4m on Instagram and the Star archive

This report was supported by the Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ)