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Brutal Crackdown on Election Reformers in Kenya’s Biggest Slum

With imagery reminiscent of Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence, Kibera was labeled a no-go zone on Monday. (Photo by Joshua Ogure)
With imagery reminiscent of Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence, Kibera was labeled a no-go zone on Monday. (Photo by Joshua Ogure)

By Ashley Wilson and Joshua Ogure

Last Monday, Kibera slum was a chaotic scene of stone-wielding protesters in conflict with Kenyan police forces armed with live ammo, water cannons, and tear gas. In the fourth so far in a series of weekly protests against Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), many protesters were prevented from leaving their homes in order to demonstrate peacefully in the city center.

Calls for election reform have a long history in Kenya. The nation’s 2007 presidential elections led to what was widely termed “ethnic violence,” resulting in over 1,000 deaths and 600,000 displacements.  Kibera, one of the world’s largest slums located in the capital of Nairobi, is home to the opposition leader’s stronghold and saw a disproportionate number of murders and displacement. As the August 2017 presidential election draws near, tensions are rising in Kibera once again.

The Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), the leading opposition party, has called into question the IEBC’s ability to be fair toward all political parties in their monitoring of elections next year. This electoral body oversaw its first presidential election in 2013, and the results were hotly debated as partial, the election labeled rigged. Thus, CORD has called for dialogue with the Kenyan Jubilee government to consider disbandment and reconstitution of the IEBC in order to ensure impartial election proceedings next year. The government has refused to-date to enter into any talks with the opposing party on this issue. Additionally, the government has declared the anti-IEBC protests illegal even though the passing of the 2010 constitution allowed for the holding of peaceful demonstrations.

As the opposition’s stronghold, Kibera was especially targeted by local police forces on Monday of last week. As residents left home to join ongoing protests in another part of the city, they met with strong resistance from anti-riot police. Teargas was shot into the crowd immediately to disperse them back into the slum initiating conflict that would continue through the whole day.

While many Kiberans sought refuge in their homes, many more began setting tires on fire to prevent the police from entering the slum and collecting stones as weapons against the approaching forces. Businesses began closing down. Power was cut in Kibera as the national power company called the area a blackout zone during demonstrations.

There were many schools in the conflict area, and though teachers quickly called parents to come and pick up their children, more than 200 primary-age students were affected by teargas. Teargas also began to enter into private homes, and residents were forced to come out into the conflict zone for relief. Live bullets were also fired to break up crowds, sending at least one youth to a local hospital. Eventually the General Service Unit (GSU), the paramilitary unit for the national police force, was called into Kibera, bringing water cannon tanks to disperse any large crowds that remained by the afternoon.

The conflict, which began around ten in the morning, finally ended by nightfall. A week later, the streets are marred with evidence of the conflict, but normal life has resumed.

Primary school children and other Kibera residents running to escape police tear gas on Monday. (Photo by Joshua Ogure)
Primary school children and other Kibera residents running to escape police tear gas on Monday. (Photo by Joshua Ogure)

Many question whether the amount of police forced used was equitable to the protesters’ actions, including Kenyan journalist Philip Muhatia, who witnessed Monday’s violence in Kibera first-hand. He recalls, “Excess force was used by the police officers. If they were to disperse the demonstrators, why did they follow them into their own houses? Why did they involve people who were not even involved in that demonstration?”

Muhatia further explains how the most vulnerable were recipients of police brutality to a greater degree than those actively involved in the protests. He says, “Something which really made me devastated is when they started now throwing teargas into some people’s houses around because there we have maybe children, maybe women. They are a vulnerable group that cannot run away like men will do. And then also we have schools that are bordering the road. They were very much affected.”

Kibera residents remain hopeful that peace will be maintained throughout the duration of these protests, but they are also vocal about their right to peacefully demonstrate. From the outside, eager protesters from the slum are often denounced as hooligans. From the inside, however, people are lamenting their disenfranchisement and fighting for their rights and a voice.

GSU forces arrive in Kibera at Olympic bus stop with water cannon tanks while residents look on. (Photo by Joshua Ogure)
GSU forces arrive in Kibera at Olympic bus stop with water cannon tanks while residents look on. (Photo by Joshua Ogure)

Similar demonstrations are being held around the country. While many are peaceful and see little conflict with police, there were reports that three people were killed by police gunfire in the western regions and dozens have been hospitalized due to injuries sustained from police force during last Monday’s demonstrations.

CORD has vowed that anti-IEBC demonstrations will continue every Monday until the current commission is disbanded; however, given the causalities of last week, CORD’s leader, Mr. Raila Odinga, postponed this week’s demonstrations out of respect for those who died, giving the government another week to consider dialogue. If there is no response from the ruling party, demonstrations will progress as planned next week.