Betrayal in the City as Raila protests rock the country

Opposition leader Raila Odinga addressing the demonstrator in Eastleigh Nairobi on March 20, 2023. 

Opposition leader Raila Odinga addressing the demonstrator in Eastleigh Nairobi on March 20, 2023. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Beige combat suits. Police barricades. Rushed and tense moments—with feverish compulsion.

The uneasy calm broke into a firestorm in the gauzy Nairobi heat—shimmering over the blue sky—on Monday, March 20, 2023, when Azimio la Umoja party leader stormed various parts of the capital city with his followers. 

Some protesters chanted and waved their hands in the air like flags—the flags of an invading army, sliding down the streets like truants, spreading noise, youth, grace, and the anarchy of the pure joy of heedlessness.

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga seems to have rekindled his pre-election tussle with President William Ruto. Mr Odinga fights like a sumo wrestler, with his whole weight. Unfortunately, in some places, the protests turned chaotic and deadly.

Critics aver that the former prime minister is only fighting for his own benefit, but supporters assert that he is fighting for the ordinary Kenyan. Whatever the case, the plight of most Kenyans is yet to improve under the new regime that swept into power amid high hopes.

The situation reminds one of the words of a character in Francis Imbuga’s play, Betrayal in the City, the famous Kenyan play with notorious protests that are met with deadly force by the government of the day. The character Mosese, probably with tears in his eyes, says that “It was better while we waited. Now we have nothing to look forward to”. What heartbreak when there is nothing to look forward to! 

Writer Prof Francis Imbuga

Writer Prof Francis Imbuga during an Interview at his Nairobi home on November 5, 2012.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Mosese further laments that “for years we waited for the kingdom, then they said it had come. Our kingdom had come at last, but no. It was all an illusion.”

This is like the hustlers who waited and voted for their “kingdom”. Whether it has come or not is too early to tell. However, the problem with campaign rhetoric anywhere is that it’s like poetry, lifting people into the lofty regions of utopia.

Then when elections come and the elected leaders don’t deliver, citizens are left disillusioned—longing for the promised paradise. Some of these protests could be about this elusive paradise—wanting it, finding it, always yearning for it.

"Promised paradise"

Kenyans, like the citizens of Kafira, the setting of Betrayal in the City, are yearning for the promised “paradise”. For the citizens of Kafira, when disillusionment set in, they cried out, “It was better while we waited. Now we have nothing to look forward to”. 

This is like the reality that sets in after elections in many African countries—the almost universal inability of things to hold together and their tendency to fall apart (captured aptly by the Kenyan moniker: “it shall end in tears”). 

We’ll all do well to remember the lessons from Betrayal in the City as it’s relevant especially now that Mr Odinga has announced protests Mondays and Thursdays until his demands are met. It’s great that throughout February and early March 2023, Betrayal in the City came alive at the Kenya National Theatre as Nairobi Performing Arts Studio performed the play, reminding us of its prophetic message.

One of the lessons from Betrayal in the City is that most of the time the political leaders we elect could let us down. Instead of taking us into the promised paradise, they become champions of corruption, dictatorship, and assassinations.

The cover of Betrayal in the City by Francis Imbuga. 

The cover of Betrayal in the City by Francis Imbuga. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In the play, one of the infamous characters is Mulili, a government officer and a cousin to Boss, the president of the country. He doesn’t qualify for the post but is appointed through nepotism to be the “ears and eyes” of the president—a role he executes with revolutionary zeal and sycophancy. 

The current Kenyan regime must distance itself from corruption, dictatorship and other ills. Otherwise, the protesters will have something concrete to protest, like the citizens of Kafira.

Another lesson from Betrayal in the City is that there is nothing as dangerous as a hopeless and oppressed person. They will protest even at the danger of risking life and limb—they can risk it all as they have nothing to lose. 

With sky-rocketing fuel prices and the general cost of living, a collective sense of disillusionment could set in and the government has to do all it can to alleviate poverty, pain and suffering. If the government does that, the protests will fizzle out as they won’t have popular support. If, on the other hand, the government forgets its pre-election promises, the protests could gather steam. The government has a perfect opportunity at the beginning of its term to set itself up for success. 

Some of the things the President and other elected leaders may have to battle are entrenched vices through successive regimes. It won’t be easy as change is always difficult, but should they succeed in defeating vices like corruption, they will be real patriots, the ones best described by Mark Twain when he wrote, “In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned.

When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot. Patriotism: Your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it”. Kenya is great because we are born in it. Let’s make it work.


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