Activists must change to be effective in the new world

Last week, Berlin hosted the 2019 International strategy conference of IFEX, the global network focusing on freedom of expression and information that brings together journalists, writers, artists and organisations working on free media and expression. I was surprised to be the only Kenyan there, given our situation on freedom of expression, where it is subverted by state action, but also through self-censorship, sensationalism in our media and the “brown envelopes.”

Berlin is one of the prettiest cities I know; clean, organised and with beautiful historic buildings, and with small clean kiosks across the city. The weather had picked up and it was a sunny 19 degrees Celsius, which may not be much for Kenyans, but after the grey, dark and gloomy winter in New York City, was thoroughly welcome!

It was wonderful walking around the city, even in the late night and seeing women and men walking alone and confidently. I went by the Holocaust Museum, which I first visited in 2006, thinking how far Germany has come, unafraid of its horrible past, and determined never to sink to such lows again.

Monuments such as these are useful as reminders of how badly things can go, coupled with lessons in schools and in popular culture that name the shame. We would do well to copy that in Kenya, for we are never far off from repeating our near civil war moment of 2008. The conference organisers made a real effort to get young people to the front in panels and discussions. This is as it should be, for these struggles for dignity, change and progressive values are in dire need of a shot in the arm with fresh thinking and fresh approaches.

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The star at the conference was the indomitable Ugandan MP and artist, Kyagulani Ssentamu, otherwise known as Bobi Wine. He performed to great delight at the conference, but was also a panelist with Iyad El-Baghdadi, a stateless writer from Palestine, and Violeta Ayala, a filmmaker from Bolivia.

Bobi Wine narrated his tribulations, where he has now become the target of choice of the oppressive machinery of the Yoweri Museveni dictatorship, taking over from Kizza Besigye, the doyen of opposition in Uganda. Bobi is not allowed to hold political rallies, even though he is an MP.

Warm words

He has been barred from performing in public, though music is his livelihood and passion. He can barely go to church or any public gathering if the state repression machinery gets a whiff of his plans.

But through all this, he is upbeat and optimistic, focused now on getting young Ugandans to register to vote, especially given that 80 per cent are under the age of 35. And he had warm words for Kenyans who stood up, protested and campaigned for him and his colleagues when they were arrested and beaten up last year in northern Uganda after “embarrassing” Museveni by leading campaigns in a by-election that spanked the ruling party candidate, despite the massive use of state resources including Museveni’s presence.

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Iyad’s story was also uplifting. Born in Kuwait of Palestinian parents displaced from their homeland, he grew up in the United Arab Emirates and was working there when the Arab awakenings started in Tunisia in 2011. Unable to just sit by and watch, he got involved in megaphoning the uprisings, culminating with “The Arab Tyrant Manual” that has now become a podcast. He was expelled from UAE and ended up in Norway where he is seeking asylum. He uses humour and satire to make his point, including the fact that he shares a name with one of the most wanted terrorists in the world and the confusion that being stateless engenders.

The manual has been so successful that non-Arabs began chipping in to satirise their own leaders as typical Arab tyrants, something that some creative Kenyans and Ugandans could be a part of!

Violeta Ayala filmed the remarkable documentary “The Fight” that followed thousands of disabled people who marched for 35 days in wheelchairs and on foot from the Andes to the Bolivian capital La Paz demanding audience with the supposedly pro-people President Evo Morales to discuss a monthly pension. They were met instead by a brutality by the Bolivian police that would perhaps shame some sadist Kenyan officers! But the advocacy got results and after some months the Morales regime offered pensions.

The point of the conference was to explore what activists and change agents need to change to be effective in a much-changed world. Leaders across the world have been effective at demonising human rights and democracy, using propaganda, fascism, extremism, nationalism and tribalism, and activists can’t continue with business as usual. The need to connect better with victims, survivors and the marginalised has never been more urgent. And we must get more boots on the ground, consistently, as the most powerful--and non-violent—tool for change.

- The writer is former KNCHR chair. [email protected]

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ActivistsChange agentsBobi WineKizza BesigyeArab tyrants