Protest of Democracy’s Dark Offspring

ENGAGEMENTS with  Chidi Amuta

Between Nairobi’s glamorous city centre and its surrounding  inner city slums of tin shacks and shanties, democracy and good governance have been shocked into a rude awakening. Central Nairobi is the abode of fancy five star hotels, conference centres, ornate government offices and parliament buildings. If you are a tourist visiting Nairobi for the first time on a fleeting visit, you are likely to leave these precincts with a scented impression of Kenya, the favourite post card tourist destination for Western holiday makers. From city centre to the safari hubs and back can convey a false impression of the African jewel that Kenya is reputed to be. If however you tarry a little longer and get a local cab to give you a tour of the soul of Nairobi, you are more likely to leave Kenya with mixed feelings and deep concerns about the African reality.

Outside the charmed circle of city centre with its glass towers and marble entrances and facades, patchwork of deliberate greenery and high rise apartment blocks, you are greeted by shanty towns, tin shack dwellings of the poorest of the poor. 

The events of the last fortnight in Kenya are about to re-write the conventional and received wisdom about democracy in Africa. Until recent weeks, Africa’s conception of democracy was limited to the ritual of elections  in relays after tenure durations. Once you were known to hold periodic elections and emplace a successor government, you qualified to be branded a democratic nation. And on the list of successful African democracies, Kenya has always been ranked highly by Western adjudicators of democratic credibility in spite of its extremes of internal social and economic divisions. It has always had the external trappings of what the West likes to see in African democracies over and above what the majority of Kenyans feel in their daily lives.

On the contrary, Nairobi city centre has just witnessed the footprints of what we may call democracy’s “midnight children”, the dark forces that have bred underneath the veneer of democratic good manners. These are the generations of youth and forgotten people whose expectations have been fired by the promise of democracy over the years. They have now woken up to ask themselves what democracy really means for them and their future generations,  There is a generational leap between the youth rioting and protesting in Nairobi and their parents. Their parents were content with voting at election time and going home to wait for the fruits of Uhuru which never came. These parents perhaps never saw a reciprocal relationship  between their ballots and the rights of citizenship that democracy is obligated to deliver to them.

In many ways, President Ruto walked into a familiar trap. Whenever an African elected leader receives accolades from the West for doing the ‘right’ things, the people at home need to take a second look. Since being elected president of Kenya, President Ruto has shown a relentless  desire to be in the good books of the West. He had unilaterally sent a contingent of Kenyan policemen to proceed to Haiti to restore order in the tiny nation overrun by gangsters and criminal gangs that has neutralized and sacked the elected government. He has made a flamboyant state visit to the White House and received accolade as ‘a special ally’ and favourite friendly nation of the West.

This has been followed by the cultivation of a special relationship with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In return for Kenya’s urgent need for a credit window of $2.8bn dollars to avoid an embarrassing imminent debt squeeze and default, the IMF recommended a tougher taxation  regime. The president duly and obediently forwarded to parliament a Financial Bill with a slew of taxes on goods and services that directly impact the living standards of an already distressed populace. That bill set off the fuse of social disquiet for a population already in dire straights of hardship and deprivation.  The rest is now history. More than 20 have died. Bloody protests and riots have reduced central Nairobi to ruins and charred remains. Parliament has been sacked by the protesters. A detachment of the same police that was sent to Haiti to rein in criminals and gangsters has been deployed with live bullets to control those the president described as ‘criminals and gangsters’! Nairobi city centre has witnessed the footprints of democracy’s dark offspring.

Times have changed. The younger generation of Kenyans (Africans) have been to school and back. They are on social media with their opposite numbers in the rest of the world from Washington to Teheran, from Kiev to Johannesburg. They are comparing notes on the things that matter to ordinary people. They have come to demand that democracy must mean what it means. The reciprocity between power and responsibility to the citizenry is now being demanded by the street people. To these people, democracy must reciprocate the obligation to vote with the responsibilities of power to improve real lives. Those who vote have returned to demand jobs, freedom from poverty, education, healthcare and greater say in the things that matter to them.  Democracy is no longer a one-sided coin that demands that the people vote and look away as their lives degrade. If the people ask for their rights nicely and do not get a polite response, the dark side of the mob ensues.

