The scenes of hired goons attacking Raila Odinga’s company and a farm belonging to the Kenyatta family were chilling. At Raila’s company, the goons targeted with rocks the office where Raila’s wife sits. Fortunately, she was not in on that day. Before any more damage could be done, a private security firm managed to repel the goons. The Uhuru farm was not so lucky. The goons cut down trees, stole livestock, uprooted piping infrastructure before setting parts of the farm ablaze. As the destruction on the Uhuru farm went on, police stood idly by, watching the mayhem.
The attacks on the two properties came after inflammatory speeches and threats against Raila and Uhuru by senior members of the government.
We can agree or disagree on whether reasons given for demonstrations are justified. We can disagree or agree on whether mooted demonstrations will achieve their stated goals. We can agree or disagree on the form and timing of demonstrations. What has been taken out of our discretion by the 2010 constitution is whether or not demonstrating is a democratic right. Since that right is guaranteed in the constitution, all we can do is facilitate demonstrations, and ensure they are conducted in ways that do not infringe on the rights of those going about their business.
The duty to facilitate demonstrations, protect both demonstrators and other members of the public, and ensure as little disruption as possible to normal life falls on the police. Therefore, once police get notice of a demonstration, they should sit down with the organisers and agree on routes, venues and duration of the demonstration.
During the Kanu dictatorship, demonstrations, unless in support of the government, were illegal. In the 1990s when people went to the streets to demand a return to democracy, hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were killed by police. In those days, it was common for hired goons to be set loose on political nonconformists and members of the opposition as authorities and police looked the other way. These attacks would always follow frothing-at-the-mouth denunciation of the victims. There was no one to run to as the goons were facilitated by the police and government authorities. The image of the Reverend Timothy Njoya screaming for help as he was being lynched by goons on a Nairobi street as police watched is a chilling representation of that era.
It should send a chill down every Kenyan spine that the attacks on the Raila and Uhuru properties followed a script from the Kanu era. First, rabid denunciation and threats by government officials followed by attacks as police stand idly by.
Power is intoxicating, but it is important for those now in power to remember that they are now the Government of the Republic of Kenya. They are no longer a political party in campaign mode. They have a much higher responsibility. No matter what they deem as provocation, they should react as the Government of Kenya, not as thugs in suits.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator