Grow a pair

There is an old African saying, “Character is like pregnancy. It cannot be hidden forever”.

A young man, called Hoze, in his late 20s finds himself embroiled in running battles between the police and demonstrators in a rural Kisumu county. It is October 26th 2017, a day scheduled for the repeat Kenyan elections.  In his home village, protestors have blocked all the main roads leading to the primary school serving as a polling station. They are determined to prevent arrival of the ballot boxes in the unshaken belief that the elections are rigged. He has never seen so many enraged and agitated people. Thousands, gathered on the main highway ready for battle. Word had gone around a week earlier that no one should remain indoors because stories from Nyalenda and Obunga in Kisumu had returned of police raids, involving rogue elements who break into houses targeting civilians. Even babies were not spared. When the police arrived, everyone would be profiled as guilty and served with the same brutal treatment. No one wanted to be a sitting duck.

The Danger Of Kisumu’s Single Story

Catholic Father, Evans Juma Oduor was the presiding priest of Nyabondo Parish in Nyakach. At a funeral service, he called out president Uhuru Kenyatta and asked him to stop killing innocent Luo protestors. Following the disputed August 8 elections, that the Supreme Court of Kenya nullified on September 1st, Kisumu city has become the epic centre of a brutal police crackdown. It was these incidences that involved shooting of demonstrators and supporters of the NASA coalition led by Raila Odinga, that Father Oduor was referring to. In a bold move, he dared those who might have any case against him, to seek him out at his home address in Kisumu county. It was a bitter lament from the Catholic father against the killing of demonstrators, who were dissenting within their constitutional rights.

The Announcement

Friday, August 11 2017

The axe forgets what the tree remembers. African proverb

The tension was palpable 3 days after voting. Media had prepped Kenyans for a big announcement. Serious discrepancies had emerged over the vote tallying and opinion was sharply divided and emotive. The kind that could trigger off a big reaction.

People who had shown up for work on that Friday reported the lack of transport and the light traffic in Nairobi. Employers and business owners with good sense had to ensure the premises were shut by 2pm. We received reports of heavy police presence in the hotspots, in our case the poor ghettos in the opposition chiefs stronghold that were primed to react in protest after the announcement.

Of Social Media And Weapons Of Mass Distraction

A man named Boniface Manono was the focus of a headline story about the anti-IEBC demonstrations in Nairobi and police brutality that was turned on demonstrators. Mr. Manono moved from obscurity, to sympathy, notoriety and fame in under 48 hours. He was killed, resurrected, castigated and celebrated on social media. Boniface Manono may have been a victim of police brutality, in what appeared to be a near death beating captured on camera but by the next day, he was up and bouncy defending his version of events in newsrooms. He was beaten to death and lived to tell the story.

I stumbled on the Boniface Manono episode on my compulsive Facebook visits, scanning for trending stories which now passes for research in my profession. I had not even made sense of Saleh “James Bond” Wanjala, (the man who hanged precariously from to an airborne helicopter for over a mile and lived to tell his story), before Manono intriguing tale of survival flooded my Facebook timeline, Twitter feed and Whatsapp groups.

Take A Beating Like A Man.

Rodney King, an African American, a famous victim of police brutality in the US was found drowned in his pool. Mr. King was thrust into the limelight for all the wrong reasons. It was the year 1991 in Los Angeles, when a passing motorist captured explosive footage of LAPD officers, beating the hell out of a man on the ground. It became a sore point for race relations in the US and stirred an emotive national debate. Eventually the police officers involved were acquitted by an all-white jury, which triggered off the vicious L.A riots. 52 lives were lost and an estimated billion dollars worth of property destroyed.

Rodney King who became famous for all the wrong reasons

As I watched the old clip of police officers viciously assaulting King, I was struck by how common a sight that was in Kenya of the 80s through to 90s. At the height of the clamor for multi democracy, opposition rallies were always broken up with tear gas and riot police clubbing protestors senseless. It was such a regular occurrence that people went to those opposition rallies prepared. One wore running shoes, carried some water because when the cops descended it would be mayhem for everyone including the press. A beating was a standard occupational hazard of pro democracy activism.

Today we call it police brutality. In the old days it is just what you expected the police to do and all one had to do was to be in the right place at the wrong time. The police operated like zombies and when they struck, they beat people up indiscriminately. No one was above a good clobbering. The official policy was christened FFU, Fanya Fujo Uone (make trouble and you will see) and the public had a very clear understanding of whose patience one never tested. Among the dreaded corps were the Presidential Escort, the G.S.U ( General Service Unit) and overzealous Kanu youth wingers. It was this policy of equal opportunity beating that partly pushed up Rev. Timothy Njoya’s credentials as a reformist. The famous footage of his whipping outside the Parliament building and his ability to forgive his tormentors painted the picture of a man who walked the talk. He entered the reform books as a man of God who had put his limb on line for the good of many. Prof. Wangari Maathai also suffered the same fate when police crossed the line and clobbered a group of elderly women at Uhuru Park. Both incidents were widely circulated by international press and as the more prominent victims of police excesses, Rev. Njoya and Proff. Maathai unconsciously played a big part in securing the freedom to protest that commercial sex workers now enjoy.

These days our society is developing a low tolerance for sanctioned violence. Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Barasa found that the landscape has vastly changed and the seemingly minor incident where she was caught in a scuffle with a subordinate has become like an albatross around her neck. With an enlightened public, a justice system with teeth and diligent human rights activists on the prowl, times have really changed for the police force.

The underlining lesson here is that we must not forget that many of the privileges and freedoms that we enjoy came at a great price to a few. Rodney King may not have been in the league of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King but his beating would save thousands in the future from police brutality and brought about some measure of reform. Like Rodney King, our past is filled with silent heroes and heroines, accidental victims of history for whose sacrifices we have much to be thankful for.





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