July 7, 2011 / 11:27 AM / in 6 years

Kenyan police fire tear gas to disperse food protest

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan police fired tear gas to disperse people protesting in the capital on Thursday against high food and fuel prices and a shortage of maize which has enraged many in east Africa’s biggest economy.

A crowd of about 100 people, chanting and waving placards, blocked traffic in downtown Nairobi and forced traders to shut shops. They were dispersed before they reached the president’s office, where they had planned to vent their grievances.

While the demonstration was small, such forms of public protest by groups not affiliated to any mainstream political faction are rare in Kenya. Yet analysts said the protests would fizzle.

Deputy police spokesman Charles Owino said the crowd was dispersed because they had not sought approval for the protest.

“They never notified the police as the law stipulates, so the demonstration was illegal,” he told Reuters.

Kenya’s inflation rate hit 14.5 percent in June as import costs shot higher because of rising consumer demand, drought and a sharp weakening of the local currency, which has tumbled more than 10 percent against the dollar this year.

Policymakers are scrambling to ease the crisis before it spreads further discontent in the country of about 40 million people.

“We are still regrouping because the police have dispersed and arrested some of our colleagues,” Cidi Otieno, one of the organisers of the little-known group Unga Revolution, which called the protest, told Reuters.

Unga means flour in Swahili but is generally used in Kenya to refer to maize flour, a staple food for many.

“We want to take our petition to the prime minister and the president over the high prices of commodities such as maize flour, sugar, rice and fuel. We want them to reduce the prices,” Otieno said.

Unga Revolution describes itself as a non-violent movement of patriotic Kenyans using all legal means to ensure people’s constitutional rights.

Analysts say even though there is anger over high prices and shortages of maize flour, an upheaval on the scale seen in neighbouring Uganda which stoked deadly protests in April looks unlikely in a country that has no obvious opposition party.

Kenya is run by a coalition government formed to end vicious fighting following disputed 2007 polls, so there is no obvious opposition or organised group to marshal protests.

Anti-riot and regular police patrolled the streets with dogs and trucks containing tear gas stood guard on ther street where the president and prime minister’s offices are located.

PROTESTS TO FIZZLE

Otieno said the protest was called on Thursday to mark the Saba Saba day, commemorating the events of July 7, 1990 that marked a high point in the push for multi-party democracy, when politicians calling for change were detained without trial.

Analysts say even though there is anger over high prices and shortages of maize flour, an upheaval on the scale seen in neighbouring Uganda which stoked deadly protests in April looks unlikely in a country that has no clear opposition party.

Kenya is run by a coalition government formed to end the fighting following disputed 2007 polls, removing a main opposition or organised group to marshal any protests.

Further, the government has somewhat defused the crisis by slashing tax on kerosene -- used by the majority for cooking and lighting -- removing import duty on maize to spur imports of the staple, and increasing the minimum wage.

“I don’t think it can be sustained, especially if the imports reduce the prices. It will reduce the anger,” said John Omiti, senior policy analyst at independent think-tank Kenya Institute of Policy Research and Analyst.

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