Police under fire over brutality on Gen Zs peaceful, unarmed protest


Anti-riot police officers rough-up comedian Eric Omondi during the anti-Finance Bill protests in Nairobi on June 20, 2024. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Kenya’s Generation Z has captured everyone's imagination, rallying around hashtags and mobilising through street marches. 

Armed only with smartphones and bottles of water, these fearless young demonstrators have poured out their hearts, expressing both their frustrations and aspirations. 

Some wore flashy bandanas, hoisted placards, and sang songs of solidarity, occasionally flashing peace signs and taking harmless selfies. 

Many have come to liken their uprising to the iconic Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 in the US and the Arab Spring of the early 2010s.

Despite staging peaceful protests, police violence resulted in the tragic death of 29-year-old Rex Kanyike Masai, allegedly shot by a police officer along Moi Avenue. 

This gruesome incident has sparked widespread condemnation both locally and internationally, shedding a sharp spotlight on the police conduct once again.

"This was unjustifiable force," observed Chris Otieno, a Nairobi-based security consultant. 

An overhead video has since resurfaced, showing a plainclothes officer allegedly shooting the young protestor. 

"This only serves to escalate emotions and bitterness among the young people of this country. It was careless and uncalled for. If anything, the flames of this uprising will burn even more," noted Rashid Shirunyi Musa, a lawyer and diplomacy expert.

The heinous murder is now under investigation by the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), exposing the dark underbelly of Kenyan police officers during the anti-tax protests. 

"This was a unique demonstration in many respects. We saw Gen Zs taking selfies and even high-fiving police officers on the streets. The young people were completely harmless, just voicing their grievances. At what point did the police feel threatened enough to pull the trigger?" questioned Mathias Shipeta, a human rights defender affiliated with Haki Africa who took part in the protests.

Scores of youth participating in the protests were arrested and detained for several hours at various police stations, including Central Police Station and Kamukunji. 

Activist Boniface Mwangi and Haki Africa’s Mathias Shipeta were among those locked up at Kamukunji on Tuesday. 

"We found more than 200 youth at Central. Three of us were taken to Kamukunji, where we slept on a cold floor. Still, they could not present us to court as the law requires, only to be released the next day in the evening. This was a total violation of our rights," observed Shipeta.

Article 37 of the Kenyan Constitution guarantees citizens the right to assemble and to picket, but increasingly, some see a claw back on these rights. 

Missing Voices, an organisation documenting disappearances in Kenya, reports 1,350 cases of police killings and 350 cases of enforced disappearances since 2019. 

The most vulnerable to police brutality are men aged 18-35 living in informal settlements. 

Activists, friends and family of the late Rex Masai at Nairobi City Mortuary waiting for the post-mortem. Rex was shot dead during anti-tax protests on June 20, 2024. [Robert Tomno, Standard] 

Notably, the anti-Finance Bill protests witnessed heavy deployment of armed plainclothes officers who easily camouflaged within crowds, raising questions about their conduct.

The National Police Service Act stipulates that police officers, other than those attached to specific units such as the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, Internal Affairs Unit, VIP protection sections and Crime Branches, must wear uniforms when on duty. 

However, in special circumstances, plain clothes may be worn as directed by the Officer-in-Charge. 

Security analyst George Musamali emphasises the need to reconsider police dress codes, especially during sensitive deployments.  

Some uniformed and plainclothes officers were captured on camera wearing face masks while handling protestors, a practice criticised by Embakasi East MP Babu Owino.

"We cannot allow this trend to continue where police officers hide behind masks to commit crimes," he said.

During the Gen Z protests in Mombasa, a tear gas canister landed at Coast Girls' High School, causing panicked students to scamper. Some students sustained minor injuries.

The Gen Z protests are Kenya Kwanza’s biggest backlash since last year’s protests by rights groups that claimed at least nine lives.

"We fear nothing. We’ve been through the worst already. The only thing I personally fear is my phone running low on battery and slow internet," said a Gen Z protestor.

Seasoned lawyer Paul Mwangi noted, "It's happening everywhere. Gen Zs are taking over. It has happened in West Africa in several countries. I think it’s time for East Africa! I pity politicians who are taking this lightly.