Kenyan president William Ruto (Picture: World Trade Organisation/Flickr)

Police have unleashed a wave of repression against protests over the cost of living crisis in Kenya, east Africa.

Protests have rocked President William Ruto, who wants to slash subsidies and hike taxes on workers and the poor, since March. His austerity programme is backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Western capitalism’s loan shark that forces free market policies onto states.

Cops have murdered at least six people, shoot people at will, and have arrested hundreds more after three days of protests last week.

Sophia—not her real name—says she could “hear tear gas all the time” in her neighbourhood in the capital Nairobi last week. “The government is really bashing against protesters with violence,” the activist told Socialist Worker. “There is a lot of repression and extreme use of force.”

Sophia described how “pain clothes police are masquerading as journalists and arresting people in the crowds”. “They have been attacked and tear-gassed—including children in schools,” she said.

Police shot nine bullets into the chest of 19 year-old school student Fidel Castro Ochieng in Kisumu on Saturday. He survived, but still has bullets lodged in his body awaiting an operation. His friends died in hospital.

Ochieng and a group of friends were playing cards. He says police officers tore into their compound and “shouted that we were hiding after causing a disturbance and started beating us with a big stick”.

The armed officers shot Ochieng as he tried to run away. And, after someone carried him off on a motorbike, the cops continued shooting until they entered the hospital gates.

One of the nurses at the hospital, Ms Okiri, said, “Yesterday we had 14 more patients with gunshot wounds, 15 patients who had bullets lodged in their bodies were successfully operated on.

Another patient, bicycle taxi driver Joseph Odhiambo, says a plain-clothes cop shot him on his way home from work.

Kenya’s rulers are scared at the depth of anger in society. Earlier this month protesters uprooted fences and destroyed parts of the Expressway. Sophia explained it became a target as it’s a “new road which is exclusively used by the elite in Nairobi”.

Transport minister Kipchumba Murkomen threatened, “We will make sure that we arrest and charge everyone who was involved. We will do everything humanly possible to ensure that each criminal who was here yesterday is going to be brought to justice.”

Sophia said, “They talk about ‘vandalism’ of the Expressway, but this whole debate takes place within a neoliberal framework where you must not destroy property.

“I don’t think people would destroy something that they feel belongs to them, people don’t feel like they own these places.”

People were beginning to feel some of their own power through fighting back. “I was in Mombasa at the time and platform worker drivers were going on strike because of the rates offered by multinational companies,” she said.

On the streets, Sophia said, it “felt like we were claiming back our dignity and joy”.

Politicians saw ordinary people’s determination to fight back on the protests against the Finance Bill 2023 in Nairobi last month. Tear gas canisters fell around protesters, but they kept chanting, “Down, down finance bill.”

The protest was dubbed the “sita, sita”—Swahili for six—because it took place on the sixth day of the sixth month.

But the anger goes deeper than the president’s finance bill. Sophia says the cost of living crisis has hit the poor hard with people “not able to afford going to school or to buy Unga”, a flour that households rely on.

Unga prices have reached all time highs as mill bosses try to protect their profits amid a drought caused by climate change. “But wages are not increasing,” said Sophia, adding that the cost of sugar and “salad” cooking oil was punishingly high.

Over 35 percent of Kenyans suffer from food insecurity and malnutrition each year. Some 3.1 million in areas that rely on livestock farming or have poor soil were food insecure in February 2021—a 48 percent jump from August 2021.

This has been made far worse by the worst drought in 40 years—which has means four million are food insecure and 3.3 million can’t get enough water to drink.

Anger has exploded in informal settlements—where, by some estimates, up to 70 percent of Nairobi’s population lives. And here, food insecurity runs at 80 percent and child malnutrition at 50 percent.

“The working class of Nairobi is living in such places,” Sophia explained. “It is where historically Africans were staying during the colonial era, and today it’s where you have the worst electricity or water.”

But Sophia says she was “totally surprised by very middle class people supporting the protests” because they now “feel the pinch”.

The opposition under former prime minister Raila Odinga wants to lead and capitalise on the protests. They do have sway and had called on people to join marches and vigils over police violence, rather than protests on Wednesday.

Sophia says there are “elite level” manoeuvres. But, she added, “The organising is coming from the grassroots. In Nairobi the social justice movement that has been organising against police brutality and extra judicial killings is important.

“In Kisumu, activists have been organising around social justice too before.” 

It’s vital for ordinary people to look beyond the politics of the official opposition—and organise against all those at the top.

Sophia is a pseudonym


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