Kenya and the politics of provocation

The first time we passed the petrol station, the body wasn’t there.

It was raining, a late Thursday afternoon downpour. The few people left on the streets had been driven into shelter, and 30-odd riot police were taking cover under the petrol station roof. The police were not from around here. They had been ordered in by the central government for the controversial rerun of the presidential election. No one from Kisumu voted.

The policemen watched us, a motley convoy of official Land Cruisers and press vehicles, as we drove by.

We turned left at the traffic circle and into Nyalenda, one of Kisumu’s poorest neighbourhoods. The governor, Anyang Nyong’o, had asked us to follow him. There was something we needed to see. In Nyalenda, and in Obunga, and in Mamboleo, police had been going door-to-door in search of protesters, he said. They had been bashing down doors, beating women and children, he said. They had been looting. They had been raping.

“We are living in a society that is essentially fascist…and is determined to punish the Luo community,” he said, speaking earlier outside the emergency room door at the Jarimogi Oginga Odinga Teaching Hospital. He was interrupted by ambulances: a woman and a child, both in obvious pain, were offloaded. “Look at all this…”, he said, as the stretchers rushed past.

Then we drove off, roaring through the deserted streets. The young men manning the makeshift roadblocks every few hundred metres had been demanding bribes earlier, and they were mostly drunk by now, but they recognised the governor and waved us all through.

We drove through a city, usually crowded and bustling, that had entirely withdrawn: doors locked, shops shuttered, bars empty, errands cancelled, normal life suspended. Collectively, Kisumu had inhaled. Now it was holding its breath.

In Nyalenda, the governor’s car was mobbed by wildly cheering residents. He poked his head out the sunroof and unfurled a multi-coloured umbrella, but the rain made it difficult for either us or residents to hear him, so he packed it in after a few minutes. He didn’t offer to take us into the slum, or to introduce us to anyone who had witnessed the alleged police brutality.

We turned around, retracing our steps. Traffic circle, petrol station. And then, sprawled on the tarmac in front of us, a body. It was barely visible in the gloom. A young man, limbs at awkward angles, battered by the rain which was getting harder now. Under their canopy, the 30-odd policemen watched, motionless, as the convoy skidded to a halt and medics rushed out.

He was alive, just, but had been badly beaten – he would not regain consciousness for another four hours. He had been dragged into the middle of the road, left for dead.

The police waited, and then watched, motionless, as the governor returned to receive the message that had been left for him.

This is how wars begin.

The governor’s next stop was Obunga. It was starting to get dark. The crowd here was larger, and angrier, and this time the governor was drowned out not by the rain but by the chants: “We want guns! Give us guns! We want guns! Give us guns!”

The governor said nothing to discourage this sentiment. I went to speak to one of his senior aides, to ask why the governor was not using this opportunity to preach peace. “Peace? We want guns. We will get guns and we will use them. If we have to turn this place into Somalia or South Sudan to get what we want, then we will.”

This, too, is how wars begin.

Kisumu went to bed that night uncertain of what terrors the darkness might hold. The city was afraid of its police – would they loot and rape and beat and kill? It was afraid of its own disillusioned, disaffected young men, drugged up on on fear and bravado and the empty promises of the men who claim to lead them. It was afraid of the thugs and criminals that emerge whenever law and order breaks down, no matter how briefly.

“When you are pushed, you must kick back”

Words matter. With Kenya in the middle of its worst political crisis in a decade, what is said – and not said – may be the difference between peace and war in the country, and between life and death for its people.

Somehow, mercifully, Thursday night was relatively peaceful. No new corpses, and just a few admissions at the Odinga Teaching Hospital. But on Friday morning, local leaders were banging the war drums again.

It’s not that their grievances are not legitimate. This is the birthplace of opposition leader Raila Odinga, and the heartland of opposition politics in Kenya. It is a city that has long been marginalised both politically and economically. The resentment against President Uhuru Kenyatta – along with the ethnic, political and economic interests that he is perceived to represent – is historic and deeply felt. And the police brutality is real.

But legitimate or not, how those grievances are aired will determine what happens next.

A press conference was held on Friday morning at the hospital, which was a symbolic choice. The hospital is named after Raila’s father, and it had treated dozens of victims of police brutality the previous day, including two confirmed fatalities.

On the podium were elected officials and spiritual leaders. No one urged calm and restraint.

“We never condone violence,” said Bishop David Godia, reading a prepared statement from a group of prominent Christian figures. “But every individual has a right to self defence, and the time will come when our people have to defend themselves in any way possible.

James Nyikal, MP for Seme Constituency, was even more blunt. He said that when a situation becomes untenable, “then resistance becomes a duty. We as the elected leaders of this county will take up that duty with zeal. If some of us must lay down our lives, that will happen.”

Rosa Buyu, Kisumu County Women’s Representative, said that the government was pushing people against the wall. “When you are pushed, you summon all your might and kick as hard as you can.” Buyu also railed against the police. She said that “hundreds of people are losing their lives” from police bullets – a wildly exaggerated claim – and described how police go door-to-door looting homes and raping women. “If you are a woman, you are pulled aside and you are raped. This is what the darkness means in this country”.

If violence in Kisumu does get worse, it will be in part in reaction to the sins of President Uhuru Kenyatta and the central government, including but not limited to the calculated campaign of police brutality meted out in the course of this campaign season. But it will also be in part due to the reaction of local leaders, whose words were never intended to calm tensions, but to incite.

On Monday, Uhuru Kenyatta was declared winner of the October 26 presidential election, which was a repeat of the August 8 poll that was annulled by the Supreme Court. He received more than 98% of the vote. Odinga had told his supporters to boycott the vote, which he described as both a “sham” and “shambolic”.

This election result will not, however, mark the end of Kenya’s political turmoil. Far from it. In the coming days and weeks, there will be further legal challenges as Odinga’s team seeks another annulment. There will be protests if Kenyatta pushes through with his inauguration. There will be scuffles between police and protesters, there will be insults flung across the political divide, there will be heated debates about Kenya’s present and its future.

In this context, the threat of further violence is real. Whether it happens or not depends on what Kenya’s leaders do and say. Every action will be scrutinised for meaning, every utterance will carry with it the potential to antagonise or pacify. Words matter. Will they preach the politics of peace, or the politics of provocation?

One thing is certain. If Kenya’s politicians keep looking for a fight, they will find it.

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.
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