Monday, June 10, 2013

Nairobi Demonstrations; A few Basics To Know

Now that the ‘Occupy Parliament reloaded’ is a day away, I have been thinking about the past Nairobi demonstrations that I have attended, which are quite a few.
I happened to miss out on the last ‘Occupy Parliament’ demo, and it looks like I missed quite some action.
For some reason, Nairobians just do not attend demonstrations, even when the issues being addressed affect most of them in a very personal way, for instance the demonstrations against high food prices and high fuel prices. They prefer complaining about it, blame the cartels, the politicians and the government and so on, but they never come out to express their frustrations when called upon to do so. Maybe a study should be conducted to explain why this happens, but below are some of the more known reasons:
·         Facilitation
Many Nairobians will support the idea, and then ask for a fee to attend the demo, this fee is usually referred to as ‘facilitation’:-  Which is a phenomenon that the NGOs-CSOs- Popularised especially in the low income areas and is now an almost permanent trend(The name ‘facilitation’ came up because every time some NGO would organize a community meeting to address real issues affecting the community, you’d hear at the end of the meeting the organizers going like “…We do not pay people to attend our forums, since these forums are for your own benefit as a community. But we will give you some facilitation because we know that you left your affairs today, and you need to eat at the end of the day”.) In fact, these days if you do not intend to give “facilitation” in these forums, you have to be very clear about it right from the beginning, otherwise you might land yourself in very big problems thereafter.
The same phenomenon was exported to demonstrations, hence one of the explanations to the usually low turnout even when the issues being addressed are pertinent to the masses.
(ION//if you ever thought that these NGOs do this by default and not by design, then it will be important that you read James Petras’ NGOs in Latin America)

·         The idea that others will attend
Then there is this idea especially among the middle-class that they can hype the demo on twitter and facebook, and then because of the hype, other people will attend.
They find it easier to seek leave from office to attend trivial matters, but never a demo. That is why you will have 3, 000 people attending the demo on facebook, then 200 attending the actual demo.

·         Fear of Police violence
This is a bit understandable; Pictures such as those of Reverend Timothy Njoya being clobbered by state machinery during some demo back in the 90’s tend to instill some fear into potential participants. Others fear the teargas, water cannons….

Still, a research needs to be done, so that the solutions can be found. From my experience, the average number of demonstrators in a small demo is usually between 20 and 40 people. The average number in a big demo is usually between 300 and 400 people. The smallest demo I have participated in had 5 participants while the biggest and the most successful that I ever attended was the one that was organized by Kenyan Muslims 4 years ago, after the atrocious Israeli bombardments in Gaza that left close to 1000 Palestinians dead. The demo attracted several thousands.

Post-Moi demonstrations
The first years of the Mwai Kibaki regime did not see a lot of street action, I think there was one by journalists against a “media censure bill,” and two by University students. This was until Okoiti Omtatah came into the scene with a series of demos, and I credit him with differentiating between getting a police permit for demonstrations, and notifying the police of the intention to hold a demo (he once even pinned a notification on Central police station’s OCS’s door after the guy kept on hiding so as not to approve the demos)
In this era, it became rare for police to beat up protesters like they used to do in the 90’s…..just some tear gas here and here, water cannons, illegal arrests…… and things got even better with the promulgation of the current constitution in 2010.
Article 37 gives Kenyans the right to peaceably and armed to assemble, demonstrate, picket and to present petitions to public authorities. This means that one can demonstrate at any time, without notifying anybody. Unfortunately, some people still insist on notifying the police even when they do not need police protection in those demonstrations.

Things to know
The fact that Kenyans have this right, and that ‘it belongs to them and is not granted by the state’, then it will be important that they exercise it whenever necessary. From the few experiences that I have had, these are some of the things that one should know as they attend a demo:

You should eat well before the demo
This especially applies to demos that are scheduled to begin early. Eating some Ugali and sukuma wiki before the demo is important due to the unpredictability of Nairobi demos. You never know when they will end. You may have the intention to present a petition to Parliament by noon, but then you find it being received at 4pm in the evening. The problem is that all the chanting and the singing tends to make you hungry, and the bigger problem is that it will not be in order if you leave before the intention of the demo is fulfilled.

