On Tuesday the 7th of July, hundreds of young people gathered in Nairobi to take part in Kenya’s Saba Saba demonstrations – an annual nationwide protest calling for both an end to corruption and more investment in public services. This year’s event was focused on the recent rise in police brutality across the country, with officers using government-enforced lockdown measures as an excuse to crack down on residents of largely low-income settlements.
Dozens of peaceful protesters were arrested before the official 11AM start time, as they made their way to the meeting point at the downtown monument of the beloved independence activist Tom Mboya.
Early in the day, Julie Wanjira, co-founder of Mathare Social Justice Centre – a grassroots organisation based in one of the city’s many informal neighbourhoods – was arrested without a formal charge. “When we lose our fear, they lose their power!” she cried as she grappled with police officers. Later in the afternoon, the police used tear gas to disperse the crowd – though many simply regathered at a different location, only to be tear gassed again.
According to Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), the number of reported cases of police brutality has risen six-fold in the past five years. In 2019 alone, there were 3,200 reports of police misconduct. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that “police in Kenya have killed no fewer than 21 men and boys in Nairobi’s low-income areas, apparently with no justification”. The violence is only getting worse as the police enforce lockdown measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. In April, at least six people were killed after a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew was introduced.
After she was released, Wanjira explained that her brother had been killed years ago in police custody. She wasn’t alone – many of the Saba Saba protesters I spoke with had a story of a family member or friend who had died as a result of police violence. Others told me about times in which they had been unfairly arrested, beaten and extorted.
“I have a patriotic duty to fulfil the struggle started by my ancestors,” Wanjira said towards the end of the day. “Kenya is my motherland, my homeland – it has been raped and abused for years, but not as I watch anymore. I want a better nation for the children of tomorrow. This is a continental struggle. And I am certain of it, we shall win.”
Tuesday’s demonstrations marked the 30th anniversary of the event. Saba Saba (7/7 in Swahili) first took place under the famously repressive single-party regime of President Daniel Arap Moi. Since then, the protests have grown considerably, and are seen as the key catalyst for the creation of Kenya’s multi-party democracy. Fredrick Ooko – who was part of those first protests, and was there supporting jailed activists yesterday – said the fact that the event is still going on “means that the fire is still burning and that this day is very important to our country”.
While the focus three decades ago was on multi-party-democracy, Kenyans want to use their platform to force politicians to take the issue of human rights more seriously. For example, one protester, who did not want to be named, pointed out that adequate housing is considered an economic and social right by the constitution, yet more than half of the country’s urban population live in overcrowded settlements made of mud and tin, without running water or proper sewage.
Over the past few months, forced evictions to make room for state-run companies which claim ownership of the land have left thousands newly homeless and extra vulnerable to coronavirus. “Basic housing is our right – we are not even supposed to be talking about that,” the protester said.
Ndereva Mutua, a self-taught graffiti artist whose work includes lessons about the constitution, wasn’t surprised by the police’s brutality at the protest. “It’s what they do anytime there is a demonstration,” he said. “In fact, it’s lucky they didn’t kill anyone.”
At a police station in Kilimani – an affluent neighbourhood west of the central business district – at least 15 protesters who had intended to attend the march had been rounded up before the event had even started, in the nearby low-income area of Kibera. The detainees were together, clumped in a jail cell, visible from the station entrance. Even though coronavirus safety restrictions had been used as an excuse for the arrests, social distancing was impossible.
Lawyers, advocates and human rights defenders had gathered, waiting to hear the charges.
Even though decades have passed since the inaugural Saba Saba, Grace Kamau – who works for a women’s rights initiative in Githurai, near Nairobi – said there are many similarities between the police and the colonial governments of the past: “The system never changed – what was taught during the colonial government is still what is existing in our government, so we don’t have police reforms.”
Kamau did empathise with the police, saying that many officers face the same struggles as the protesters – frustrated, low-skilled and under paid – before adding: “So the only time they can feel superior is when they oppress the common citizen.”
A police spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Scroll down to see more photos from the 2020 Saba Saba protest.