Kenyan Activists Rethink Strategy After Protests Turn Violent

NAIROBI, July 3 (Reuters) – Activists behind Kenya’s anti-government protests are re-evaluating their approach following Tuesday’s demonstrations, which were marred by violence and looting. They fear these incidents could undermine the movement and its efforts to push President William Ruto to resign.

Activists claim that “goons” hired by politicians were responsible for the violence, aiming to discredit legitimate demonstrators or further their own agendas. In response, some activists called for the next planned demonstration on Thursday to be canceled.

“It seems the state has realized that the only way to counter this movement is by using goons to incite violence, break into people’s property, loot, and tarnish our cause,” Ojango Omondi, an activist in Nairobi, told Reuters. “It’s time to go back to the drawing board and strategize on how best to overcome this violence and keep our protests focused on their true objectives.”

Kenya’s government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement on Tuesday, Interior Minister Kithure Kindike blamed the violence on “hordes of marauding criminal gangs” and accused some of attempting to “politicize crime.”

The initial protests last month against proposed tax hikes were overwhelmingly peaceful, although police used tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators. The mobilization of Kenyans from various ethnic backgrounds around common economic demands marked a departure from previous protest movements, typically organized by political figures with ethnic grievances.

The protests turned violent when some demonstrators briefly stormed parliament last week, leading to police firing on the crowd and killing dozens. The following day, Ruto withdrew the tax increases. However, protesters continued with their demands, ranging from anti-corruption measures to Ruto’s resignation.

On Tuesday, violence erupted almost immediately. Stone-throwing youths clashed with police in Nairobi and other towns. Looters targeted businesses, prompting shop owners to arm themselves with sticks and clubs.

Foi Wambui, a young actress who came to protest in downtown Nairobi, decided to leave due to the chaos. “What has happened is that peaceful protesters are deterred from coming to town, and we are deterred from actually coming and practicing our civic duties,” she told Reuters.

Discrediting the Movement

In official statements, Ruto and the government have generally distinguished between peaceful protesters and those they brand as criminals hijacking the demonstrations. However, their allies have used the violence to try to discredit the movement, popularly known as Gen Z protests for their youthful following.

Dennis Itumbi, a political consultant close to Ruto, posted a video on X of a group of young men robbing another man in the streets. It was unclear where or when the video was taken. “Congratulations Gen-Z for your Peaceful and democratic protests along the streets,” Itumbi wrote. “The police should not interfere with your moves.”

Gerald Bitok, the communications director at the presidency, said young people were beginning to turn against the protests. “The Gen Zs and the young people of this country have made it crystal clear that going forward, they will not be part of the demonstrations that are now synonymous with terror,” he said on X.

During a public forum on X on Tuesday evening, attended by over 400,000 people, one protest supporter said the movement bore some responsibility for the chaos by continuing to call for demonstrations after Ruto withdrew the tax hikes. “You are equally culpable if you are still beating the drums of war,” he said.

Other speakers blamed the violence on paid goons but agreed that demonstrators should take a step back and call off Thursday’s protest. “We will have more casualties and we will not achieve what we want,” one speaker said. “Let’s go back. Let’s strategize.”

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