Do not take fluids
One is usually tempted to drink a lot of water with the reasoning that the sun might burn too much. The problem comes when you need to take a leak…….i am yet to discover where the Parliament, High Court or Office of the President’s toilets are!

Make sure that you can sing the National Anthem
There are a few songs that are sung in demonstrations, most of them from the NCEC and RPP days. It is understandable when you can’t sing along to those, but it is extremely embarrassing when you cannot sing the National anthem. And here I don’t mean singing the first verse like we do in the stadiums, no, I mean all the three verses. Rarely will a demo start off without the national anthem…and it is usually re-sung severally during the demo.
I hope that Juliani’s Utawala chorus will in the future be included in the list of these demo songs.

Carry a jacket or some warm clothing
This is obvious. Reason is that the weatherman in Kenya is usually wrong.
The second reason which my friend Mulialia Okumu, who is a veteran in the Post-Moi era demonstrations jokingly shared with me once is that, should you end up in a police cell, the warm clothing comes in very handy.

Handling violent policemen
Though this is rare in peaceful protests these days, there are some policemen who still have the animalistic Moi era mentality, who tend to violently disrupt peaceful protests.
Just before the teargas and the batons, a senior policeman will approach the demonstrators and give them the orders to disperse, after which he gives orders to the anti-riot squad to charge.
The demonstrators will always refuse to disperse, and three scenarios always occur:
1.       The demonstrators will hold hands and stand their ground. The police will charge at them but there is nothing that they will do. They will just threaten the people with the batons or push them away using their shields. If any of them lands the baton on you, hold his hand firmly and tell him that you have a right to demonstrate and he has no right to beat you. This ‘rights’ thing always works magic.
This is the best scenario, but it needs quite some courage.
2.       The second scenario is when the demonstrators run away either out of fear or because of the teargas and the sound of rubber bullets being shot in the air. The best scenario as stated above is to stay put and in solidarity stand your ground, but when everyone else is running away, then run away also. If you don’t, you will be beaten up. I have seen it happen many times, but the one that I have never forgotten is when my friend Gacheke Gachihi, another veteran, continued sitting at Harambee Avenue even after everyone else had run away. They almost broke his leg.
3.       The third scenario is that some people will run away, some will stand their ground. The right thing to do here is to be part of those that stand their ground.

In case in the teargas confusion, you get cornered by one or two policemen, never kneel down (I have seen many people do this, I think it comes about automatically, where you lift your hands and kneel, begging for mercy.) These policemen go for the easiest and most vulnerable situations. I remember during that huge anti-Israel demo, the police had laid an ambush near Pan-Afrique hotel, but before I explain how I was beaten up, I’ll first describe this demo;
As I had indicated, it is the biggest and best organized demo that I have ever attended. I think it was Al-Amin Kimathi who addressed us first after the Muslims came from their prayers, then a young man took over the mic of the PA system(not a megaphone)with one hand, and held a shoe with the other (just like the Iraqi who threw shoes at Bush)and began the chants. The chants were the most passionate that I have ever experienced. He would lead in chants like “down down Israil” and we would respond the same……”down down bush”…..”Takbir---Allahu Akbar”….”la ilaha ilalah”…and so on and so forth. Others were distributing pamphlets and placards and off we left for the Israeli embassy. The women were militant, the men were energetic.
We then found GSU trucks having blocked the road at the traffic lights just before Pan-Afrique, we sat down and continued with the chants as more demonstrators arrived. We then stood up and demanded that we be allowed to go through. After some push and shove, one of the trucks opened up the way, and thinking that we were now victorious, we excitedly ran through, only to find that more trucks had barricaded the road a few meters ahead on the other side. As we were demanding for the second barricade to be opened, the one behind us was closed again (I think they had gotten enough people within the two barricades) and that is when all hell broke loose. Teargas and batons with nowhere to run. I tried running in all directions but the ambush was well prepared. Some three policemen descended on me and I made the mistake of going down and pleading thinking that they would have some sympathy, none came through. Just when I began to think that they might kill me, woman came running and stumbled down not far from me. two of the policemen that were on me decided to shift their attention to her, and that is when I found an opening and ran towards the NSSF building where like others, I stepped on the sharp pointed metallic fence and jumped onto the other side, a process that left both soles of my new shoes pierced. There still were tens of policemen on the other side of the road that leads to community, who just threatened us but did not act on us. It was decided that we go back to the mosque and re-organise, but I found myself going back to my campus room, still holding on to my placard (pictured below)
End The Occupation!

