On March 7th, Uhuru Kenyatta pulled his worst bad faith move yet. After the government and the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union (KMPDU) failed to reach an agreement on a return-to-work formula to end the seemingly never-ending doctors’ strike, he took his best offer off the table, stopped negotiations, and instead threatened doctors to go back to work or risk disciplinary action for not attending to patients. He also threatened to deregister the KMPDU. Like clockwork, the media reported gross misrepresentations of KMPDU’s position, no doubt intended to make the doctors seem unreasonable, like they were the ones acting in bad faith.
This had me thinking about the art of protest, and its importance in our lives as citizens of this state. My first experience with protest was in 1997. I was in primary school, and we were sent home for a week as teachers protested for a 300% pay hike. This was an actual 300% pay hike that was well deserved, and that has never been implemented to date, unlike doctors whose request for a pay increase is an increase of about 150%. Memories of Reverend Timothy Njoya being beaten ruthlessly for protesting for a new constitution as police watched also remain vivid in my mind’s eye.
For as long as democracy has existed, and as long as people have disagreed with their leaders, there has been protest. Political protest to be specific. I would go as far as to claim that all protests are political, since people go to demonstrate for causes that are personal and dear to them, and as we know, the personal is political. Protesting involves stating or expressing objection to a statement, action or thing. The purpose of a protest is to make oneself heard, and will involve organizing with others who are like minded so as to make a statement or difference.
I believe it is important to show that we are ready to face the consequences of exercising our freedom of association and freedom of expression, especially when the people or forces we are demonstrating against would prefer otherwise. Which is why #LipaKamaTender is a powerful movement, under siege from the powers that be. Whenever people think of protests, they think of a group of mostly powerless people, a minority of sorts that is full of rebels, railing against the powerful. The connotations around protesting tend to be negative. Just look at the coverage of the doctors’ protest, which has reduced their quest for better healthcare all around to one for better salaries, making them look like villains in the eyes of the public.
When it comes to protest, the angle taken by reporters and commentators tends to be that of protests as disturbing the peace. You rarely encounter coverage of protests that has a positive tone. This is deliberate. Most media are controlled by those in power, and they desperately need to juxtapose our right to protest with the need for law and order. This is deliberate, because those in power love the police and are addicted to control.
Protests are presented as problematic, yet they are key to democracy. Other power struggles and conflicts central to democracy are allowed to exist mostly without question. For example, elections, which are ritual competitions between political parties. Corporate takeovers, which are basically cannibalism by companies, are regular in many democracies. So why is it that all hell breaks loose when the people, who vest their power in government, protest?
As you may have noticed, protest, civil disobedience, strike, whatever you prefer to call it, becomes a problem when exercised by members of weaker groups in society and their allies. For example, workers, students, minorities of all kinds, women and so on. Challenges by these groups to the status quo and those in power receive special attention. The General Service Unit (GSU) is sent in. People are whipped like crazy by police who are paid by their taxes.
The GSU is not sent in to beat those who stole people’s taxes. This is because the prevailing view of dominant and powerful groups is that citizens should leave social problems to the experts, who also happen to be the elites. They know best. Where they disagree, they should follow specified channels. Like our president’s website to report corruption. Or voting. Or joining a political party. Or forming a lobby group. Something that does not challenge their power, and that requires an intermediary. Yet these normal channels are skewed in favour of the powerful. So of what good are they to the masses?
Which is what leads us to direct action, which takes many forms. There are strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and many others. These aim to achieve immediate goals, such as the achievement of the CBA, the release of political prisoners, the passing of a law and so on. Non-violent direct action does not cause physical harm to people, while violent direct action does. Which brings to mind that the police in Kenya may be the biggest cause of violent direct action, since it is usually they who start beating up, teargassing and harassing protesters.
Protesting is particularly unique because it involves members of a society undermining that same society. It is a challenge to the social contract upon which our societies are based, in which we basically give up some of our power in exchange for security and other social services. It is, then, the taking back of power. Which is why, when a protest movement starts, it is ignored, so as not to give it validity by paying attention to it. If it persists, these people are derided as mad.
If it further persists, ways are then found to describe the protest as violent, or even to incite violence within the movement so as to discredit it. Depending on the country you come from, people may even be jailed. Then, there is a moment of reckoning if the protest still persists. The populace wakes up, and aligns itself with those who are protesting. This is the mainstreaming of the struggle. All of a sudden, it seems like everyone is for the protest. Then the government, or the entity being protested against, gets the message.
This change is possible, with a committed group of protesters and citizens willing to stay the course and fight for their rights and what they believe in. The people we admire today, such as Wangari Maathai and Nelson Mandela, were once regarded as absurd. Today, they are heroes. It is important to remember that when protesting, you are typically against an entity that has far more resources and that is far more organized. It is asymmetrical from the beginning. If you are protesting against the state, for example, they have the police. Who have weapons. They also have jails.
It is imperative that the protesters become more organized and gather more resources. Organizing involves having a unified message, having a disciplined movement with very clear goals and calls for action. This is important because the opponent seeks any opportunity to smear the movement.
The results of protesting are hard to quantify at times, though they tend to fall under three categories: disruption, facilitation and persuasion, and they target three parties: political players, the media, and public opinion. Protests directly affect political agendas by disrupting them, and they indirectly affect the players who mediate and/or amplify the influence of these protests. The issues being protested for or against tend to become part of the political agenda, especially when the protest disrupts the usual state of things.
So, as we wake up to the state that corruption has put our country on after reading or hearing in the news about the billions that are looted from us and wonder what you can do, remember you can protest.