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Kenyans caught between two hard headed politicos reluctant to let go amid raging tiff

 Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga and President William Ruto. [File, Standard]

Silence had engulfed the entire field. Hundreds of men and children huddled quietly on the grassy patch. You could feel the occasional huffing and puffing as they followed the intense cowboy movie on the open-air screen.

The Star, his hands on his hips, watched keenly from the corner of his eyes as his enemies approached him. It was a dusty and hilly scene. We all held our collective breath as they crouched within shooting distance.

In a flash, he grabbed his two revolvers...Just then, the estate gang leader nudged me with his elbow. He whispered, 'it is time'. I hurriedly took off, running to the back of the Factual Films Van. From underneath a heap of sawdust, I excavated my arsenal.

Three days earlier, I had visited Nakuru's Kamukunji grounds, to strategise and hide the deadly concoction. Our gang had used disruptive methods, just for juvenile fun, to cause mayhem during the monthly movie nights. Every gang member had his turn of turmoil. I had scooped from our toilet, human waste, which I carefully placed inside a polyethene bag. I crashed into it some rotten eggs and gently stirred the mixture. I meticulously sealed the package.

On this night, I pulled it out, found a raised vantage point and began to swing it above my head. With increasing speed, I eventually unleashed it like David's sling and swung it into the crowd. My target was the head of the tallest of men seated in the middle of the multitude. The missile landed squarely on a bald head. With a thud, it burst and spewed in all directions.

People screamed and scampered for safety. After some chaotic moments, they settled down to continue watching the movie. I never knew that the mischief, combative environment, and daily fistfights, were God's way of preparing me for my career in Journalism. I was being trained for coverage of civil disobedience. For decades, I encountered political rallies, demonstrations and police brutality. I tasted; rungus, police boots and teargas.

Kenya, is today teetering on the brink of anarchy. We have President William Ruto, a hard-headed leader who never backs off from a fight even when wisdom says he should. Then there is Raila Odinga, a man with a restless spirit whose opposition walk is littered with tears, broken bones, and blood. Many of his young followers vow that they are ready to die for him.

Raila and his Azimio coalition partners accuse the Ruto administration of pushing the cost of living beyond the reach of millions. Ruto says that the disruptive rallies and demonstrations by Azimio are destructive to the economy of Kenya. Opposition politicians in Kenya have in the past used violence, not to help assuage the suffering of Kenyans, but to force formation of ruling partnerships.

Civil disobedience

However, the disruptions, coercion, threats, violence, bloodshed and death that occurred on Wednesday, July 12, was a wake-up call for all Kenyans. Nothing can justify loss of life and the thuggery displayed on that day. Raila should listen to Martin Luther King Jnr, that civil disobedience "is not lawlessness but instead a higher form of lawfulness" it is meant to bring positive or man-made law into conformity with higher law, natural or divine law. Despite the deep-seated anger and anti-government fury, the level of destruction witnessed during the Maandamano, should give any patriotic leader sleepless nights.

Each regime has had its own share of street confrontations. If I was to count the number of men, women and children killed in street battles, since the British invasion, I would write the story of Kenya's silent genocide.

Jomo Kenyatta was spared street demos by virtue of the fact that; Kenya was a young and hopeful country and Jomo, being a founding leader, had a stature of a demi-god. Very few could dare confront him. There were moments though, when policemen in their grey khaki shorts, knee-level socks and boots, would combat protestors on the streets. Guns were rare. It was pure grit meeting boots and batons.

When Jomo was imprisoned by colonial authorities, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga fought hard for his release. Jaramogi was keen that Jomo takes over the leadership mantle. In 1964, Kenyatta became Kenya's first president with Odinga as his Vice President. Then the global Cold War was at its peak. It seeped into Kenya's local politics. Odinga and Bildad Kaggia were soon opposed to "corrupt land redistribution policy" which isolated the poor and the landless.

 Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga. [File, Standard]

On February 25 1965, independent Kenya registered its first political assassination. Odinga's close allay, Pio Gama Pinto, who had also voiced his displeasure on the land issue, was gunned down. Odinga was gradually isolated forcing him to resign from government. He formed the Kenya People's Union (KPU).

Then on July 5 1969, Thomas Mboya was assassinated. The country exploded into protests and violent street demos. The police did what they know best, use violence to quell protests. Before the dust had settled on Mboya's grave, four months after his murder, Jomo and Odinga confronted each other in Kisumu. Kenyatta had traveled to Kisumu during the inauguration of the New Nyanza Provincial General Hospital. The hospital was built using Russian funds obtained through Odinga's connections.

