At least five shot dead as Kenyan protesters storm parliament

Chaos reigns in Nairobi
Chaos reigns in Nairobi - LUIS TATO/GETTY IMAGES

Protesters set fire to Kenya’s parliament, stole its mace and forced panicked MPs to flee on Tuesday as worsening political unrest threatened to tip one of Africa’s most peaceful states into anarchy.

Riot police in several cities fired live ammunition at protesters demanding the resignation of William Ruto, Kenya’s president. Emergency workers said at least five people were killed.

Furious over the tax policies of Mr Ruto’s debt-ridden government and the violent police response to initially peaceful demonstrations, protesters attacked government buildings, security vehicles and businesses owned by politicians across the country.

But nowhere was the violence starker or more startling than in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, where the prosperous financial and government district felt the full force of the protesters’ ire.

Throughout the day, riot police battled to hold back an ever-swelling number of protesters determined to reach Kenya’s parliament, where MPs were debating a tax bill that has become the focus of growing resentment directed at Mr Ruto.

But Kenya’s security forces were not prepared for the sheer force of numbers ranged against them. Although roadblocks had been thrown up on all major roads into the city centre, as well as on the streets around the parliament itself, police lines were steadily and remorselessly weakened throughout the day.

Initially, at least, the vast majority of protesters were peaceful. Few were armed with anything more offensive than a tennis racket, chosen as an ironic symbol by some protesters who said they would use them to return the teargas canisters lobbed at them by the security forces.

Protesters scatter as Kenya police spray water canon at them
Protesters scatter as Kenya police spray water cannons at them - Brian Inganga/AP

“We have come in peace to exercise our constitutional right to protest,” said Millicent Mutahi, a 26-year-old pharmacist, one of so many in the protest movement drawn from Kenya’s young and frustrated middle class.

“We have a right to picket parliament, to tell our MPs that they have ignored us for too long and that they have to start listening to the voters they have so long taken for granted.”

Moments later, Ms Mutahi and her friends fled as another volley of teargas came their way and the pink spray of a water cannon advanced down the street.

Protesters hold a Kenyan flag after storming the parliament
Protesters hold a Kenyan flag after storming the parliament - LUIS TATO/AFP

Yet neither teargas nor water cannon, nor even the often vicious beatings meted out by some police officers, proved enough to deter the protesters and by mid-afternoon it had become clear that the security forces had lost control of the city centre.

The advance guard of the protesters breached the final lines outside parliament, ripped apart the railings protecting it from the street and were soon marauding through the grounds.

The protest objective, perhaps never meant to be taken seriously, had been to “occupy parliament”. Few organisers are likely to have assumed that their goal would ever be accomplished.

The government has said tax increases are needed to fund services without increasing Kenya’s spiralling debt burden.

Proposals at first included a 16 per cent sales tax on bread and a 25 per cent duty on cooking oil.

In response to a growing outcry, the government rowed back on these and other measures earlier this week – but they did not cancel all the planned increases.

Protesters oppose tax rises in a country already reeling from a cost-of-living crisis
Protesters oppose tax rises in a country already reeling from a cost-of-living crisis - Brian Inganga/AP

Inside the chamber on Tuesday afternoon, ruling party MPs voted through Mr Ruto’s unpopular finance bill after a truncated debate punctuated by the ever-nearer sound of gunfire and the pop of teargas.

But most remained within the precincts of parliament.

The protesters, enraged by the killing of one of their number, hauled down the Kenyan flag outside the building and wrapped it around the corpse of their slain comrade.

Then, in scenes reminiscent of the storming of the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters in January 2020, they entered the building, kicked open the doors of the senate chambers and made away with the mace.

Kenyan police officers and security personnel take position to protect the parliament complex
Kenyan police officers and security personnel take position to protect the parliament complex - LUIS TATO/AFP

As police fired blindly, security officials escorted terrified MPs through an underground tunnel leading to a parliamentary office block across the street.

Although the security services later regained control of parliament, for several hours the centre of Nairobi belonged to the most militant core of the protesters, who turned their ire on other government targets. A portion of Nairobi’s City Hall was also set on fire.

By nightfall an uneasy calm had returned to the rock-strewn streets of Nairobi after a day of turmoil unprecedented in its history. Though more have been killed in past violence, never have the security forces lost control of parliament before.

Protesters eating in the parliament's canteen
Protesters eating in the parliament's canteen meant for politicians

Mr Ruto, who denounced the protesters who raided Parliament as “armed criminals”, is unlikely to sleep easy, however. He announced that the army had been deployed to support the police in order to deter further violence and promised a robust response to those responsible for inflicting “terror on innocent Kenyans”.

His government appears to have misjudged and underestimated the scale of the protests.

Historically, political unrest in Kenya has been driven by the opposition galvanising the poor. This week’s protests, by contrast, have been spearheaded by leaderless middle-class Gen Z social media users who may have wrongly been regarded by politicians as too apathetic to engage in meaningful street action.

With poor Kenyans now following the lead of the middle-class protest leaders, a formidable anti-government coalition is forming and has caught Mr Ruto off guard.

“We didn’t think they had the stomach for the fight,” said a senior politician aligned with Mr Ruto. “We were wrong. Who knows what will happen next?”

Protesters retreat from a cloud of tear gas during a nationwide strike
Protesters retreat from a cloud of tear gas - TONY KARUMBA/AFP

The violence will be a source of international embarrassment for Mr Ruto, who has sought to portray himself as an indispensable ally of the West and a champion of democracy.

Tuesday’s unrest came just hours after the United States named Kenya a “major non-Nato ally”, the first state in sub-Saharan Africa to receive such an accolade. Mr Ruto has consciously aligned himself with Washington on most foreign policy issues.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Ruto waved off the first 400 of a 1,000-strong Kenyan police contingent being dispatched, at Washington’s request, to restore order in Haiti just as it was collapsing in Kenya.