Institutional failure, police brutality, and the quest for climate justice in Kenya

In Kenya, activists step in to help people affected by floods in Kenya, as the government’s mishandling of the climate disaster leaves hundreds displaced
On the evening of 24 April, a deluge of rain led to flooding that decimated many homes along the Mathare and Getathuru rivers in Nairobi, Kenya. The floods have left nearly 200 people dead and 200,000 more displaced across the country. Zachary Patterson reports on the climate disaster that is claiming lives, and uprooting communities in Kenya and the activists providing support to the displaced while campaigning against state brutality.

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Receding waters around Nairobi have revealed destroyed properties, damaged infrastructure, and shattered livelihoods, exacerbating socioeconomic vulnerabilities – particularly in the informal settlements of Mathare, Mukuru, Kibera, and Dandora where flooding was the most ravaging. Flooding along the Mathare River resulted in the deaths of 40 community members and hundreds remain reliant on local volunteers for food, water, and temporary housing. As these types of extreme weather events have become more common, Kenyan leaders have fallen short of their obligation to prevent the foreseeable harm of climate disasters and protect the most marginalized and at-risk populations, including those with disabilities, the elderly, and the poor.

This statement is published in solidarity with the organizers and activists of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and Ecological Justice Network who are leading the struggle for justice for those impacted by the government’s mishandling of climate disaster preparedness, relief, and aid. Since the flooding began MSJC and other community groups have provided rapid and effective responses to peoples’ needs – providing food and medical aid, helping victims find shelter, recovering missing individuals, and supporting much needed cash transfers. MSJC has also led the community in condemning the national government – the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) – for the inhumanity and indignity it has bestowed onto the Kenyan people over the past two months.

The government’s recent announcement to forgo aid and relief and instead demolish the homes and livelihoods of those affected by flooding in the informal settlements is a clear attack on the poor and a mismanagement of crisis. The decision to displace flood victims without plans for relocation or land allocations is a direct violation of Article 43 of the Kenyan Constitution, which protects citizens’ rights to decent housing, food, the highest attainable standards of healthcare, and the right to clean and accessible water. It is the Kenyan government’s duty to ensure support to affected communities and protect populations facing continued risks.

Epicenter of resistance

The history of Mathare is a history of anti-colonial struggle. Made up of the agglomeration of 13 slum villages, Mathare – the second largest slum in Nairobi – has grown to a population of nearly 500,000 as a result of rural-to-urban migration sparked by colonial landgrabs, capitalist displacements, and the persistent exploitative nature of the relations of production in Kenya. When Kenya was made a British Protectorate in 1920, Mathare emerged as the urban vanguard against the oppression of colonialism. The people of Mathare understood the connections between rural and urban struggles for land and freedom and – away from the surveillance of colonial authorities – the area became the epicenter of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) fighters and the nationalist movement for independence. The area would become the nexus between fighters in the forest, the KLFA, and the various trade unionists and other groups organizing for the end of colonialism – a place where political consciousness and strategy were developed for the fight for independence.

After the fall of British colonial rule in 1963, Mathare continued to play a critical role in the anti-oppression struggle against post-colonial regimes. Today, the community remains an epicenter of resistance against imperialism and a beacon of hope for liberation and justice in Kenya.

Since 2015, MSJC has worked with the community to promote social justice. For decades Mathare has endured the various forms of structural violence inherent to the market-driven development policies of Kenya. These forms of violence include land grabbing and forced evictions, police abuse and extrajudicial killings, political impunity, and other socioeconomic and psychological cruelties. Previous research suggests that the political economy of civil society actors – as well as their disconnect from grassroots concerns and injustices – depoliticizes and leaves unresolved these forms of structural harm. This suggestion is again evidenced by the most recent civil society failures to forestall the death and destruction caused by predictable flood risks and respond to the communal needs of decent housing and climate resiliency. Grassroots organizers are doing vital work to respond to the organic needs and demands of the community that routinely fall on deaf ears. In the face of reduced government spending on core services and the marketization of civil society, grassroots actors in Mathare work closely with community members and a nationwide network of social justice advocates to resist the structural violence of capitalist interventions, collectively design solutions to social struggles, and galvanize social change.

Since their founding, the organizers and community volunteers at MSJC have been involved in a number of initiatives with the mission to promote social justice and a society free of human rights violations through engaged community and social movement platforms. Ongoing campaigns, all anchored in participatory action research, include art for social change, reproductive justice, political accountability and education, and ecological justice.

Emphasizing an urgent need to address sustainable livelihoods, in January MSJC established an initiative focused on environmental conservation for ecological justice. The ‘Let the Rivers Flow’ campaign was aimed at engaging the community through education to create awareness, strengthen advocacy, and influence policy around issues of clean and safe drinking water and transforming, restoring and preserving the Mathare river valley. To celebrate this effort and commemorate the gains of the Ecological Justice Campaign’s conservation and establishment of community parks along the river, MSJC and partnering groups organized The River Festival earlier this year. During the event, campaign organizers expressed their goal of moving informal settlements from slums to environmentally conscious, resilient, and sustainable communities; yet, structural violence and global climate injustices continue to undermine their demands and actions for a brighter future.