When the presidential motorcade sneaked its way into Kisumu town, enraged crowds were waiting. Shouting "Dume Dume", while demanding to know why Mboya was killed. By the time, Jomo was taking up the microphone to address the gathering, the atmosphere was already poisoned. Odinga and Jomo, went for each other, engaging in verbal combat. The insults they hurled at each other were unprintable. Then crowds surged and chairs were thrown at the head of state. Guns were pulled out and the shooting began. Jomo was driven out of Kisumu town by sheer gunpower.

Police commandos had, according to former head of civil service Geoffrey Kareithi, to open fire directly into the crowd to save the president's life. More then 100, men, women and children were massacred. Some were killed as far away as Ahero and Awasi, over 50 kilometres from the hospital. To contain the people's anger, the police unleashed violence and brutality.

Enemies of State

The government completely abandoned Western Kenya. No development took place. The Luo and Luhyia communities were identified as the enemies of the State. Kisumu has since then been a major epicenter of anti-government demonstrations. Two days after the massacre, Odinga's party KPU was banned. Kenya officially became a one-party state. In parliament, Jomo had to contend with outspoken and fiery leaders such as Martin Shikuku, Jean Marie Seroney, and Wururu Kanja. They became the 'opposition brigade'. Jomo used detention without trial laws to scare, frighten and silence any form of dissent

With Odinga neutralised, Jomo went about his business until March 2, 1975 when outspoken politician Josiah Mwangi Kariuki was murdered. Students and citizens poured into the streets to demand justice and truth over the killing. Violent scenes were recorded in urban centres, especially in Nairobi. Jomo had filled the country's prison system with men opposed to his authoritarian leadership.

When Daniel arap Moi took over in August 1978 following the death of Jomo, he released all political prisoners. He started touring the country to popularise his leadership. He built gabions and promoted tree planting. Then, in 1982, some soldiers from the Kenya Air Force (KAF), staged a coup against Moi's government.

The KAF suffered its most traumatic and inglorious moment. The coup attempt was led by a few Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), who called themselves the 'People's Redemption Council' ('PRC'). It was staged on August 1st 1982. Their heinous actions were short-lived. The abortive coup attempt was swiftly quelled by loyalist soldiers of the Kenya Armed Forces. The civilian government and constitutional order were restored.

The KAF service was disbanded. It was renamed the '82 Air Force.

The coup attempt had a devastating effect on Kenya. Thousands lost their lives. Thousands of others lost their livelihood. Billions of shillings went up in smoke. Hundreds of careers, both military and civilian were destroyed. The saddest part is that many of those who were implicated in the coup knew nothing about it. Weeks of violent street battles followed the failed coup.

Many, who knew Moi well say, the coup completely changed him. He became vicious, nasty, impatient and unforgiving. He started a campaign to strengthen and clean up the ruling party Kanu. As he moved swiftly to stifle any dissent, the civil society emerged stronger. Moi had launched a compulsory pre-university National Youth Service (NYS), programme. The first university NYS graduates staged some of the most vicious and violent protests at various public universities. Students had joined civil society to agitate for social, economic and political freedoms and rights.

 A convoy of army trucks at the KICC on 7 August 1982. [File, Standard]

Moi's 24-year rule, registered the longest history of political battles written in tears, sweat and blood. The curtain had fallen on the Cold War and Communist Soviet Union had collapsed. The west started to pressurize regimes in Africa to open up democratic space and allow multiparty democracy. Civil society luminaries began to agitate for change and a review of the constitution.

Written petitions

During Moi's time the civil society grew and expanded rapidly. Among its key leaders was Dr Willy Mutunga, a globally respected scholar, lawyer and social reforms activist.

The civil society normally promoted peaceful demos and dialogue even when faced with vicious policemen. They would walk the streets with placards and written petitions. We, journalists supported the call for reforms through our writing. We suffered detention and torture. However, one thing I noticed is that the civil society stuck to peaceful demos that were devoid of thuggery and looting until politicians hijacked the process.

There was a time during the Moi era that street demos became almost a daily occurrence. They started by agitating for freedom of movement and association. Then moved to social, economic and political rights. Detention and torture became common. Moi even established a punitive disciplinary committee for Kanu under the leadership of Dr David Okiki Amayo. With the Special Branch, an evil secret police unit spying on us, life became impossible for opposition leaders and the media.

We had to learn to tell our stories using figurative language. Then the west imposed economic sanctions on Moi's government. They arm-twisted him to introduce Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), which led to sharp increase in prices of essential goods. Life became unbearable. Doctors, teachers, nurses, university students and their lecturers poured into the streets.

In February 1990, Kenya's ebullient foreign affairs minister Dr Robert John Ouko was assassinated. His death opened fresh and old wounds. The wave of protests across the country became unstoppable. The civil society grew in stature. In Kisumu, scores of men, women and children were killed and brutalised. I was at the heart of the deadly violence, Kisumu City. Protestors would force me to sit on the tarmac or even kneel down and read aloud the notes I had written. But never at any time was I ever robbed or beaten up by demonstrators. Today, they beat up and rob journalists.

I feared the police more than the demonstrators. Then, in 1991, Moi bowed to pressure. He allowed the repeal of section 2A of the constitution to usher in multiparty democracy. With elements within Kanu keen on stopping pluralism, they turned the country into an ethnic war zone. Hundreds were killed in politically instigated ethnic violence. Meanwhile, violent street demos increased and accelerated in tempo. The police tightened their grip on batons and loosened their fingers on the trigger. Dr Mutunga, then the Executive Director of KHRC, launched a lengthy campaign against impunity. He mobilized the civil society movement and helped unite opposition leaders.

On July 7 1990, key leaders led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga gathered at Nairobi's Kamukunji grounds. Politicians Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia had been arrested earlier. Bloody riots rocked the city of Nairobi and other parts of the country. That day became etched in the political DNA of Kenya as Saba Saba Day.

When Mwai Kibaki took over, he poached some of the key members and best brains from the civil society into government. Dr Mutunga ended up the first Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya under the new Constitution. Njoki Ndung'u, Smokin Wanjala, Isaac Lenaola and Mohammed Ibrahim, joined the Supreme Court. Kibaki too was not spared from violent demos despite a weakened opposition. The long history of injustices caught up with him in the form of the post-election violence following the bungled 2007 presidential election. With hard headed John Michuki in charge of internal security, Kibaki dealt ruthlessly with civil disobedience.

To save the country from plunging into civil war, violence forced Kibaki to enter into a Grand Coalition partnership with Raila. As the two leaders ate together, street battles took a break. Then, Uhuru Kenyatta took over leadership in 2013 with William Ruto as his deputy. They dealt ruthlessly with the media and opposition. Despite the fact that they were operating under a more progressive Constitution, Uhuru and Ruto continued to pile up figures of men, women and children dying in protests and demos.

In 2017, as the country went into another general election, Raila led his followers into more street to safeguard the integrity of the election. More lives were lost. Innocent souls like Baby Pendo were dispatched into the next world by police bullets. Just when opposition followers were readying themselves for a long haul in the trenches, Raila entered into a 'Handshake Moment" with Uhuru.

Again, politicians had decided to eat together. Had their supporters died in vain? Ruto, like Raila's father in the 1960s, was gradually isolated and forced to become an opposition leader within government. Raila even rallied his Orange Democratic Party Movement (ODM), MPs to support the passage of the 2018 Finance Bill of the Uhuru administration. The bill pushed the price of essential goods to the sky. Today, Raila is fighting Ruto over his 2023, Finance Bill.

 President William Ruto. [File, Standard]

Although the constitution gives all Kenyans a right to freedoms of; expression, assembly and association, these rights must be exercised within the confines of the law. While enjoying them, we must guard, respect and protect the rights of others.

Blood violence

Ideally, public gatherings should be managed to ensure safety of citizens. Unfortunately, they all end up in tears and fears. Last Wednesday, Azimio demos coincided with protests called by Taxi cabs agitating against low payments by their respective digital application companies, and Passenger Service Vehicles (PSV), drivers, against the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA). NTSA wants to retest drivers before renewal of their driving licenses. What followed was bloody violence which claimed 13 lives.

The Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (KNCHR), says that: "Article 26(1), of the Kenya Constitution, dictates that an individual's right to life must be upheld as sacrosanct. One life lost is one too many. Every life lost represents someone's; spouse, child, parent, friend, neighbour or colleague. It is our individual and collective responsibility to create an environment where all Kenyans can exercise their rights peacefully, without resulting in deaths or injury," says the Commission's Executive Director, Roseline Odede

As I watched the violence unfold on various social media platforms, I remembered the folly of citizens who follow politicians blindly. I remembered a foolish friend of mine, a young taxi driver who dropped me to my appointment after vowing that he must join the first wave of Maandamano early in the year. "Why should you leave your work or house to join in the demonstrations?"

"I will do what our leader says we should do." He was shot during the ensuing violence and suffered amputation of his right leg. His taxi business collapsed. I wonder what he will do, the moment Ruto and Raila shake hands and enter into another 'eating together moment'

Both Ruto and Raila should remember that the rights to life, liberty and security of persons is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Azimio should embrace alternative non-violent approaches in getting the message across. It is time, the Azimio brigade works with law enforcers to single out criminals who will otherwise destroy any 'good intentions' they may have.

On the other hand, the police should seek a formula of dealing only with criminal elements during demos, Each time I hear of demonstrations and listen to our politicians incite violence, I wish I could swing my pungent missile squarely on their heads to remind them that Kenyans need some peace and quite to think and reflect through the hardships brought about by corrupt politicians.

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