Kenya: The pol­i­tics of provo­ca­tion

As op­po­si­tion re­gions are gripped by po­lice bru­tal­ity, lo­cal lead­ers aren’t call­ing for peace — they’re push­ing back

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Si­mon Al­li­son

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, Ny­ong’o 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,” Ny­ong’o added, speak­ing ear­lier out­side the emer­gency room door at the Jaramogi 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 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 of the sun­roof and un­furled a mul­ti­coloured 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 route. Traf­fic cir­cle, petrol sta­tion. And then, sprawled on the tar­mac, a body — barely vis­i­ble in the gloom.

A young man, limbs at awk­ward an­gles, bat­tered by the rain, which was get­ting harder. 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 get­ting 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 fear and bravado and the empty prom­ises of the men who claim to lead them. It was afraid of the crim­i­nals that emerge when­ever law and or­der breaks down, no mat­ter how briefly.

‘If we must lay down our lives’

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 aren’t le­git­i­mate. This is the birth­place of op­po­si­tion leader Raila Odinga, and the heart­land of op­po­si­tion pol­i­tics. 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 his­tor­i­cal 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 last 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 self­de­fence, 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 were go­ing 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 be­cause of the re­ac­tion of lo­cal lead­ers, whose words were never in­tended to calm ten­sions, but to in­cite.

An in­con­clu­sive elec­tion

On Mon­day, Uhuru Keny­atta was de­clared win­ner of the Oc­to­ber 26 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the re­peat of the Au­gust 8 poll that had been 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.

This elec­tion re­sult will not, how­ever, mark the end of Kenya’s po­lit­i­cal tur­moil. Far from it

Fired up: Sup­port­ers of National Su­per Al­liance pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Raila Odinga re­act after the re­sult of re-elec­tions as the in­cum­bent Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta de­clared his vic­tory on Mon­day, spark­ing fears of fur­ther vi­o­lence in flash­point op­po­si­tion strongholds. Photo: Ya­suyoshi Chiba/AFP

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