Protests organisers must ensure peace and clear message

Azimio leader Raila Odinga address his supporters in Kibra Nairobi on March 27, 2023. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

Who has responsibility over the conduct of protesters? This is the thorny question that has animated conversations over the last two weeks in the wake of Azimio la Umoja's weekly protests.

Opposition protesters have been implicated in cases of looting (including a new morgue in Kisumu) and all manner of assaults on innocent bystanders.

Meanwhile, government officials are alleged to have been behind the organised looting of former President Uhuru Kenyatta's private farm in Kiambu County as a counter-protest against Azimio demos.

While it is true that individual protesters and looters bear personal responsibility for the crimes they commit (and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law), it is also worth focusing attention on the organisers of protests.

Before going any further, it is worth pointing out that Kenya experiences hundreds of protests every year, only a few of which make national headlines.

Most protests tend to be peaceful airing of grievances targeted at specific public and private entities. It is political protests that tend to degenerate into all manner of violence and criminality.

This is for the simple reason that our political culture has an abiding violent streak that always rears its head on such occasions. Organisers of protests and counter-protests usually rely on the same youth groups that they routinely use to rough up or intimidate opponents. Therefore, it is not surprising that most political protests turn violent.

Beyond the logics of political mobilisation based on violence and intimidation, protests also turn violent because of police reactions. The police, who as an institution are also steeped in our political culture, tend to be primed for violent repressive tactics instead of serving as facilitators of peaceful protests. The common cause driving both police conduct and the behaviour violence merchants for fire during protests are our politicians. Police misconduct is often the direct result of a deep-seated contempt for the Constitution among their political bosses.

On their part, opposition organisers of protests usually have no qualms using demonstrators as cannon fodder against violent police. This is because they mainly use protests as a negotiating tactic against the government, rather than as a means of achieving specific ends to better the lives of Kenyans.

The cynicism of key players in demonstrations is main reason why they tend to be polarising, instead of focusing our attention on important issues like the cost of living crisis.

The writer is an Assistance Professor at Georgetown University