/ 26 October 2017

Another country, another tear-gassing

Fired up: Demonstrators in Kenya called for the removal of electoral commission officials
Fired up: Demonstrators in Kenya called for the removal of electoral commission officials

Writer Sisonke Msimang moved to Kenya as a child in the early 1980s. She writes of that Kenya in her newly released, insightful memoir, Always Another Country: “Kenya’s leaders were not planning for growth. Their strategy was premised not on building the middle classes, but on empowering the elite.”

Msimang’s words have been playing in my head a lot since I read them. Not least because of how, in some ways, the commentary on empowering the elite rings so true for both Kenya and South Africa today.

The presidential results of the election of August 8 were announced on the night of August 11. President Uhuru Kenyatta was announced as the winner. Opposition strongholds took to the streets in protest. In international media and on social media, information started streaming in that uniformed forces were killing these protesters.

By August 14, Kenya was even more sharply divided after the elections than it had been before.

The opposition party claimed hundreds had been killed. The police commissioner and his Cabinet boss said that this was hogwash. In what seemed like an unfortunate homage to Trump, they termed any news of deaths as “fake news”. When confronted with news of a six-month-old’s death in the opposition leader’s hometown, they quickly recanted, stating that they would investigate while also going on the attack.

The protesters, we were told, were an ungovernable lot who were attacking police with stones and looting from businesses. In the end, the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission stated that 37 deaths had been confirmed post-election with a caveat: there could be more.

Life seemed to calm down for a short while after the Supreme Court judgment nullified the elections, despite the politicking from both sides. The opposition decided to hold protests that would force the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to act, after they were unable to get their 11 irreducible minimum concessions from the IEBC to make what they believed were fundamental changes before the fresh elections, which are scheduled for October 26.

The governing party, with a majority in Parliament, pushed back by declaring new electoral laws. Then the opposition had 12 irreducible minimums, which now included the law that the governing party had pushed through.

The protests continued.

Supporters of the governing party were against the protests because they said they disrupted business and the economy. Supporters of the opposition said the equivalent of “mayivalwe le country” and continued to turn up for protests.

Then it started again: attacks on opposition protesters by police. In opposition strongholds, teargas dispersed the protesters.

But it was Kisumu, the almost homogenous hometown of opposition leader Raila Odinga, that was on the receiving end of the worst the police had to offer. The majority of the population in Kisumu are of Odinga’s Luo ethnicity.

Twice, the police lobbed teargas canisters into preschools, endangering children. A 75-year-old grandmother coming from hospital was shot in the shoulder. A two-year-old on her mother’s back was shot but survived. A man on a boda boda with a female client was filmed being stopped by police, beaten and then having his motorcycle taxi destroyed. Two people were killed in the opposition leader’s home village. A high school boy, sent home from school for unpaid school fees, was fatally shot.

As people noticed this in a country where there are more smartphones than public toilets and “What’s the wi-fi password?” is a greeting, a hashtag was born: #LuoLivesMatter.

And just as we saw in the United States with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the supporters of the system hit back with #AllLivesMatter.

The executive remained silent, neither condemning nor acknowledging the excesses of the police.

The silence broke a week or so ago, when a young man from one of the president’s strongholds died during a rally. Then the president loudly acknowledged the death and sent condolences to the family of the deceased. It was astounding. Supporters could no longer say “all lives matter”. Clearly, what we were hearing or reading was that some lives matter more than others. Supporters of the hegemony continued to defend the actions of the police.

Article 37 of the Kenyan Constitution guarantees every person the right, “peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions to public authorities”, which bears a strong resemblance to chapter 2, section 17, of South Africa’s Constitution. Supporters of the governing party were quick to remind anyone who questioned them that the protesters were hooligans armed with stones. I couldn’t help but see parallels between those voicing such sentiments and some supporters of the ANC in the past.

In Marikana, they stated, the miners had sticks and knives. Andries Tatane, they told us, did not listen to instructions from police.

When my friend the rights activist Boniface Mwangi sent me a message asking me to take part in a protest against police killing, I decided I would take part in the spirit of this seeming inconsideration of other people’s civil liberties.

The instructions were simple. Wear black or white, carry a flower and carry a bottle of water. I did two of the three. I have never been one for flowers. We met at the assembly point where we were given placards and crosses with names of some of those killed since August 11. There was a briefing. There were to be no chants about one political party or another.

We were to be respectful of police as we marched. The march would take us to the offices of the police commissioner, where a petition would be handed to the police.

It did not quite happen that way.

We had not gone far before a group of police in camouflage gear and helmets stopped us. In Kenya, the convenor of the protest needs to notify the police so that they can arrange security.

“Where was the notification?” the police wanted to know.

Someone passed it on to a female officer who bore a resemblance to Riah Phiyega. Or maybe not; my mind was working overtime.

“Ok. But break it up,” she said in Swahili.

“Why? We are not armed, madam,” Boni replied in English. He had just started citing article 37 of the Constitution when another officer decided to show him who was in charge, shooting a teargas canister directly at his chest. Constitution for who?

We dispersed.

Last week in Kenya, I became a witness to police empowering the elite in much the same way as their counterparts in South Africa did at the University of the Free State.

Last night, after I finished reading Always Another Country, I dreamed that the force was with the people rather than the elites.

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya