Protests and counter protests: history will judge the political class harshly

Maggie Ireri

For weeks, NASA leaders and their supporters have engaged in street demonstrations over what they call irreducible minimum demands they wanted IEBC to implement before Thursday’s repeat presidential poll.

Whereas world over demonstrations are considered as a means of bringing about social change, in reality they take a toll on the society, especially when they turn violent. In most cases, the police are often forced to use excessive force to disperse the crowds. 

In most countries, there is a thread to long drawn demonstrations such as the ones called by NASA. Initially, the NASA demonstrations were peaceful but acts of violence and looting have been witnessed as the protesters engage the police in running battles. This has led to fatalities, injuries and loss of property, especially for the business community who are always caught in the crossfire.

According to a survey done by TIFA Research in 2016 in the aftermath of the protests against the IEBC commissioners, 81 per cent of the businesses in Nairobi CBD felt that the demonstrations had a negative impact on their trade. 

They experienced immediate effects such as loss of revenue due to limited flow of customers. This was experienced by 85 per cent of the businesses while another 68 per cent lost revenue due to closure. The employees missed work due to inaccessibility and there was destruction of property and looting.

The average revenue lost per business per day of demonstrations was estimated to be an average of Sh7,492 for a micro enterprise, Sh21,721 for a small enterprise and Sh138,000 for large enterprises. Assuming that there are 2,000 micro enterprises, 1,000 medium enterprises and 500 large enterprises in Nairobi CBD, the losses per week would be approximately Sh100 million, Sh150 million and Sh480 million respectively. 

These losses also affected ordinary Kenyans trying to make a living. The TIFA Research study showed that newspaper vendors and hawkers mentioned Sh10,000 and Ksh3,000 respectively as the highest losses in revenue per day as a result of the demonstrations. These demonstrations are not only affecting the businesses in the Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa CBDs, they also have a multiplier effect on the economy as a whole.

Against this backdrop of such impact to business, what will it mean if the demonstrations continue for two or four weeks?

There are a number of arguments for and against the demonstrations. In pursuit of democracy, there are those who feel that protests are the most ideal form of addressing governance issues. It is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that demonstrations have continuously been seen as a form of expression that encourages the development of an engaged and informed citizenry for a strong democracy. But the question still remains, are demonstrations the ultimate avenue to attain democracy?

Some of the most famous demonstrations that resulted to change include Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street protests. Despite the fact that they were not only sporadic, they can be seen as an effective realisation of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression which led to the  strengthening of democracy by enabling citizens’ direct participation in public affairs.

While the jury is still out as to whether the current outcome of NASA protests is what was anticipated, it can be argued that they were a means to an end, which would not have otherwise been attained through other ventures.

After the 2007 election fiasco, it took demonstrations that led to deaths, displacement of populations and destruction of property to get the two leading presidential aspirants to dialogue. Last year, demonstrations also contributed to the removal of the IEBC commissioners and reforms to electoral laws.

Is this the only available route for change in Kenya? We are already going through throes of growing pains ranging from divisive politics, corruption, messy electioneering process, ethnic hatred and cache of scandals to accommodate disruptive public demonstrations.

Protests are impacting negatively on the business environment. But the more pertinent question is whether the demonstrations are solution to the political deadlock.

History will judge the political class by the actions they take over the next few days. The ultimate measure of a democracy is not where it stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where it stands at times of disputes and controversy.

- The writer is director, TIFA Research. [email protected]