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Lessons from 1938: A Call Back to Nonviolent Action


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There is something existentially self defeating about infringing on the rights and liberties of others in the name of voicing your own rights, and such is the nature of violent protests; police firing tear gas at rock-throwing protesters, burning tires and branches in the middle of major roads and people screaming about their rights. While violence isn’t often the aim of most people who set out to protest, protests in Kenya have been known to end in hooliganism, looting, and running battles with the police. A University students’ protest has, over time, come to mean stoning vehicles, paralyzing businesses and harassing people not taking part in the protest.

It is a shame that every time there is a major protest in Kenya, the Central Business District becomes deserted as most businesses close for fear of looting and chaos. This speaks of an urgent need to cultivate structural consciousness and awareness on the essence of protesting. Transformation through violent means often has the same bearing on future situations. This means that a new system begins set on the precedents of violence. Long term stability is not often guaranteed on such a shaky foundation. It is about time we have campaigns that have a peacebuilding framework in favor of and consideration of other human beings and espouse the values of respect, amicability and dignity for all.

As a nation, we perhaps have failed in our tendency to glorify events and people who used violence in wars of liberation. Yet there is little mention of actors such as Muindi Mbingu, who achieved justice for his people through peaceful means. Muindi Mbingu mobilized and led the Akamba people in resisting British rule in pre-independent Kenya. The British had taken most of the land belonging to the Akamba and forced them into reserves yet they complained that the number of cattle they had in the reserves was excessive. The colonial administration then introduced a destocking policy and limited or forcefully took away their livestock.

In 1938, Muindi Mbingu mobilized 2,000 Akamba people to protest against the destocking policy in a peaceful march to Nairobi. The Akamba felt that taking away their cattle was an imposition on their way of life and a means of subjugation. The group marched for 80 km to stage a sit-in at the Governor’s office and remained there for six weeks. Their demand was to stop the mandatory seizure of livestock, which formed the basis of their economy as pastoralists. Although the cattle were coercively seized by the colonial government, the Akamba people did not resist violently. Eventually, the colonial government returned the seized cows and made no further demands concerning the Akamba livestock.

Non-violence covers a range of methods for dealing with conflict which share the common principle that physical violence is not used. We need to move away from the narrowly constructed idea of non-violence as only peaceful protests. In the case of the Akamba, some of the techniques employed included boycotting meetings in which stock quotas were allocated, publicizing their dissent through nationalist publications and letters to politicians, and formation of an opposition movement which used the educated to sensitize their fellow tribesmen on the destocking mandate. These complementary measures contributed to the general success of the destocking protest.

A lot can be borrowed from the structure, methods and organization that were seen in Muindi Mbingu’s movement. The most valuable aspects perhaps being; the importance of engaging the media, policy makers and the antagonist in writing before taking to the streets; holding informal meetings to sensitize all protesters on how to carry themselves and most importantly, maintaining peace and decorum in the face of aggression. These values are conventionally consistent with nonviolent movements around the world. Against this backdrop, the unprecedented use of force against peaceful protesters often galvanizes popular support for the movement and increases sympathy for their cause. It allows space for the media and public to have a constructive discussion about the reasons for the protest rather than discussing the violence and destruction.

Admittedly, it is a big challenge if people are already faced with a violent regime. This poses a practical and moral dilemma and remains one of the biggest impediments to non-violent action. Yet still, many reasons can be found to employ non-violence in interpersonal and political action. It is the surest way of achieving public sympathy and support, especially in the face of state repression. If an act of civil disobedience is to turn into popular resistance, it should be morally and practically committed to non-violence and pacifism.

Protesting is not about becoming a nuisance and menace to the rest of society but rather persuading and converting opponents into your camp. Treating another, even the antagonist, with less dignity than is warranted is ethically wrong because it is illegal and breeds further violence. In some cases, it even legitimizes the use of violence by the very forces being opposed. Besides, violence maintains the very structures of oppression that need to be broken down. For the legitimacy of this form of action, it is important to apply non-violent action to both humans and property. Burning down buildings as in the case of Burkina Faso, degrading the environment with burning tires, and severing pig heads and pouring blood in front of parliament buildings have no place in a peaceful protest.

Like any other method of activism, non-violent resistance does not promise overnight success. It can however break cycles of violence and counter violence; foster a conducive environment for a constructive dialogue surrounding an issue; and address the causes as opposed to the symptoms of a conflict. Civil and political engagement does not have to use force or violence to achieve justice or alter power relationships. We should therefore strive to achieve a social order based on non-violence.

‘‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil’’ (Martin Luther King Jr.).

Written by N. Wayua and published on 14-November-2014




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