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Why it's time to overcome the fear of mass action and its after-effects

A protester shows unused teargas that was lobbed by the police but did not explode at Pipeline in Nairobi on March 30-,2023. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The costs of the Azimio-led mass protest are finally piling pressure on businesses that are still struggling to recover from the impacts of Covid-19 and the long election cycle. One would have hoped that this time round, we had escaped the curse of post-election related violence. But here we are once more!

Tragically this week, the dynamics of the violence and destruction took a dangerous detour into private properties associated with the the former president's family and Azimio leader Raila Odinga. Without any prejudice, the reaction from the Azimio top brass was fast and furious.

Not surprising, the Azimio hierarchy creates the impression that the businesses and properties of the lesser mortals that have been destroyed in the past three protests are justifiable collateral damage. Yet, these businesses represent not only the totality of the victim's livelihoods, but also many years of struggle in a difficult socio-economic environment.

The greatest risk, however, is that the unfortunate events of last Monday have sown the seeds of class warfare into the ongoing political conflict between the de-facto opposition and the government. While I honestly still do not see any valid justification for the Azimio claims other than using the cost of living as a decoy for political vendetta, the economic costs are definite. The difficult questions in the mind of every sensible citizen are: For how long can this go on before we hit the breaking point?

How much destruction, lost business and opportunity cost to the economy is enough for the political leadership to come to their senses? For how long can folks stay away from their means of livelihood due to politically instigated conflicts when they already exercised their rights and obligation under the Constitution?

Real heroes

With the political daggers drawn and no end in sight, it now becomes a duty for all of us to learn to live with this reality and assume the consequent risks. There definitely is a limit for how long rational human beings can live under fear. Societies all over the world and from history find mechanisms to survive sooner than later when confronted by challenges.

A good case in point is when the coronavirus arrived into our shores in March 2020. As soon as the government intensified the containment measures, majority of residents locked without any means of livelihood came to terms with the reality of the impacts of the virus. It became apparent that there will be some heavy prices to pay akin to the choices of the four lepers described in the Bible in 2nd Kings 7:4.

From where I sit, the current quagmire will soon be tested to its limits by either market forces or the inherent human survival instincts of self-preservation. TIFA opinion polls released this past week are highly instructional on what the outcomes of this contestations might be.

As per the opinions, at least two thirds of those polled were opposed to the 'maandamano' despite about 50 per cent agreeing the country is headed in the wrong direction. In a subsequent poll days later by the same pollstar, Azimio la Umoja suppoters were more likely to sleep hungry compared to those of Kenya Kwanza. While political leaders in the country are legendary in consuming only opinion polls that serve their immediate interest, the Azimio leadership must have a valid reason to worry for how long they can whip public support and sympathy for being in the streets.

Our heroes through this chaos, however, are those who have braved themselves past the inconveniences to move on with their lives. Last Monday, around lunch hour, I traversed the city through Westlands suburb, town centre and down Eastlands along Jogoo road. The police officers along my entire route were mostly idle.

More importantly, public transport was largely available and a number of establishments that provide basic essentials and utilities across the city were open. On Thursday, I was in Karen and Kikuyu Township in Kiambu and notably there were no police other than traffic officers.

The import of this is that mass protests only achieve their effect if they are able to instil fear among the majority of the populace. In our case, the Azimio leadership can only drive their agenda through street protests for as long as majority of the people within Nairobi are afraid to keep off from their normal lives. It is also evident that their weapon of choice is the poverty and vulnerability of their supporters and unemployment levels among the youth.

Economics of unrest

Empirically, there has been very scanty evidence on the true cost of mass protests on the economy. It is only within the past five years that economist from IMF have documented some studies on area. For instance, a study by Sandile Hlatshwayo and Chris Redl finds that past turmoil domestically and in neighbouring countries is by far that most important variable to predict future strife. This is about 10 times informative as the most revealing economic and social factor.

This finding is consistent with theoretical model predictions of protests whch view coordination as a central driver of unrest. While protests can be sporandic, the resulting dynamics project that protests only grow when people think others will join in. This is akin to bank runs where people rush to withdraw their deposits because they see others in the line.

Other important factors that trigger protests are prices, especially for food and fuel, and digital access and social media penetration. This suggests ability to communicate and coordinate on large scale. In another study, IMF economists Hadzi-Vaskov, Peinknagura and Ricci in 2021 find a strong link between unrest and subsequent economic performance.

On average, major unrests are followed by one per cent point reduction in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) six quarters after the event. Socio-economic factors are associated with sharp GDP contractions than political motives. However, events triggered by a combination of both socio-economic and political factors correspond to the sharpest GDP contractions.

Implications

Putting this evidence into the current protest, it directly corresponds to their predictability. The country has experienced post-election related protest for every single election since 1992 except for the 2002 General Election. Interestingly, the actors have largely remained the same, rhyming that evidence on ability to coordinate of the planners.

An important ingridient that could be formenting the protests is the high level of internet penetration and use of social media to mobilise. On the flipside, the excesses of the protestors and the security enforcers are also playing out in the public gallery through the social media platforms. Regrettably, the mainstream media is enabling in spreading the fear by streaming live the protest on a blow by blow account.

It is my considered view that in times like this, it calls for a high sense of patriotic responsibility. Each one of us must ask if their actions are fueling the conflict or are leading the country into a sustainable solution.

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