This is a good time to realise the power of stereotypes and their role in the dehumanisation of others to the point of indifference in death.
The narrative of Luos as ‘violent hooligans’ has led to a very subdued national response to their plight, because we figure that in some way they deserve it and that they were going to protest anyway. Our biases have by-passed our logical interrogative sense and has blinded us to the reality of targetted killings, police brutality and what I would call something short of crimes against humanity.
It is an observable fact and common knowledge that protests that are in primarily NASA areas – Kibera, Mathare and Kisumu are dealt with violently. Police and body bags were sent to these areas three days before the presidential election results were released; we did not question this because as per our justification, the police were just there in case violence erupts in these pre-determined political hotspots. Have we ever questioned exactly who defines a ‘hotspot’, and why they define it that way? Maps like these of projected political violence were shared by the police before the election; and this was the basis on which they decided to send their forces out in advance. The officers were equipped with advanced body armour, which apparently has been proved to reduce police brutality because they feel less of a physical threat from the protestors. This, however, did not seem to stop the violence.
My home is between Kibera and Kawangware. Immediately after the election, I heard several accounts from friends resident on both sides about how protests had erupted in both places and had been violently put down, and about an unofficial curfew that had been instituted by the police. Prior to the election, Kenyans were mentally prepared for violence in these areas; and so when ‘violent protests occurred’ it was no surprise!
I witnessed the Kibera protests and the violence was definitely not initiated by the protestors. Soon after the election results were announced, at approximately 11.50 p.m., I heard shouts, gunshots and the sound of teargas canisters being lobbed in the air. This went on through a good portion of the night though most of Kenya watching mainstream news stations were watching continuous videos of the celebrations at the Bomas of Kenya, KICC, Kiambu and Eldoret. If all you watched was TV then, for you, the whole country was celebrating the wins.
This redeployment by the police is however the most effective and time-tested way of fore-warning the masses and creating an opposition in which it must then intervene. We have a constitutionally protected right to protest but for the longest time it has felt like a privilege in our country. The law requires us to give prior notice to the police before launching a protest – it does not require us to get permission; but unfortunately that seems to have become the expectation. In the 2015 case of Boniface Mwangi versus the Inspector General of Police, the court ruled that the police erred in declaring the protests illegal because an unauthorized officer did it. And that even if the officer did have the authority to do so, it still needed to have been done with a reasonable explanation as opposed to the arbitrary manner in which it was executed.
Even at full capacity, the armed forces cannot possibly handle an all-out uprising and once the people realise that, they will realise the power that they actually hold. Back in 2007, the police force was stretched beyond capacity and leave for all police officers was revoked indefinitely. But that still led to the deaths of over 1,000 people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Continued violent suppression of a particular community might create a bigger problem than the police or armed forces will be able to handle – this is a problem that is slowly but surely going to emerge based on current happenings.
The level of violence we are currently witnessing is not just that of quelling unrest. There has hardly been any unrest. The protests in Kibera were nonviolent. No shop was looted, no house was burnt, no person was attacked. This was not police response with appropriate force. The police camped in Kibera, Kawangware, Mathare and Kisumu in anticipation of violence; but in actual fact they were the perpetrators of this violence. Raw, ruthless, unrelenting violence meted out against innocent civilians exercising their right to peaceful protest is the real story of war zones.
The media failed the oppressed in various different ways and helped to perpetuate the falsehood. By not reporting on the various cases of police attacks, it allowed the narrative to continue: that the only reason that the protesters were beaten was because they were violent and were looting shops. It was only after social media outrage about the so-called violence was online that the media reports, which could no longer avoid the situation on the ground, began to change their narrative. The media’s task was not complex – all they had to do was to analyse the situation and report the situation as it was – the mainstream media failed and failed thoroughly.
The narrative by the police that they only used adequate force and that the people that they had beaten and shot at were hooligans could have easily been debunked by the simple act of presenting the situation as is. Kenyans just needed to see the protestors running up and down and see that there was no damage they were actually doing. The death of six-month old baby Pendo suddenly woke us up to the fact that maybe, perhaps, the police narrative was wanting. Various videos emerged online of the police going beyond beating protestors on the street and actually going further and attacking people in their own houses. Doubt set in about the police statements that were being made. What followed then was a reduction of trust in the police statements but there was minimal outrage against what the police had done. We eulogized baby Pendo but in an interesting case of lack of cognitive dissonance, we differentiated her death from police brutality and just went on talking about how the protestors should act in order not to be beaten – the ball was in the court not for being beaten, but also how not to be beaten. There was no winning in that situation even when there was flagrant evidence of police wrong-doing.
The public struggled to reconcile the idea that members of a particular community were ‘victims’ with the narrative that they were ‘criminals and looters’. The tussle was so strong that not even the deaths could make them change their thinking – that is a very ominous state to be in as a nation because then we are entirely capable, based on this example, of entertaining a massacre or a genocide and justifying it using exactly same reasons.
Remember: The next time you express a stereotype, you further reinforce the concept of an entire people that is so strong and pervasive that education, religion and all other forms of social conditioning will not be able to change. Again, before the reading of the ruling on the presidential election petition, police were sent in large numbers to the same areas, ostensibly in case violence erupted. People did pour out on to the streets in large numbers but the demonstrations were celebratory and the police found themselves in the unfamiliar position of looking on, and realizing that they had carried their anti-riot gear in vain. The general sentiments once police were dispatched were hopes that more people would not die. Citizens were relieved by the ruling because it meant, albeit temporarily, that no one was going to die that day. That’s a bleak way to handle an election. With the highest rate of extra-judicial killings in Africa, the Kenyan police find refuge in stereotypes and we let it happen. If you’re Luo or Somali, you have a higher chance of being killed with less questions asked because you’re either a ‘hooligan’ or a ‘terrorist’. These harmless stereotypes somehow don’t seem so harmless anymore!
In our privileged positions, we can look away. In our privileged positions, we want everyone to ‘accept and move on’. The truth is unpalatable unless told in our versions. The pictures are unnecessary unless they tell our stories. The narratives are incitement unless they echo our emotions. Silence in the face of injustice is complicity.
Life is not a privilege. Speaking out is not a death sentence. We need to do better.
Admittedly, the media’s role is also complex in situations of violence depending on the social and political angles taken. It is not black and white. There has been heavy handedness of the security forces against the media, confiscation of equipment and footage, and arrest among other ills that have been faced by journos who strive to get you the correct clips and reports. Journalists have to verify the news against multiple sources as a means of journalistic integrity so that their reports are balanced, authentic and interesting. We blamed the media very heavily for the 2007 PEV because we claimed it helped fuel the fire, but now we summon them at our behest? The media is damned either way. If they show violence, they’re inciting mass hysteria and the spread of the violence, if they don’t, they’re protecting the government and are seen as complicit with the extra-judicial killings.
2007 should have inspired responsible reporting as opposed to silence, the lack of differentiation between the two led to the sham reporting in the 2017 election. Perhaps, the presidential re-run in 2017 will give mainstream media a chance to make things right.