By OTIATO GUGUYU
Five children and a police officer were injured as violence marred demonstrations to save the Lang’ata Road Primary School playground from a land grabber on Monday.
In scenes, reminiscent of the 1976 South Africa riots under apartheid — when police descended on protesting school children — police officers lobbed tear gas on the children and the adults accompanying them, causing chaotic scenes that spilled over to Lang’ata road.
The injured school children were treated at the Lang’ata Prison Dispensary, while two activists, Mr Houghton Irungu and Mr Boaz Waruku, were arrested.
Kenyans criticized the police for using excessive force against the children, a situation that prompted the police to issue a statement suspending the officer in charge of the operation, Lang’ata OCPD Elija Mwangi.
Another statement signed by the acting Inspector-General of the police, Mr Samuel Arachi, said the police service was disturbed by the action of the officers who lobbed tear gas at the children and other demonstrators.
WILL NOT ALLOW
“We will never allow our officers to use force, not only on any citizen but more so on children, whether in demonstrations or otherwise,” said Mr Arachi, who also criticized the adults who asked the children to join in the protest to reclaim the grabbed playground.
The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) said it had named a team of 11 lawyers who will work with the Director of Public Prosecution to charge the officers who teargassed the pupils.
LSK Chairperson Eric Mutua said the lawyers will be led by LSK council member Gertrude Angote. “The country has witnessed with horror and shock the brutality visited upon defenseless children at Lang’ata Primary School in Nairobi,” Mr Mutua told a press briefing after chairing a full council meeting at the LSK secretariat in Lavington, Nairobi.
Save The Children, an organization that champions the rights of children, also condemned the police for using tear gas and excessive force “on children who were peacefully demonstrating against the alleged grabbing of their playground”.
In a statement signed by the country director, Mr Duncan Harvey, the organization said: “This is a sad day in the history of Kenya. The fact that innocent children who were claiming their right to an education … and their right to play … in this inhumane manner is unacceptable. Schools must be places of safety and refuge; not violence”.
The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (Ipoa), which investigates public complaints against the police, said it was investigating “reports of brutal mishandling of pupils and members of the public” during the demonstration over the alleged grabbing of school land.
“The authority has launched investigations into the incident with a view to ensuring that appropriate action is taken against the offending officers,” said a statement signed by its secretary, Dr Joel Mabonga.
FIVE MENACING DOGS
The police, who had also called in a dog unit, had five menacing dogs during the confrontation in which activists and protesters brought down the wall built around the field.
The nearby Weston Hotel has denied allegations that it was behind attempts to take over the school land. Its lawyer, Mr Ahmednasir Abdullahi, also denied allegations that the Deputy President, Mr William Ruto, was either a shareholder or a director in the hotel.
Police had arrived at the disputed property at 6am. However, they were caught unawares when, later in the morning, pupils stormed out of classrooms wielding twigs as they protested over the alienation of their playground.
All hell broke loose when the officers lobbed tear gas at the pupils who were banging on a school gate. This sent many of the pupils running onto the busy Lang’ata Road while others fell in gutters by the road.
The learners retreated to their school compound and brought down part of the wall facing their school. Police fired more tear gas and the pupils started throwing stones. Protesters, who included Kibra MP Ken Okoth, who had gathered outside the gate then joined the fracas. However, they were dispersed when police lobbed tear gas at them.
In the melee, the two activists were arrested, with the police accusing them of inciting the pupils. Later in the day police said they had arrested three other people for vandalizing guard rails during the protests.
One officer suffered a cut above his right eye after he was hit by a stone and his colleagues had to restrain him from attacking his assailant.
“We are here to safeguard the property because these people (protesters) have not followed procedure. This is disputed land but they should not use the children,” Mr Mwangi said and accused the protesters of failing to notify the police of their plans.
SOCIAL MEDIA CRITICISM
Kenyans took to social media to criticism the police and to mobilize support for the protest which was initially sold as a visit to donate sports equipment.
By yesterday, over 1,000 tweets had been shared and a hundred more on Facebook, Under the hashtag #OccupyPlayGround.
“Last time I heard of children being gassed, hospitalized and tethered by dogs was apartheid South Africa,” @gitweeta wrote on Twitter.
Cord leader Raila Odinga condemned the excessive use of force by the police. In a statement from New Delhi, India, Mr Odinga promised to stand with the parents, pupils and teachers of the school.
“This is brutality beyond words and greed beyond description. It is difficult to believe that police can actually deploy against primary school children and lobby tear gas at them to defend a land grabber,” he said.
ODM Secretary-General Ababu Namwamba said the party would not sit back and watch the land go.
“I condemn in the strongest terms possible the barbaric use of excessive police force against unarmed children at Lang’ata Primary School. We cannot allow known vile land grabbing bandits to steal the destiny of our children,” he said.
In Mombasa, Lands Cabinet Secretary Charity Ngilu and National Land Commission Chairman Muhammad Swazuri said documents in their possession indicated that the land belonged to the school.