I didn’t share the ordeal with anyone, until a year-mate of mine who had attended the demo after their prayers told me of how he was beaten, and since he was very light-skinned, the marks were still there, and we laughed a lot as we exchanged our experiences……….apparently, he did not see the opening on the NSSF side, so his story was much different…
The only flaw in that demo was that the organizers (or maybe it was the media?) had packaged the protest as a Muslim demo, rather than an all-Kenyan demo against the Murder, occupation and apartheid being perpetrated by the Israeli fascist regime.
Going back to violent policemen, there are two occasions when they came with dogs. Not running away is again, the solution.
But people should not fear, the beatings and dogs are rare these days, especially in this constitutional dispensation, that is why I was shocked to watch on TV some policemen beating up a protester (Joseph Kimani) like a sack of maize. That is why we must rein in or better still, do away with this incompetent I.G of police Mr.Kimaiyo or he will take us back to the Moi days.
In related news, i was also happy to read in today’s newspaper that Justice Mumbi Ngugi had ruled that Policemen should also take personal responsibility when it comes to matters of them using violence illegally. She deserves a Nobel award.

For the organizers
There are some things that organizers need also to do.

Reconnaissance visits- The organizers need to make reconnaissance visits to the route and venue of action, so that they can take the best positions. I remember we had once planned to raise the food prices issue directly to the president during a Madaraka day celebrations at Nyayo stadium. Unfortunately, we sat at a non-strategic place, and what we did not know was that the gates are usually closed such that one cannot move from one area to the other.

Taking control- At times some demonstrators can get excited and begin to harass other people, or even come up with ideas that may not be useful for the demo. The organizers need to deal firmly with such.

Agent provocateurs- These are the most dangerous people, and most difficult to deal with. They pretend to be with you but they are actually state agents. Their characteristics include; Charging at the Police for no reason, changing the agenda/program of the demo in a manner that belittles the cause, they become unnecessarily violent, and may even begin to throw stones at the peaceful demo, in case of arrests, they are taken to different locations away from the rest, and so on. There is one perennial demonstrator that I believe is an agent provocateur. The best way to deal with such is to set the people against them.

Gathering point- My brother Emmanuel noted that in the Nairobi demos that we participated in, we never had gathering points in case of forced dispersal. It is important to have a re-gathering point, just in case.

Legal contacts- Should there be arrests, there is always need for legal intervention. Since demonstrating is a constitutional right, these days the police might arrest you and leave you free outside the police station, but should they take you in, a lawyer will come in handy. Paul Muite has always assisted demonstrators-Pro bono.

Back up batteries- There is nothing as disappointing as having to send someone to the supermarket to buy some Megaphone batteries because the ones that you were using have run out of power.

One of the best demo organizers that I have seen in action, and probably the best there is, is CD Otieno. Ever since he became the President of bunge la Wananchi Movement, he has led uncountable demonstrations in the city, and he continues to learn from the failures and successes of each manifestation.

But all in all, Kenyans need to understand the role of demonstrations, so as to appreciate them, and conduct them responsibly.

Benedict Wachira
10th June 2013



  1. nice blog Benedict


  2. That is so true. Informative piece

  3. Thank you for this information.

    1. Karibu...i hope it helps for the future struggles.

  4. Very encouraging. I have rembered we were even talking about facilitation with you and Simbi today.