Protesters set fire to Kenya's parliament - but also saved two MPs

Rose Museo
[Rose Museo ]

Kenyan MPs may still be reeling after anti-tax protesters overpowered police and invaded parliament on Tuesday - but two legislators are actually thankful to some of the invaders who went to their rescue during the ordeal.

"I was very scared and I prayed to God as about 22 young protesters surrounded me," MP Rose Museo, who uses crutches, told the BBC.

She and her colleague Jackson Kosgei, who uses a wheelchair, were left stranded during the two-hour assault from which their colleagues escaped by scampering for safety through an underground tunnel.

The youthful protesters smashed windows and eventually made their way into the chambers in unprecedented scenes that left parts of parliament badly damaged. Some even set part of the building on fire.

As an opposition MP, Ms Museo had just voted against the bill they were angry about.

When the protests began last week they were largely peaceful, with thousands of mainly young demonstrators marching in the capital, Nairobi, and across the country against a controversial finance bill that would have hiked taxes and introduced a slew of other levies.

But tensions flared on Tuesday afternoon when the bill was passed by parliament - despite the demonstrations that had attracted much bigger numbers that day.

Police officers opened fire on the crowds who had massed around parliament - and minutes after the MPs had voted, furious protesters broke into the assembly's compound.

"Everybody was gone and I couldn't use the lifts because the power was cut off," said Ms Museo, who was injured in a road accident in 2017.

Demonstrators breach into Parliament during a protest against tax hikes in Nairobi, Kenya, 25 June 2024.
Protesters invaded parliament minutes after the MPs had passed the controversial bill to increase taxes [EPA]

Her colleague Mr Kosgei is from the ruling party that had backed the contentious legislation aimed at helping to eliminate the country’s national debt of nearly $80bn (£63bn).

"We were inside the chamber and all of a sudden our young men stormed in and everyone was looking for an escape route," Mr Kosgei told KTN TV.

Those who had broken in began destroying furniture, part of the building was set on fire and a replica of the ceremonial mace, symbolising the authority of the legislature, was stolen. It usually decorates the reception of a new wing to the parliamentary complex.

"It was getting worse but my colleague Rose Museo and I made a choice to face the young men as we could not escape due to our disability," said Mr Kosgei, who became disabled after contracting polio as a child.

"Even in the moment of anger and stress, they still had humanity in them"", Source: MP Jackson Kosgei, Source description: Talking about the  protesters, Image: Jackson Kosge
"Even in the moment of anger and stress, they still had humanity in them"", Source: MP Jackson Kosgei, Source description: Talking about the protesters, Image: Jackson Kosge

The MP, who is also a bishop in an evangelical church, was uncertain of what would happen to him as he had voted in favour of the disputed bill.

But the protesters did not hurt the legislators and instead they helped them to move to a safer area where they were later evacuated out of the building.

"They knew who I am and even knew how I had voted,” said Mr Kosgei.

“But they told me that I was a good man and asked me to allow them to escort me out of the building because what would happen might not be good for me.”

The parliamentary invaders even offered to get him a taxi: "They asked me whether I needed an Uber but I showed them where I wanted to stay as I knew that outside parliament was not safe.”

Ms Museo concurred, saying the altruistic attitude of the protesters came as a surprise.

They addressed the two MPs, who by this stage were in the private members lounge, telling them that they meant no harm and were only agitating for what they believed was right.

"They were holding my hands, they told me: 'Our problem was the finance bill' - and not us," Ms Museo said.

She admitted it was still a “terrifying ordeal”.

"But they were not harmful at all, they were very kind to me. They told me: 'You are our mother and we cannot hurt you.'"

Mr Kosgei thanked the protesters for "saving my life and that of Ms Museo when everyone ran away".

"Even in the moment of anger and stress, they still had humanity in them," he said.

Millie Odhiambo, an MP known for not mincing her words, told a local newspaper she believed the protesters were just using the disabled MPs as human shields against a possible attack by police officers.

But Ms Museo said there was no police presence at the time the protesters were helping her.

She added that she did not blame her colleagues for fleeing as everyone had been justifiably frightened by the invasion.

The lawmakers led by Speaker Moses Wetang'ula were whisked away through the tunnel which connects the debating chambers for the senate and national assembly to a new wing where MPs’ officers are located.

The office section of the building is known as the Bunge Towers and was opened in April.

Kenyan protesters in Nairobi, one wearing a T-shirt with the words: "Stop Taxing My Periods!" - Tuesday 25 June 2024
The number of protesters swelled on Tuesday - with medics saying 23 people died when things turned violent [Getty Images]

Police eventually managed to drive the protesters from the building amid clouds of tear gas and the sound of gunfire.

The MPs were hiding in basement bunkers under Bunge Towers until an evacuation was organised.

To exit the complex some legislators, including Senate Speaker Amason Kingi, were put in ambulances as protesters were hurling stones at MPs' vehicles, local media reported.

Later that evening, President William Ruto termed the invasion of parliament a "treasonous" act and an "existential threat".

But given the scale of the protests – medics say at least 23 people died on Tuesday - Mr Ruto bowed to pressure and said the legislation would be withdrawn.

He said he would start a dialogue with Kenyan youth and work on austerity measures, beginning with cuts to the budget of the presidency.

For Ms Museo the traumatic events have been a learning curve for politicians and show the power of the people.

She urged the parliamentary authorities to put in place a proper evacuation system for MPs with disabilities. She also urged the president’s call for dialogue to be taken seriously.

"The protesters are agitated, and rightfully so, but their voices were heard and they should now give dialogue a chance," Ms Museo said.

"They can go back to the streets if they will not be satisfied after the dialogue."

More on Kenya's tax crisis:

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[Getty Images/BBC]

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