NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Police in Kenya say they have been ordered not to report deaths during a crackdown on protests over tax increases amid the rising cost of living, but an independent watchdog said Thursday that police shot dead at least six people this week and 27 in previous weeks.
It wasn’t clear who issued the unusual order. A police official told The Associated Press it came this week as the political opposition called for three days of demonstrations through Friday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. Police in last week’s demonstration confirmed officers killed at least six.
While police in Kenya have long been accused by rights groups of using excessive force, there is growing concern about tactics used under the government of President William Ruto, elected last year. One police officer was seen posing as a journalist in the latest protest on Wednesday, which the Media Council of Kenya called dangerous.
Ruto faces rising frustration from even some of the Kenyans who voted him into office after he vowed to reduce the cost of living in one of Africa’s largest economies. Now his government is having to defend itself to donors including the United States, whose Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs spent more than $5 million in fiscal year 2021 on Kenya’s police oversight body while “promoting police accountability and professionalism.”
“One thing we’re very concerned with, there’s increasing interference with police, where police are receiving orders outside the police command and beginning to act in the interests of the executive and not the public interest,” the executive director of the local Independent Medico-Legal Unit watchdog, Peter Kiama, told the AP on Thursday.
Kiama said it is illegal for police officers to fail to report deaths or injuries from police action within 24 hours to the government-created Independent Policing Oversight Authority. A commissioner with the IPOA, John Waiganjo, confirmed to local broadcaster NTV that the organization had “not received notifications as we should, and I think it’s important to point that out.”
Data from Kiama’s organization, shared with the AP, shows 27 people confirmed shot dead by police in three previous opposition-called demonstrations this year. In addition, the watchdog has confirmed six shot dead on Wednesday, four of them in the capital, Nairobi. They were trying to confirm four more in various parts of the country. The AP on Wednesday confirmed two deaths in the western city of Kisumu and witnessed at least three people shot and wounded in Nairobi.
“It seems the police are out to completely disregard the public interest, and that’s dangerous for us,” Kiama said. “We’ve been there in the ’90s and saw what happened, the issue of plainclothes officers abducting people without identifying themselves. That’s what we’re seeing unfolding.” That has intensified in recent weeks, he said.
An AP journalist on Wednesday watched as a man who had been filming video among journalists broke away and tackled a man in a Nairobi neighborhood who shouted that tear gas had been thrown into his house and his child had fainted. Images show the tackling man helping uniformed officers put the civilian into a waiting truck.
Police have accused him of abusing officers and throwing stones, his wife, Wilmer Atieno, told the AP after visiting him in custody.
“But as you can see in the video, he was just shouting,” she said.
He hadn’t been taking part in the protests, she added. Their 2-year-old daughter was recovering from the tear gas on Thursday and asking about her father.
“I don’t know how to tell her,” Atieno said.
Kenya’s president on Thursday thanked police for “standing firm and ensuring that there is peace.” The interior minister, Kithure Kindiki, said police acted with “utmost professionalism” and public “hooliganism” had been contained.
The interior ministry said more than 300 people who were arrested during Wednesday’s protests have been charged with crimes that include looting, destroying property and assaulting police.
The ministry didn’t comment on the dead and wounded. A spokesman, Francis Gachuri, referred questions to police, asserting that they have operational independence. A police spokeswoman didn’t pick up calls.
In comments to diplomats on Thursday, the foreign affairs minister, Alfred Mutua, largely blamed the opposition protesters for Kenya’s unrest.
“These violent demonstrators have seen innocent members of the public attacked, private property looted and destroyed, police officers on duty to ensure law and order injured,” he said. “Most regrettably a number of Kenyans have lost their lives.”
The Kenya Medical Association in a statement before Wednesday’s protests said its members had attended to “hundreds of injured Kenyans and witnessed tens of fatalities” as a result of the demonstrations in recent months. It didn’t say who caused the deaths and injuries.
Reporting on killings and torture by police can be sensitive in Kenya, where watchdogs have long warned about a culture of impunity. In the 1990s, police were accused of suppressing critics of repressive President Daniel arap Moi.
The new tax increases that sparked the current round of demonstrations have prompted Kenya’s religious leaders to urge the president to repeal the package, warning that Kenyans face a level of hopelessness that “can easily inspire insurrection.”
The International Monetary Fund this week called the law’s approval a “crucial” step toward reducing Kenya’s debt vulnerabilities.
As part of efforts to reassure partners about Kenya’s economic opportunities, Ruto on Wednesday met with visiting U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai even as the new round of protests emptied Nairobi’s streets.
Evelyne Musambi and Brian Inganga contributed to this report.