Return To Darkness: Civil Vigilance Necessary To Resist Attacks On The Freedom Of Assembly

Steve Ogolla, Programme Officer, Human Rights Protection | ICJ Kenya  

The alarming rise in significant threats to the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in Kenya cannot be gainsaid. The excessive use of police force to disrupt and disperse peaceful and lawful protests as was witnessed during the occupy playground protest at Lang’ata Road Primary, has become common place. The government has systematically advanced in undermining the freedom of assembly guaranteed in the Constitution. The use of excessive force and the presence of undercover police amongst protesters has been employed as way of identifying and arresting human rights defenders. And because bail is too high, they are detained. Even if they are acquitted, confinement has served to effectively remove them from the civil space for the period. The cycle continues and the intention of dampening their spirit is achieved.

The emerging experience further reveals that the law is increasingly being used to preserve public power rather than protect freedom of assembly. The Public Order Act of 1950 has not been amended to reflect the gains in the Constitution. Instead, the Security Laws (Amendment) Act, 2014 has tightened the constraints on freedoms of assembly. The security laws now empower the Cabinet Secretary to designate the areas where, and times at which public meetings, gatherings or public processions may be held. This is a total recall of the freedom of assembly and an effective strategy to make protests irrelevant and their impact negligible.

The right to protest in Kenya is now becoming either too risky or too boring and has been left to those with the least to lose. Police have imported bad practices from the past where threats to life, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, were the norm. It is instructive to note that the brutal murders of human rights activists such as Kamau Kingara and Paul Oulu in 2009 remain unsolved. Presently, there are no strong assurances that extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances of human rights defenders have been conclusively addressed and any such fears in post 2010 Constitution are unfounded.

The shrinking space for civil liberties have been accompanied by a predictable pattern of State campaign to delegitimize the role of the civil society in post 2010 Constitution. The government has attempted to shut down funding streams from foreign sources in a deliberate move to severely limit the work of the civil society in defending the democratic space guaranteed in the Constitution.

It behooves the people to stand up and out for their rights and safeguard the hard fought liberties without assuming that the reversal of these gains is beyond the government’s contemplation.