After eight months of physical isolation, being unmasked in political crowds is fashionable again. Last weekends’ tragic events should provoke new thinking on competitive politics, State power and how we exercise our right to public assembly and free expression.
After weeks of rising political temperatures between Kieleweke and Tanga Tanga politicians, skillful and divisive disinformation campaigns spilled over into violent confrontation in Murang’a. A 21-year-old husband and father Chris Kariuki and Peter Mbothi, 15, didn’t survive the moment. Stabbed and beaten to death, their families now demand justice.
Reading the allegations and counter-allegations as we wait for the police to tell us what really happened, the triggers of violence seem sadly familiar. “Us and them” political campaigning, supporters paid and bussed in and other supporters mobilised to stop them. Heavy-handed policing leads to a church being tear-gassed, opposition cries foul and then the Cabinet says enough is enough. Two years in advance, the signs of a brutal 2022 season are already clear. They include paid crowds violently zoning out opponents, declining public trust in the independence of critical agencies coupled with no real policy imagination how we are going to deal with the issues of inequalities, corruption and development.
Disinformation, toxic and violent pre-election campaigns are sadly, a global phenomenon. This week, Amnesty International USA and Kenya issued anti-violence statements within hours of each other. Across the Tanzanian border, intimidation of the media, lawyers and opposition candidates seems set for a controversial election at the end of this month.
Articles 37 and 81 of the Constitution provide a clear framework for the management of public assembly, democratic and non-violent politics and elections. Article 33.2 demands that all must desist from hate speech, inciting others to violence or discrimination.
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Article 21 and 245 holds individual police officers personally liable and the Inspector General of Police accountable for political neutrality, non-partisanship and protecting everyone’s human rights. The arc of justice may be long, but State Officers and the public should recognise, it eventually twists in favour of those whose rights are violated. Twelve years after the 2008 poll violence, petitioners Alice Ochieng, Hudson Lumwaji and Tobias Odhiambo recently secured a High Court judgement that the government is liable for harm they suffered.
If we believe that this period is a “constitutional moment” then the obligations of the state, politicians and the public should also be clear. However, power and politics in a rapidly forgotten pandemic is not that simple.
Crowd theory is also instructive. The 2019 movie “The Joker” tells the story of a mentally unwell villain who successfully whips up a movement frustrated by lawlessness, inequalities, corruption and despair. While classic Hollywood, the experience is current populist politics in many countries including Kenya.
Sense of scepticism
The Cabinet assurance that the law will be applied without fear or favour is welcome. However, they must excuse us a sense of scepticism. A history of weaponising security agencies, electoral and judicial institutions against opponents does not give comfort that 2022 will be different.
Relying on aspects of the outmoded Pubic Order Act and remnants of last year’s rejected Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Bill may also not take us far. Requiring security agencies to provide safety during rallies rather than frustrating politicians and battering their followers is a good first step. Rather than seeing crowds as sycophantic, irrational or paid mobs to be dominated by security officers, we could dust off the KNCHR guidelines and implement them.
Training rally organisers on how to work within Article 37 and encouraging self-responsibility has power than bringing back apartheid water cannon mounted carriers onto our streets.
Relying on courts to stop disinformation, hate speech and fear-mongering will not stop destructive mass behaviour. The newly established Multi-Agency Taskforce needs to create an environment for the media and non-state organisations to do independent fact-checking and mass based civic education.
Attempting to clumsily muzzle social and mass media will predictably lead to the State besieging itself. Relying on old ideas and laws will predictably lead us to the same mass political violence of 2008 and 2017. More urgently, we now need mediators to resolve a messy Jubilee divorce. Parties should declare that they will respect independent institutions and create a strong political centre. We need agreement on campaigning finance rules, the electoral commission and the voter’s register. Lastly, can we also see justice for families of Chris Kariuki and Peter Mbothi not 12 years from now, but now.
-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. The views are personal.