The chaotic scenes in Nairobi and across the country at the start of yesterday’s anti-government protests underscored the grave threat to peace, tranquility and national stability. There are, sadly, reports of injuries that have been blamed on the crude police handling of the situation.
There were also arrests and destruction of property, and, of course, a colossal loss of business, as the police battled with protesters. Shopkeepers and kiosk owners, who are among the ordinary Kenyans hit hard by the rising cost of living and food shortages, literally suffered a double tragedy.
The petty traders are counting their losses as a result of the lawlessness and mayhem that could have been prevented had the police done their job impartially, as is expected of them. It is not the duty of the police to protect only the ruling camp and its supporters. The officers are recruited, trained and paid using taxpayers’ funds to serve all Kenyans, be they in the government or the opposition.
While the protesters, including politicians, came out to exercise their constitutional right to stage peaceful demonstrations, the police appear to have been given instructions to break them up with utmost force. They not only hurled teargas canisters, but also caused serious injuries.
The arrests of Senate and National Assembly minority leaders and other politicians over the demonstrations were uncalled for. Such actions are a reminder of the single-party dictatorship that Kenyans fought so hard against several decades ago. Police officers must show some respect for elected leaders and their law-abiding fellow citizens, whose only crime, it seems, was to petition the government to mitigate the people’s suffering.
The organisers also have a responsiblity to ensure their demonstrations do not degenerate into looting and destruction of property.
And what a contrast with South Africa, where similar protests against high cost of living, corruption and other issues, were civilly and respectfully handled!
The South African protesters marched under tight security. After being addressed by their leaders, they peacefully left under police escort, whistling and chanting anti-government slogans. They were not bludgeoned by the officers as happened to their Kenyan counterparts.
For a country that aspires to be an example in the region and the continent on democratisation, brutality against demonstrators is a big step backwards. The clashes between police and protesters were reminiscent of the worst during the single-party dictatorship of several decades ago. This country needs dialogue and persuasion and not strong-arm tactics to crash dissent.
Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua has estimated the losses suffered during the first day of the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition Party-organised demos at Sh2 billion, without disclosing how he arrived at that figure. What is important, though, is that there are no winners in this debacle. Indeed, it does not matter who is right or wrong in this conflict. Kenyans are all the worse for it.
Kenyans look up to, especially their elected leaders, to show them direction and not plunge the country into chaos and destruction over differences that could have been easily resolved through bold discussions. They are once again dragging the country through the mud with their intolerance and intransigence. Being elected leaders does not mean that they have a licence to ride roughshod over the people.
This country, they must realise and act accordingly, is bigger than all of them and that they hold those positions, thanks to the mandate bestowed on them by the voters.
This is the first false step by the Kenya Kwanza Alliance administration of President William Ruto. The use of brutal force against peaceful citizens is not what a country that is grappling with serious economic woes and other crises needs. It is the surest way to spark dissent and division.
We once again appeal to President Ruto and opposition chief Raila Odinga to come off their high horse and reach out to each other for meaningful dialogue to restore law and order. They should think about the suffering of the people they lead and soften their hardline stances for the good of the country. There is still an opportunity to prevent more mayhem, if only the key protagonists give dialogue a chance.
This is what good leadership entails.