The protesters in Nairobi city centre are not likely to be nice in the ways they ask that the rights of citizenship be reciprocated by the responsibilities of power. Those who are elected to power can no longer write legislations that impose endless taxes on the people and retire to the luxury of state villas. The street people are insisting on their right to say ‘No’ to bad governance. The people who have trooped out to express their anger and disquiet in Nairobi are not ‘criminals’ or miscreants. They are angry citizens. They are the dark offspring of democracy, those who were promised so much  but now find themselves with empty hands, hungry stomachs, without jobs and worse still without hope, 

The anger in the streets has led to ugly sights. Parliament has been razed. Parliamentarians have fled. The president has been forced to retreat untidily from his Finance Bill. Initially he talked tough about forcibly enforcing the ‘sovereign will of the Kenya nation’. Then he compared notes with his security people and they probably advised him to dismount from his high horse of power and arrogance. He has rescinded the Finance Bill and undertaken to enter into dialogue with representatives of the angry youth. But the youth and angry street people insist now that the president must resign from office for breaching the social contract that defines every democracy. He is not likely to do that. Between the government and the people, the bond of reciprocity has been broken. The social contract is in breach and will require unusual political management to restore. Meanwhile the government must find the money to remain  in the good books of the IMF and World Bank who got them into the trouble in the first place.

The fires of Nairobi have caused some heat in far away Nigeria. Nigerians have for long been caught in the throes of deep social and economic distress. With the active encouragement of the oracles of Western ‘blood’ capitalism (IMF and the World Bank), the new Nigerian government of President Tinubu has been encouraged to take off so- called subsidies on petroleum products, electricity, foreign exchange, telephone calls, and literally every service and social good that keeps the lives of common people going.  People have openly wondered why our own crisis of abysmal governance and the resultant hardship has not quite burst into open lawlessness and near anarchy given the size of the Nigerian wounded population. Many Nigerian commentators have expressed fear that the Nigerian situation could be only a boiling cauldron that could explode into uncontrollable fiasco any time.  The Nigerian government remains optimistic that it can muddle through as usual and manage to escape catastrophe. That optimism remains strong mostly out of the fear that a Nigerian hardship protest would overwhelm the already stretched and wobbly state apparatus.

In many ways, Nigeria embodies the contradiction of African democracy. We embody and celebrate the form rather than the content of democracy. For instance, Nigeria has recently been celebrating several milestones of ‘democracy’.  In particular, we recently celebrated  a number of ‘democracy’ landmarks. These range from twenty five years of ‘unbroken democratic rule’, a period when our only achievement is the succession of elected governments at all levels through four year relay changes of baton. In a nation that became the hallmark of endemic military despotism for decades, this sounds remarkable.  There was also the anniversary of the June 12, 1993 election. Again the contradiction of that has often been lost on many Nigerians: what is deemed the fairest and freest election yet in the nation’s history was conducted by a military dictatorship which is however  castigated for obstructing a democratic transition! There was of course the celebration of one year of the newly installed President Tinubu democratic government.

Yet, not until recently has the question been raised in Nigeria as to how democracy translates into the welfare of the ordinary people. While this connection remains unexamined, the size of Nigeria’s poor population has ballooned. The sense of entitlement of the political class has literally sacked the national treasury in funding luxuries and perks. Nigeria’s army of the underprivileged has grown into a multitude mired in violence and self -destructive insecurity.  Nigeria’s dark offspring have grown into a dangerous army that is making the rest of the country dangerous and insecure.

Therefore, one lesson that the Nigerian political establishment can take away from the fires in Nairobi is to begin seriously and systematically addressing the central question of our time: How can we make democracy translate into a rapid improvement in the living conditions of the majority of our people? That should be the major item on the agenda of the National and State Assemblies going forward.

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