OPINION: Why send GSU officers with teargas canisters to JKIA?

GSU officers in running battles with passengers and striking workers at the JKIA in Nairobi ...
GSU officers in running battles with passengers and striking workers at the JKIA in Nairobi on March 6, 2019. Photo/COURTESY

The ongoing strike at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) may have exposed the underbelly of the Government.

The use of teargas at the airport has drawn sharp criticism with a section of Kenyans calling out security agencies.

“What a shame at JKIA! So instead of listening to the issues raised by the workers, they prefer to teargas them in full view of our guests. Brilliant,” Wambui Wanyaga said on Twitter.

However, when asked why the government used excessive force to disrupt the demonstration at the airport on Wednesday, Transport CS James Macharia said:

“There is nothing like excessive force if you are protecting a security installation like this one. This is a high risk environment….we just don’t bring anybody into the airport.”

JKIA has in the past been ranked as one of the busiest airports in the world serving up to 800,000 transit passengers in the months of May and June last year.

Whenever workers or even students strike in Kenya, the automatic response from the State will be to send security officers who will often be armed with teargas canisters and batons.

In August 2018, police lobbed teargas at striking workers from the Kenyatta National Hospital who took to the streets over delayed payment of allowances.

Five months earlier, university lecturers were teargassed outside Jogoo House, Nairobi over the same reason.

During the same time, students from Daystar University fled the institution after police threw teargas canisters inside the campus.

In December the same year, youths demonstrating over the killing of Carlton Maina, a Leeds university student mistakenly identified as a part of a notorious gang in Kibera, had teargas canisters lobbed at them.

The worst incidents were of nursery school children in Kisumu’s Nyalenda slums and Lang’ata Road Primary School in Nairobi a few years back.

The officer in charge of the Lang’ata operation was later suspended after five pupils were injured in the stampede.

Fast forward to 2019 and the the script remains the same, albeit with no incidents involving children yet to be reported.

On Wednesday morning, Kenyans questioned why the Government would send officers from the General Service Unit (GSU) and other security agencies with teargas canisters and even a water cannon to an international airport.

Teargas is one of the prohibited items at airports and passengers are not allowed to carry them through security check-in or onto the plane.

“Self-defense sprays containing more than 2percent by mass of Tear Gas are prohibited in both carry-on and checked baggage,” the Transport Security Administration of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says.

This is because it is an explosive and flammable item posing a danger to aircrafts and passengers, TSA adds.

Teargas temporarily makes people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

Despite this, on Wednesday, security officers lobbed teargas canisters at the JKIA apparently to disperse the striking Kenya Airport Workers Union.

Passengers who were stranded and in long queues outside the terminal with some carrying their children on the laps had to run for cover.

GSU officers in running battles with passengers and striking workers at the JKIA in Nairobi on March 6, 2019. Photo/COURTESY

One passenger was seen bleeding on the head and emergency services carried him to a safe area to attend to him.

A Google search shows that Turkey is the only other country where police have used teargas canisters to disrupt striking workers.

Why does Kenya still see it fit to respond to strikes using teargas and police batons particularly in delicate situations such as at that at the JKIA?

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Story By Rachel Ombaka
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