The structural violence of capitalism that MSJC struggles against is not an inadvertent byproduct of Kenyan economic development; it is an inseparable internal mechanism which helps capital satisfy its insatiable reproductive needs in its quest for consolidated power and dominance. The experience of living in the informal settlements of Nairobi has led to social conflicts rooted in colonialism and class politics – and the MSJC is at the center of organizing against these oppressive forces and structures, leading a movement for radical change towards a just and equitable Kenyan future.

Organizing and state repression 

On the morning of 8 May, members of the Mathare community united to defend their right to decent housing and a dignified life. This community response occurred the day after Kenyan authorities began bulldozing homes affected by the floods, ripping through iron-sheet walls as people watched in despair. Despite public promises made by President William Ruto, the government had not – and still has not – dispersed the 10,000 Kenyan shillings ($75USD) to those ordered to relocate from their residences near rivers and dams. The failure of the government to provide residents with relief and aid prompted MSJC and the Ecological Justice Network to organize direct action. In a statement released prior to the demonstration, MSJC organizers stated that it is under the guise of ‘saving the poor from nature’ that the government has destroyed the livelihoods of countless Kenyans through the illegal demolition of informal settlements without proper remittance or relocation assistance.

The demonstration on 8 May began at Juja road and proceeded along Mau Mau road where Kenyan police unleashed tyrannical force onto those protesting – teargassing and violently dispersing activists and community members. Following the demonstration and a press statement given at Mathare Community Park, the General Service Unit (GSU) – a paramilitary wing of the Kenyan police service – raided the offices of the MSJC and Ghetto Foundation, arresting 26 organizers and staff members for alleged incitement. Details around the alleged incitement remain undisclosed. Members of the Kenyan Social Justice Centres Working Group and the Social Justice Travelling Theatre were among those unjustly arrested and held at Pangani police station. Of those arrested was the National Treasurer of the Communist Party of Kenya, Wahome Waringa. After 24 hours, all those arrested were released and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions refused to accept the cruel charges.

This systematic use of brute force has been witnessed and experienced around the globe time and time again – most recently wielded against peaceful Gaza ceasefire student protesters in the US, garment-worker labor organizers in Bangladesh, pro-Palestinian demonstrators in the streets of Germany, and pro-democracy and anti-imperialist activists in Senegal.

The recent floods in Mathare and around Kenya call for a renewed understanding of the capitalist response to the climate crisis. The role of the police force is to protect capital and serve the interests of the ruling class. The trampling of the democratic liberties of innocent Kenyan community members must be stopped through increased resistance. It is not a crime to organize a demonstration against illegitimate and depraved government decisions and actions – it is an undeniable right enshrined in the Kenyan constitution.

Solidarity with the struggle for justice and liberation 

The struggle for adequate relief, aid, and climate justice continues in Mathare and other informal settlements of Nairobi. Much of the water supply has been contaminated and international humanitarian organizations have warned that water and mosquito-borne disease such as cholera and malaria are significant concerns. Streets within the settlements are lined with people’s belongings, muddy and battered by the continued rains. Meanwhile, the government’s response remains slow and insufficient, and – despite warnings from meteorological agencies who predict further unstable and extreme weather conditions – preparations to prevent future disasters remain underdeveloped.

What will it take to be victorious against an unjust system and secure dignity and justice for the people of Mathare, Mukuru, Kibera, and other informal settlements in Kenya? An organized struggle that forces truth and transparency into the open and makes it impossible for the state to continue avoiding accountability. This struggle – which is only possible with leadership from the grassroots – is one that needs our support. The words, works, and actions of MSJC offer invaluable lessons from which organizers can better understand how to organically defend human rights and collectively promote social justice.

We stand in solidarity with the people of Mathare and all community members of informal settlements who have been affected by the Kenyan government’s inhumane and undignified handling of the climate crisis, flooding, and planned displacement of thousands of residents.

We stand with organizers of the MSJC and the Environmental Justice Network in their efforts to organize demands for accountability and resistance to the cruel manner in which the Kenyan government has responded to recent flooding, devastation, and loss of life. We stand in solidarity with those who were wrongfully harassed and arrested while exercising their democratic rights to organize and demonstrate in opposition to the attempt of the ruling class to impose the costs of the ecological crisis onto the urban poor and most marginalized people of Kenya.

For updates, more information, and to learn how to support the struggle for ecological justice in Kenya, please visit the Mathare Social Justice Centre webpage.

Zachary J. Patterson is an independent researcher, activist, and contributor. He writes on Kenya, NGOs, socialist politics and movements on the continent. He works in the space of art and revolutionary politics and is an organizer with the Indianapolis Liberation Center. 

Photo: ROAPE

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Zachary J. Patterson
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