To pass legitimacy test, the state must be non-violent and feminist 

Boda boda crackdown

Motorcycles are loaded onto a recovery vehicle in Nakuru city on March 10, 2022, as the police implement a nationwide crackdown on non-compliant boda bodas and public transport sector.

Photo credit: Cheboite Kigen | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The official state response entailed collective punishment of the boda boda community nationwide.
  • Many boda boda operators were grounded, paralysing businesses that rely on the riders.

This week has been undeniably violent. Its theme was set off by an extremely abhorrent criminal incident involving a gang of the city’s boda boda operators and a female motorist. The appalling spectacle of a savage mob molesting the lone woman detonated an explosion of national outrage that mobilised the security sector leadership and, eventually, the President himself.

The official state response entailed collective punishment of the boda boda community nationwide. With the police empowered to ‘swing into action’ and perform their usual draconian routine, many boda boda operators were grounded, paralysing businesses that rely on the riders for last-mile deliveries.

The ‘Forest Road’ incident was the stern backdrop for this year’s International Women’s Day, which hopefully afforded many the opportunity to reflect on our relationship with violence and its fundamentally gendered directionality.

Local comedians have seized upon a common place expression to highlight and ridicule its apparently crude misogyny. 

“Kwani mimi ni mwanamke?” is a refrain cited to evoke the attitude of chauvinists embarked upon antisocial or toxic behaviour while simultaneously performing the patriarchal imperatives of entitlement and impunity. The direct and explicit connotation of that expression is that femininity is defined by unfreedom and repression, whereas masculinity is characterised by liberty and autonomy, even sovereignty.

At the same time, we see how the boda boda community coordinated to reclaim, defend and advocate their marginalised masculinity. For long they were despised and subjected to hardship by both the state and privileged (male) motorists. 

Through collective action, however, boda boda riders were able to access immunities and capabilities ordinarily out of their reach given their low status.

Toxic masculinity

In our society, masculinity is associated with political, economic and social power; the face of authority is masculine. Leadership, high status and wealth are male properties. Conversely, femininity is associated with low status, often unpaid, mainly domestic work, as well as poverty, vulnerability and marginalisation. In other words, poverty is feminine.

Power is expressed violently; women, and low-status men, are frequent victims of this violence. Definition of masculinity as superior to femininity is an essential feature of patriarchy, the fundamental scaffolding of gender inequality. 

A type of masculinity known as patriarchal or toxic masculinity upholds this monstrous edifice through gender-based violence. The male universe is highly unequal; males with poor access to and control of power might feel excluded from the ‘rightful’ benefits of masculinity, leading to all manner of angsts. 

When powerlessness is conflated with femininity, you have the psychic context for, “Kwani mimi ni mwanamke?”

This coexistence of inequality alongside violence places countless people in peril. Recently, Boniface Mwangi took to social media to accuse Governor Alfred Mutua of causing his house to be destroyed with explosives. 

Several responses to his posts wondered why Mwangi opted to confront a person of that status, implying that at the very least, Mwangi’s troubles were self-inflicted to the extent that the powerful are deemed entitled to retaliate or otherwise deploy violence in securing or advancing their interests. 

Here we come face to face with a bizarre feature of our psyche: violence is deemed to be legitimate and self-legitimating at its point of incidence unless it is established or alleged that the target was defenceless or innocent.

State’s violent reprisals

Violence is rationalised in terms of deservedness, enabling us to accomplish astonishingly dissonant ends. First, we amplify the voices intervening on behalf of the “defenceless woman” in the Forest Road outrage while accepting the brazen menaces against Mwangi. 

In any event, the loud illegitimacy of violence per se is completely neglected.

Similarly, the injustice of the state’s violent reprisals against the boda boda community countrywide was not seriously challenged, because the infernal intensity of our outrage at the Forest Road incident escalated its deservedness, thus legitimising the re-emasculation or re-feminisation of boda boda.

These untidy ramifications comprise ineluctable consequences of attempting to dispense justice through draconian deployment of the power of patriarchal masculinity. The traditional state – the Leviathan – is in many ways the hyper-patriarchal epicentre of systemic violence. The Constitution of Kenya 2010 explicitly abrogates this fundamental feature and reconstitutes a humane, justice-oriented, human rights state. 

The reformulation creates an institutional framework that makes a non-violent, non-predatory transformative masculinity possible.

In Chapter 3 of Beacons of Judiciary Transformation, Dr Willy Mutunga tackles gender relations, advocating a feminist masculinity. In ‘Men Should be Feminists, Even If it is Hardwork’, he examines the role of social institutions like the family, school, church and even the workplace in transmitting, inscribing and re-inscribing the social message that relates masculinity with violence against women as an important marker of normal power relations in society. 

“Women’s empowerment is a metaphor for the assault on structural inequalities,” he observes.

A constitutionally legitimate state is, by definition, non-violent and feminist.

The writer is an advocate of the High Court and a former State House speech writer. @EricNgeno