Kenya’s voices of discontent

Peter Kimani
26 March 2007

Under a thick hibiscus shrubbery in downtown Nairobi's Jeevanjee Park, voices rise and fall above the monotonous drone of vehicles cruising down Moi Avenue. About 100 youths are congregated round a young woman who is chairing a debating session - under the rubric of what is fondly known as the "people's parliament" (Bunge la Mwananchi in Kiswahili). Today's theme is the politics of religion.

Across the road stands a public school which bears the same name, each an abiding symbol of the determination of Kenya's former president, Daniel arap Moi, to entrench his legacy on Kenyans' collective memory.

Moi, who was voted out of power in December 2002 in a historic poll that wrenched power from Kanu, the independent party that had ruled Kenya for forty years, was seen as one of the last Big Men in Africa. His successor, the London-trained economist Mwai Kibaki, is credited with regenerating Kenya's fragile economy to a healthy annual growth rate of 6%, but also blamed for failing to address the country's underlying political and social problems. Now, he too faces a democracy test in the sunset of his rule, as the December 2007 elections approach - and it is being played out here in Jeevanjee Park.

Peter Kimani is a columnist with the Daily Nation in Nairobi. He is the author of the novel Before the Rooster Crows (East African Educational Publishers, 2003)

Also by Peter Kimani in openDemocracy:

"Goodbye, Mr Big Man!"
(9 January 2003)

"Before the Rooster Crows"
(29 May 2003)

On 10 March 2007, a contingent of armed policemen and city guards descended on the park where groups of Kenyan youths meet daily to discuss public issues. After lengthy and indiscriminate beatings, five people were hospitalised and fifty-seven others held at the nearby central police station. Twenty-seven people have since been charged with malicious damage to property and obstructing council guards from undertaking their duties, charges that the "parliamentarians" say are trumped up.

The arrest and trial of Kenyan citizens in lawful assembly is being interpreted as a manifestation of the grave threat to Kenya's democratic space, and growing intolerance of alternative views. "Although we are not less free, the government appears hesitant to respect Kenyans' freedoms", says Kang'ethe Mungai, who heads the People Against Torture lobby group.

A space of freedom

The people's parliament, which has been in existence for more than fifteen years, offers an alternative forum for people to discuss matters of public interest and which affect them, "in a free environment without any pretensions" as one member put it.

The formation of the people's parliament stems from the general disillusionment with the 220-member national parliament that routinely suffers quorum hitches, and whose members have been criticised for awarding themselves hefty pay perks that were very disproportionate considering the country's poverty levels.

The people's forum attracts at least 1,000 Kenyans everyday, seven days a week, to debate issues of the day. The idea of sitting under a tree to discuss public matters is borrowed straight from Kenyan traditional society, where elders would sit with community members and arbitrate disputes. "This park is the only reminder of our villages", says Wangui Mbatia, a lawyer-activist whose eloquence and drive impressed many at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in January 2007, and who led the debate on the politics of religion on the day I visited the park.

About 10% of Kenya's population of 33 million live in Nairobi, a majority of them crammed into slums without running water or electricity, who rise every morning to chase after that elusive job. Some of those may pass through the people's parliament, although Mbatia dismisses the notion of "parliamentarians" as an idle lot as misplaced.

A quick survey of today's assembly reveals two teachers, one engineer, one pastor, several students and businessmen. "This is a fluid gathering", said Mbatia, explaining that at any time of the day a variety of people will attend the parliament, with peak hours at lunchtime and after work hours.

But the people's parliamentarians see their harassment as part of a wider campaign to expel them from Jeevanjee Park, which has been a subject of serious political confrontations in the past. In 1991, the future Nobel prize winner Wangari Maathai locked horns with the political establishment when it was proposed that multi-storey parking be erected here. Now, there are ongoing efforts by the Nairobi city council to upgrade the park by providing social amenities and a shopping complex, which would destroy about 100 mature trees.

The authorities see the presence of the people's parliament on the park as an obstacle to undertaking such developments. The citizens who assemble there are opposed to the move as it will dispossess the urban poor of a resting-place, destroy the environment and dismantle the democratic initiative the parliament represents.

The politics of monochrome

If the campaign to push the "parliamentarians" out of the park is seen as an affront on the principle of free expression, then Kenyan journalism is going through an even worse test under the Kibaki administration.

On 6 March 2007, the Kibaki government made history by jailing a journalist for criminal libel - a colonial relic no longer in application in much of the world. Mburu Mucoki, who publishes the tabloid Independent newspaper, had been ordered to pay extensive damages to justice minister Martha Karua for aggravated, exemplary damages in a libel suit over an article he wrote in 2004. The article exposed a sex scandal that had been widely reported by Kenya's commercial media.

The justice minister sought to extract more justice by having the state institute criminal libel charges against Mucoki, who is serving a one-year jail term after failing to raise the bail required to preserve his freedom.

"Jailing a journalist for allegedly defaming a government minister is unfair and disproportionate, and does not redress the offence", Reporters Sans Frontières said a statement.

The country's attorney-general Amos Wako has not commented on the jailing, despite his reassurance in January 2005: "Should any member of the public consider he or she has been libelled, he or she should pursue civil remedies in court rather than expect or invoke machinery of the state to investigate and institute criminal proceedings for libel."

A further blemish on Kibaki's government is the armed-police raid in March 2006 on the century-old Standard (formerly East African Standard) at the instigation of internal-security minister John Michuki, who alleged that the publication jeopardised "national security."

The authorities invaded the paper's newsroom and confiscated computers, before rushing to its printing press where bundles of the day's news were burned and equipment disabled. They also switched off the media group's TV station. A year on, no charges have been pressed against the newspaper management nor has the government explained its motivation for its barbaric acts.

Meanwhile, the debate under the hibiscus shade carries on, as does the flow of the people keen to hear the latest arguments. If Mao Tse-tung encouraged the Chinese to let a hundred flowers bloom, the poplar and jacaranda and hibiscus in Jeevanjee Park are responding, with shades of purple and green and yellow.

If only the Kenyan authorities did the same.

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