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Food prices protest: Building storm or pressure relief valve?

Women shopping in a supermarket in Mombasa. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

It is said that over land, the centre of a hurricane, also called its eye, is by far the calmest part of a storm. Skies are mostly clear of clouds, wind and rain. However, that calm is deceptive; a precursor of the deadly destructive force that soon follows.

The #lowerfoodprices hashtag has generated a brief social media storm before petering out quietly. Allegedly started by Kenya Kwanza, a political alliance gunning for the presidency in this year’s national elections, it has found resonance in many Kenyans consigned to privation by the high cost of living. Even Azimio la Umoja supporters, Kenya Kwanza’s archrivals, concede that indeed, the country has been grossly mismanaged to the detriment of citizens.

But is the #lowerfoodprices drive merely a blow valve to manage discontent? Is it a flash in the pan movement whose fame and purpose is as transient as political pursuits in Kenya are wont to be? Spontaneous movements usually have a tough time converting their energy into meaningful and long lasting change. And the political elite that the message is directed at hopes as much; that this will not morph into a protest that is much more significant and much more sustained.

The storm may have subsided for now yet one gets the impression that Kenya is in the eye of the storm. The lull is merely a tactical retreat typical of Kenyans who step back to strategise on the best approach to an obdurate challenge. Take for instance Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga.

Formerly bitter rivals diametrically opposed to each other, they are now in a pact that will see the president support Odinga’s bid for the presidency. Or the case of Musalia Mudavadi and William Ruto. The former was one of the staunchest critics of the DP’s bottom-up economic model. Presently, they are political allies in their Kenya Kwanza outfit.

What Kenyans ought to do is interrogate these détentes. They ought to see beyond the superficiality of “Handshakes” and “bromances” to gauge whether the camaraderie is enduring or merely a cessation of hostilities for selfish ends. They should ask why an outgoing president, whose tenure has been an abysmal failure by most metrics of success, should be so heavily vested in the election of his successor. They should question the probity of presidential candidates whose names are invariably linked to scandals.

Kenyans should not be fooled by second-term governors who now want to become senators; some of them might want to hide the misdeeds of their tenures because the Senate has oversight over county affairs. Nor should they be taken in by acerbic characters whose politics is informed, not by cogent policies, but by appeal to primordial ethnic instincts.

For far too long, citizens have behaved as though they were afflicted by the Stockholm syndrome; falling in love with their political captors. Certainly, the electorate has been captured. They will not countenance the presidential candidature of others outside the top two.

But even then, there is still time for honest conversation. The sort of debate that discusses prioritisation of cheap, affordable nutritious food over vanity projects like shiny new railways and expressways. The discourse that shows the correlation between deficient leadership and the current high food prices. And the dialogue around poor electoral choices and the preponderance of indigent citizens.

Just because young Kenyans are not registering as voters in huge numbers does not mean the storm is over. Because many citizens appear resigned, even indifferent to the parlous straits that the country’s finances are in is not a sign of wellbeing. It is simply the eye of the storm; beguilingly tranquil, serene, the faux appearance of peace.

Still, the wound festers; the boil remains unlanced. The escalation of hostilities between the president and his deputy, sometimes through their proxies, may presage a political storm that will be hard to quell in the coming days. Temperance is called for. A storm warning has been issued, even, if through effete hashtags like #lowerfoodprices.

Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst