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It is early 1979. Kenya doctors are on strike. University of Nairobi students hold a Kamukunji to announce they are joining their cause in solidarity. One day later university students march down River Road singing a luta continua, waving branches, and carrying placards with the usual radical left slogans, like Venceremos. Clenched fists and Power to the People! Two lorries stop next to the Odeon Cinema to discharge General Service Unit gendarmes armed with shields and clubs.

The two groups, hidden from each other’s view, proceed towards their rendezvous beneath my position on a balcony at the intersection of River Road and Latema.

When they collide, the students disperse into the mid-day crowds, shouting, “There’s no maize in Kenya, hakuna mahindi!” The pursuing GSU start clubbing people indiscriminately. The skirmishes spread across Tom Mboya, disrupting the city centre for the next several hours. This was the first in a cycle of Moi-era protests that were to climax in the mass action for restoration of multi-party politics twelve years later.

The protest cycle

Kenya’s latest round of street demos reminds us that protest is a reoccurring property of political systems. Protests arise in response to perceived opportunities in the political arena to mobilize supporters, presumably with a view towards launching social movements. It follows that culture and community complement the influence of political opportunism in the transition from protest to social movement.

Protest, including what may initially appear as isolated events like the doctors’ strike, form cycles that typically pass through four phases: mobilisation, coalescence, institutionalisation, and decline. IMF bread riots, for example, began as episodic events erupting in response to IMF conditionalities, but fed into actions leading to institutional reforms or increased repression prolonging the cycle. Long-term outcomes vary. A cycle may result in regime change or revolution; increased repression or reforms. Governments fear mass public action because they can trigger more prolonged opposition or lead to contagion with other issues. Sometimes examples of civil disobedience are used by the state to institute a more protest-proof status quo. The Tiananmen Square uprising, for example, placed the Chinese Communist Party on the path culminating in the country’s surveillance state and social credit system.

Protected as an extension of freedom of speech in democratic societies, protests and demonstrations provide an important safety valve for a population’s grievances, opposition to policies, or for releasing popular discontent with their government or specific actors.

In Kenya, political protest is a game played by calculating actors who almost always act true to common expectations. The most recent round of demonstrations conforms with Kenya’s political folk models. No one has defected from their fate-appointed role, at least so far. A familiar script unfolding in typical fashion, the population’s growing precarity and the convergence with other protests across the globe nevertheless feed the growing angst and uncertainty.

In Kenya, political protest is a game played by calculating actors who almost always act true to common expectations.

Because they are an inherently unstable and potentially volatile form of social organization, leadership is critical when protestors take to the street. Leaders’ calculations do not necessarily lead to the most optimum course of action, both in respect to their own interests and the greater public good. At the moment it remains to be seen if the Azimio demonstrations are a legitimate act of problem-solving agency or the latest extension of Kenya’s political samsara.

Voice and the exit option

By protest we refer to public actions including marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, boycotts, and other forms of group civil disobedience. Protests represent variations adopted to amplify the political exercise of voice, the central element in a triad of options the development economist Albert O. Hirschmann analysed in his exit, voice, loyalty model. Just as customer choices are fundamental to the workings of free markets, political voice provides critical system-correcting feedback in governance. Political legitimacy encourages loyalty; the exercise of voice reinforces the legitimacy governments need to govern effectively. When voice does not work, a credible exit threat can force states to act on citizens’ grievances.

Africa’s new rulers preferred silence. Their governments assumed power with the legitimacy generated by the campaign for liberation, but the pursuit of personal power saw many of them squander this goodwill. Suppression of voice accompanied by the demand for unconditional loyalty encouraged the exit option, which often took the form of the military coups and insurgencies that continue up to the present. State-controlled media plays a crucial role in conditions where protest provides a convenient pretext for seizing power. When their political voice is muzzled citizens find other avenues of coping. They seek solace in religion, support football teams with tribal passion, sustain their spirit through literature and music, get high, seek out sex, or join underground movements.

When political protest is non-productive the cycle gives rise to other less overtly political forms of dissent. Examples from this part of the world include torching field crops, land invasions, school riots, discrimination based on tribe and gender, witchcraft and sorcery, migration, civil service malfeasance, blocking roads, vandalism and small acts of sabotage, foot-dragging, hate language, and other weapons of the weak.

The noise returned with the post-1989 resurgence of democratisation. Voice made a comeback in Africa. Liberalisation and participatory methodologies promoted greater developmental inclusion. These changes and African Union diplomacy helped reduce the incidence of military coups, even though governments continue to repress opposition political parties. The post-electoral crises triggered by contested elections spread to other continents. The United States’ January 6 Capitol riot and the military response to Bolsonaro’s defeat in Brazil are examples challenging longstanding assumptions about the democratic norms and the governance of open societies everywhere.

The round of protests erupting in South Africa, Tunisia, Israel, Kenya, and elsewhere demonstrate how the exercise of voice still tends to be specific to different countries. Political cultures condition their own distinctive expressions of protest. In Kenya, civil disobedience and mass action have provided an alternative to violent civil conflict and the insurgencies that have plagued neighbouring countries. The country has come close to the brink on several occasions. Examples from the nation’s post-independence history provide an evolutionary backdrop for the latest round of brinkmanship.

From mobilization to coalescence

Unlike the blowback generated by previous assassinations including the riots triggered by the murder of Tom Mboya, the protests following the disappearance of J.M. Kariuki seriously rattled the Kenyatta government. The aging president warned the masses during a speech at Uhuru Park, then launched a commission of enquiry appointed to investigate the events of the parliamentarian’s disappearance. This effectively dissipated the discontent, and the Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry became the state’s go-to tool for dealing with regime-threatening protests.

Wangari Maathai spearheaded protests over government excisions in Uhuru Park and the Karura Forest, an act of defiance that opened the way for the Saba Saba demonstrations in 1990 that energized the movement for multi-party democracy. After Daniel arap Moi’s had won two elections, the opposition began agitating for constitutional limits on executive power. The post-electoral violence following the 2007 national elections turned into the nation’s most protracted political crisis, which finally set the nation on the path to constitutional reform.

The round of protests erupting in South Africa, Tunisia, Israel, Kenya, and elsewhere demonstrate how the exercise of voice still tends to be specific to different countries.

These incidents of mass action clearly advanced Kenya’s political development by challenging the impunity of the state, ending the period of de facto and de jure single-party rule, empowering the rise of civil society, and sustaining the long process of reform culminating in the 2008 ratification of Kenya’s new constitution.

As Article 37 of the new dispensation unambiguously reaffirmed, the right to assemble peacefully is essential for the nation’s capacity to meet future challenges. Not that this legal right or the state’s ability to suspend it in the name of public security was ever in question. Kenyans have developed a cautionary attitude towards mass action, in part because the intervention of Kenya’s police has always been more about protecting the state’s interests than public safety. The timing and location of their deployment is prejudicial, while their presence invariably increases the risk of human rights abuses and long-term radicalization.

State responses also depend on who is protesting what. The police clobbered Borana demonstrators gathering in Nairobi’s Central Business District to protest a series of extra-judicial killings. A few days later the same police stood aside when ruffians infiltrating multi-party demonstrators started looting and destroying property. The Mombasa Republican Council was a non-violent movement basing their “The Coast is not Kenya” campaign on legitimate historical sources; the provincial administration drove their leaders underground and the paramilitary GSU regularly crashed their peaceful assemblies. The atavistic Mungiki, in contrast, were allowed years of leeway to extort and kill before the inevitable crackdown happened. There are many other similar examples.

Protest cycles demand structural transitions. The dismantling of Kenyatta’s deep state marked the end of that era’s cycle. The new one that began with Moi’s restoration of KANU as Kenya’s ruling party ended with the implementation of the new constitution in 2010. Unfortunately, the transition to the new dispensation did not settle the problem of the country’s flawed national elections.

Institutionalisation and the Raila Conundrum  

The Odinga family, Jomo Kenyatta’s personal bête noire, has been the bane of every government that came after him. Since 1963, Kenya’s executive has alternately embraced, banned, revived, and stymied the Odingas’ efforts to participate in Kenya’s political arena and to vie for its highest office. Father and son have repaid this treatment by sucking it up and by staying the course of resistance under difficult circumstances.

Moi brought Oginga Odinga back into the KANU fold, frustrated his attempts to stand for office, then compensated by appointing him to head the Cotton and Lint Board parastatal.  Soon after, he used an obnoxious if innocuous public statement as pretext to banish Oginga Odinga to the political wilderness. Years of humiliating treatment by the state no doubt contributed to his son’s passive participation in the failed coup of 1 August 1982. The chaos and damage precipitated by the coup attempt worked to extend the regime’s grip, until the 1990 assassination of the government’s respected Foreign Minister, Robert Ouko. Raila’s passive association with the Air Force privates who launched the putsch earned him three years in detention, tainting his reputation among a large cross-section of the Kenyan public for years.

The Odinga family, Jomo Kenyatta’s personal bête noire, has been the bane of every government that came after him.

The subsequent arc of Raila’s political career spanned his role in upsetting Moi’s succession “project”, the Kibaki tosha endorsement, the makeover from disrupter to kingmaker, and two frustrated transitions from kingmaker to king. The blatant vote rigging in 2007 was designed to trigger mass protests that would justify a state of emergency prolonging the life of the incumbent government. Raila became Prime Minister in the coalition government that emerged from the wreckage, which should have ended the cycle.

In his seminal paper, Constitutions without constitutionalism: an African political paradox, Professor Okoth-Ogendo details how “power maps” explain weak adherence to the constitutional order in African countries. Unlike the power relations underpinning the exercise of governance, constitutions are easily amended, suspended, ignored, and discarded. The prominence given to constitutions by governments contrasts with the ruling elites’ weak commitment to constitutionalism, which dictates that those implementing the law be equally subject to its principles and limitations. In a commentary on the Okoth-Ogendo thesis, Kenya’s constitutional Zen Master, Yash Pal Ghai, observes that “most African ‘leaders’ have valued constitutions solely for their significance internationally: conferring sovereignty on the state and immunity for its head, not sovereignty of its citizens”.

This situation is reflected in popular Kenyan memes over the years, like KANU ina wenyewe, mwenye nguvu mpishe, and kuteleza siyo kuanguka. Or, don’t get in the owners’ way and you can earn the grace allowing you to get away with the murder of a fellow cabinet minister’s daughter, loosely translated.

The terrain covered by Kenya’s power map is rugged. It has its own language and unwritten rules. Transactional and entrepreneurial power map business is conducted in multiple currencies. Rivers of opportunism run through it. Raila has travelled its peaks and valleys more than any other Kenyan politician. He has weathered its storms and survived its wilderness, but he never earned the grace to ascend the power map’s summit.

Raila’s statesmanship in the face of three flawed post-second liberation elections made him a sympathetic candidate, and his non-violent reliance on constitutional methods helped deconstruct the myths constructed to demonise his political base. Raila Odinga has been the most consistent voice for Kenya’s democratic aspirations since the dark days of single-party rule. Seen as the best bet for curbing Kenya’s rampant corruption, he was also the power map’s most chimerical rainmaker.

Decline-phase decisions

If the Electoral Commission boondoggles in 2007 and 2012 were dumpster fires, the third act was Ground Hog Day. As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The electorate was fatigued and the opposition financially exhausted after the 2017 recall. Raila switched strategies. The Handshake was a new kind of exit that saw the veteran campaigner step out of the opposition and into the widening Uhuruto gap.

Embracing a constitutionally-failed presidency on the Zen Master’s scorecard diminished his hard-earned credentials. Championing the stage-managed Building Bridges Initiative was anti-constitutionalism in action. Marketed as a solution to the ethnic tensions exacerbated by electoral competition, BBI’s consociational template was designed to primarily benefit the political class. The Supreme Court rejected it as a top-down gambit designed to eviscerate the constitution. Justice Patrick Kiage’s ruling described the BBI amendments as “effectively dismembering the Constitution, blasting so huge a hole in it as to pulverize its foundations and essentially create a new constitutional order.”

The Handshake was a new kind of exit that saw the veteran campaigner step out of the opposition and into the widening Uhuruto gap.

While the Jubilee Party’s BBI roadshow was touring the counties, William Ruto was busy campaigning. Instead of the usual ethnic alliance-building, his strategy targeted the youth and working-class Kenyans, which he branded the hustler nation. Recasting the 2022 contest along class lines flipped the decades-old status quo. Raila and his ODM flagship, now relegated from movement to coalition partner, found themselves cast as an extension of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta’s uthumaki dynasty.  Raila Odinga’s role in the BBI debacle faded into the background as he hit the campaign trail for a fifth time, this time in alliance with the powers at the top of the sitting government.

What could go wrong?

The cycle’s electoral endgame

Before the August elections, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a report concluding that although the government of Kenya had avoided the backsliding witnessed in many other African countries, it was still “teetering between democratic deepening and regression”. True to form, the elections featured the usual tender scandals, institutional conspiracies, mischievous foreigners, abuse of incumbency, colourful political chancers, monetization and voter suppression, dead bodies, razor-thin margins of victory, and an aftermath extended by multiple court cases.

The threshold for political violence was low. The ACLED political violence database reported that the incidence of political disorder and conflict was higher during the run-up to the 2017 election. Everything pointed to the standard pattern, as the arrest of three Venezuelan technology consultants found at the airport with election materials in their luggage appeared to confirm. This provided the cue for Senator James Orengo to warn, “If the law won’t work then we will use force.”

But the elections ended up wrong-footing expectations conditioned by the previous three polls. Observers from diverse European and regional bodies all gave the polls high marks. Appeals for peace issued by Jakaya Kikwete, the head of the observers’ group, proved to be unnecessary. A live Twitter feed organized by one of Tanzania’s opposition activists waxed poetic in praise of “our” Kenyan neighbours “for showing us how to properly conduct an election.”

Marketed as a solution to the ethnic tensions exacerbated by electoral competition, BBI’s consociational template was designed to primarily benefit the political class.

Similar such sentiments echoed across the region as Kenya’s Supreme Court prepared to adjudicate the inevitable petitions. The parties to the presidential electoral petition declared they would abide by the court’s decision, the number of other cases contesting the results dropped from three hundred and eighty-eight in 2017 to one hundred twenty-three in 2022. Framed as a victory for the constitution, the polls signalled a shift from ethnic-based to issue-based politics according to some pundits, even though the pattern of votes cast settled into the familiar ethnic block configuration.

The polls were conducted peacefully. The suspicious Venezuelan election materials turned out to be bar code stickers for tracking documents transmitted from polling stations to the Electoral Commission central hub. the hard copy forms and electronic tallies matched. Orengo’s uprising did not materialize. Boda-Boda drivers questioned in the traditional epicentres of political violence told the reporters, “Tell the Commission to count the votes faster, we want to get back to work.”

Insider revelations later depicted an Azimio campaign that suffered from complacency and failure to escape the tag of being Uhuru’s “project”, a term that marred Kenyatta’s designation as Moi’s successor in 2002. Many of Raila Odinga’s close associates assumed their alliance with the “deep state” would guarantee the outcome that had so cruelly eluded them since 2007.  His minions in Kisumu who drank the Kool-Aid had already started celebrating. When the vote count was announced, Raila claimed that Commission Chairman Chebukati had presided over the most corrupt and openly flawed election in Kenya’s history.

Azimio failed to read the signs. Their electoral petitions were long on Electoral Commission’s past sins and short on evidence meeting the high bar set by the new Supreme Court. The court’s full judgement released on 26 September 2022 validated the legitimacy of the polls. But in the same article cited above, Ajwang and Lugano blamed the court for failing to adopt “an amiable judicial tone that offers reconciliation in a febrile political environment”. The condescending nature of some of the court’s language, they observed, left the door open for the coalition’s principals continuing complaints about the hijacked outcome and the degradation of Kenya’s democracy.

The outgoing government left the nation with a soaring cost of living, intensifying famine, a depleted Treasury, and not much to show for the four-fold growth in Kenya’s external debt. The new president’s response was to hit the ground running. His inaugural speech sought to reset the nation’s confrontational toxic political discourse while focusing on policies for relaunching the stagnating economy. In an impressive 75-minute Mashujaa Day address on 20 October, William Samoei Ruto outlined the equivalent of a five-year development plan, with specific methodologies for achieving its targets. He appointed an impressive team of technical advisors. The president followed up with an article published in The Guardian positioning Kenya in the front row of the climate change movement.

But the new government’s break-out momentum did not last. The MPs launched the 13th Parliament demanding increased allowances. Many politicians associated with the country’s endemic corruption won their elections; some found new niches in the counties. Others benefitted from the openly non-consociational appointments of cronies and loyalists. Court cases were dropped. A lawyer died. Payback time returned. The conduct of the new government appeared to be regressing back to the mean as the new year approached.

The outgoing government left the nation with a soaring cost of living, intensifying famine, a depleted Treasury, and not much to show for the four-fold growth in Kenya’s external debt.

