By Kenfrey Kiberenge
The move by the Government to cut kerosene and diesel taxes last week is the latest local indicator of an emerging real people power that is sweeping across the developing world.
Last Monday, the Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta attempted to subdue a major demonstration that had been planned to protest against excessive fuel prices, which have pushed the cost of food to an all-time high.
The Deputy Prime Minister convened a daylong meeting with stakeholders in the energy and financial sectors, after which the Government reduced the tax of kerosene by 30 per cent and diesel by 20 per cent. Kenyans take part in a demonstration in the streets of Nairobi on April 19 to protest against the rise of food and fuel prices. Photo: Evans Habil/Standard
Kenyans take part in a demonstration in the streets of Nairobi on April 19 to protest against the rise of food and fuel prices. Photo: Evans Habil/Standard
While some have dismissed the move as inconsequential since it reduces the price by just Sh2, observers feel that citizen activism has come of age in third world countries and that governments can no longer sit pretty and ignore concerns of the citizenry.
"People power has come of age and we are going to see more of this," said Mwalimu Mati of Mars Group.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni is feeling the same people power, although he has decided to suppress it.
Opposition leader Kizza Besigye was arrested for trying to stage a walk-to-work protest against increasing fuel prices.
But a sustained mass pressure against tyrants like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Al and Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo have seen them toppled.
Mass protests are also being experienced in Algeria, Morocco and Yemen, and they are partly fuelled by rising food costs.
Governments of Burkina Faso and Cameroon, Tanzania, Mauritania and Senegal have also not been spared.
Tom Wolf of research firm Syonovate, however, argues that there is nothing to write home about yet.
"I am not underrating people power but I don’t think it has reached a stage where it can make people in power concerned," opines Wolf.
He said scientific research should, however, be conducted among the people who show up during food protests to ascertain whether or not people power is at play.
But Prof Paul Mbatia, a sociologist at the University of Nairobi, argues that the new dawn of democracy in developing countries has given people opportunities to express their feelings without fear.
In addition, he says civil societies now boast of highly educated leaders who have educated people on their rights.
"We also have the opposition teaming up with civil society to mobilise people to take advantage of the expanded democratic space," he added.
Mati portends that Kenya is still in the ‘first generation of leadership’ and that future government will have to be fully responsive to the citizens’ demands.
"We have a Constitution that gives express right of demonstration to citizens and in future we are going to see more of these. You can’t put the genie back into the bottle," he said.
Hundreds of Kenyans took to the streets last Tuesday to protest ever the rising of cost of living that has been brought about by the increased cost of fuel.
The April/May fuel prices review by the Energy Regulatory Commission saw fuel jump to over Sh113 for regular petrol and Sh107 for diesel.
Public service vehicle operators immediately adjusted their fares upwards, in some cases taking advantage of the situation to double the fares.
Prices of staple foods such as maize flour, rice, cooking oil, already on a steady increase since December, also increased, unsettling Kenyans.
However, experts say the new citizen activism has been tempered with civility where people are using sophisticated means to air their grievances.
Early this month, Naivasha’s Ebenezer camp IDPs attempted to walk to Nairobi to demand to be included in a list of displaced persons.
This forced the Government to intervene and persuade them to return with a promise that their grievances would be resolved.
Over the three years they have lived in camps, IDPs have severally attempted to block roads but have been tear-gassed.
Charles Kivondo, an IDP, has also set off on a 900-kilometre walk to raise money to settle Sh200, 000 bank loan he had taken from the Agricultural Finance Corporation.
Francis Kooli, Kakamega Central District Administration Police boss, last week completed a 250-kilometre walk from Kakamega to Nakuru to raise awareness on blood donation.
And borrowing a leaf from Uganda, Consumer Federation of Kenya last Tuesday appealed to Kenyans to stage a walk-to-work protest against the increasing fuel prices.
According to Mati, studies have shown that non-violent protest methods are very effective.
"They embarrass the regime into action and it is easier to attract participants as they are also less costly," added Mati.
Mbatia echoes Mati’s sentiments, saying the new approach is more effective than stoning motorists and looting from innocent Kenyans. "That is the problem with our students. Civil societies need to educate people," said Mbatia.
Such non-violent protest means were used by great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They were also applied in Eastern Europe.