Demos offered lessons on how not to organise and police public protests

Last weekend’s softening of positions by President William Ruto and Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga was welcomed by most, if not all, Kenyans and friends of Kenya. However, the protests and their effects drastically disrupted commerce, learning and the ability to work within the affected areas, especially on Mondays and Thursdays.

They proposed a bipartisan parliamentary framework to resolve the identified issues, including appointing the chairperson and members of the (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) IEBC. As with the late November 1997 Inter-parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) process, the current circumstances are similar to those that fostered dialogue and legal reform following a similar stalemate which was accompanied by street protests and violence before the truce was called, and crucial amendments were made to laws curtailing opposition political activity.

Despite the return to multiparty democracy in 1991, Kenya had begun to realise that their democracy and democratic principles had been rendered useless because of the opposition parties’ failure to conglomerate and the existence of laws designed to curb anti-colonial organising in the 1950s. Several colonial-era laws were still in effect and were used to curb political opposition by stifling freedom of assembly, association and expression using a slew of statutory provisions.

There were provisions on sedition in the Penal Code, the Preservation of Public Security Act, the Public Collections Act, the Societies Act, the Films and Stage Plays Act, as well as the Public Order Act. In an attempt to inculcate democracy and fairness in elections, these laws were amended to facilitate free expression, assembly, association and democratic space.

Despite these changes, including the new Constitution that affirmed human rights and how to exercise them and limit them lawfully, the rules governing the use of force and firearms, and aspirations for police independence, what we witnessed last week seemed to be a lesson on how not to police protests and how not to organise protests. The violence, crime, death and destruction spoke for themselves.

Since the weekend announcement, other stakeholders, such as religious groups and sections of civil society, have proposed further inclusion. In addition, Raila Odinga has indicated that he might be interested in a process similar to the one after the 2007-08 elections, which the government side quickly dismissed as a ploy for power-sharing.

In the past three weeks, we have further exposed our weaknesses regarding our understanding of constitutionalism and democracy, the role and freedom of the press, the exercise of state power, and our right to peaceful assembly. Aside from policing protests, police accountability is also a concern. For Azimio, the protests should address the price of unga and petrol, the leadership of the IEBC and electoral reform.

Our nation remains deeply divided, as evidenced by protests, criminal activity among protesters, infiltrators, and counter-protesters, creeping anarchy and lawlessness, especially in informal settlements and surrounding areas, unlawful police use of force, and targeting of the media by the police. Some protestors were hell-bent on causing mayhem regarding security, while the police were determined to criminalise any anti-government demonstration.

As far as institutions, constitutionalism, elections, and the system of government are concerned, we have yet to establish mutually agreed-upon principles. Hence, how could political parties, the media, the labour force, professional bodies, and non-governmental organisations come to grips and address Kenyan issues? How can these issues be addressed within our constitutional framework?

First published in The Standard on 07th April 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Demas Kiprono is a human rights lawyer and a Campaign Manager at Amnesty International Kenya. He writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]