In a review published in The Standard, Caleb Otieno documented how the weight of past behaviours and decisions invariably dims the new dawn promised by the succession of incoming Kenya governments. One of the president-elect’s young lawyers referred to the power map problem at the end of the hearings: “The problem is our politics and our political culture. Political culture cannot be legislated.” My own article following the 2017 elections, entitled Kenya’s Electoral Crisis and The Political Culture of Tricksters and Masks, tracked the continuing influence of the politics of deception, double entendre, and misdirection Daniel arap Moi perfected during his last two terms in office.

For Raila Odinga, after years of patience in the face of his opponents’ clumsy efforts to block his way to the presidency, the Electoral Commission’s new-found integrity may have been the cruellest trick of them all.

Not all cycles are cyclical 

The rains finally arrived. Consumer prices continued to rise. Driven by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the government’s mismanagement, Raila nevertheless exploited Kenyans simmering economic discontent to call for mass action. It was reminiscent of the doctors’ strike: when the Marxist message failed, the students started crying “no maize!”

“The demos will benefit Kenyans in the long run. I’m asking every citizen to come out on Mondays and Thursdays to protest against the high cost of living and an oppressive regime,” said Mr Odinga, who also claimed he won the 2022 election by two million votes.

Sometimes there comes a point when the application of a given socioeconomic model hits the wall. Empirical contradictions emerge, anomalies crop up. Kenya’s protest cycle is a case in point. The logic behind the mass action may be valid and its timing appropriate: Kenya needs a strong opposition, and the government’s efforts to weaken it demanded a response. But the content of the Monday and Thursday protests come over as eclectic and overstated, a belated end-of-cycle call for action.

Their raison d’être is out of synch with the economic forces at work, and many of the Azimio leaders’ demands are not actionable, even for a government open to discussing mitigations. The collateral damage and systemic stress caused are counterproductive. In the absence of a forward-looking agenda, the language of “long-run benefits” recalls the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s rationalization for downing a plane carrying famine relief as “serving the long-term interests” of South Sudan’s starving civilians. Would the cost-of-living crisis have been different six months into an Azimio government? What would they have done differently?

The country is on the move. Demographic change and devolution are revising the power map, creating new concentrations of power while digital technology is reconfiguring feedback loops. The task of defending democracy has passed from the opposition to the judiciary. What Kenya does over the next twenty years will determine its potential to take its place among the front-line societies adapting to the changes sweeping over the planet.

Kenya has an active parliament. Too much in-the-street political theatre distracts attention from more cogent challenges confronting the nation’s progress.

But the content of the Monday and Thursday protests come over as eclectic and overstated, a belated end-of-cycle call for action.

There is no lack of issues for launching a new cycle, beginning with the constitutional mandate to address historical injustices in minority areas. The recommendations of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission and the Ndungu Report are still collecting dust. The problems of the energy sector run much deeper than spiking electricity prices; ditto for the return to inefficient big water policies and tender corruption magnets like the Grand Falls Dam project. The opposition could call for building upon best practices like the National Counter Terrorism Centre’s CVE policy in place of counterproductive rangeland military interventions. Why isn’t the government recruiting bright young techies to map out the threats and benefits posed by the rise of artificial general intelligence?

Making sense of this cycle’s contradictions brings us to the real problem raised by the 2022 elections: the low turn-out of Kenya’s young voters. Under-35s make up 75 per cent of the country’s population but made up under 40 per cent of the total votes. There were early signs: only 3 million of the expected 6 million youth registered to vote during the run-up. Their vote declined by over 5 per cent despite the buzz created by the hustler meme—and without discounting the Roots Party Wajackoyah factor.

Both parties failed to slow the young voters’ exit from a governance system based on exclusionary elite coalitions and an economy sheltering corrupt cartels, or their search for alternate pathways for participation and expression of voice. According to one commentator writing after the elections:

[Young Kenyans] are developing new forms of politics that are intimately linked with everyday activities, kinship networks and popular culture. And while it is not clear whether these alternative forms of politics will spur meaningful change, what is clear is that the youth are not apathetic.

I believe history will validate Raila Odinga as patriot and as a force for democratic change, despite his transformation from hero to anomaly, a one-man protest cycle. He never mentored a successor nor did Raila cultivate a young “Pentagon” capable of sustaining the movement. But he can still draw the crowds; building bridges to the coming generational handing-over would be a better use of his unique talents.