Boniface Mwangi, Kenyan activist and photo-journalist, put up a post on Facebook suggesting that Uhuru Kenyatta is dealing with alcoholism, blaming it (not very subtly) for some of the messes the government has – under his presidency – pulled Kenya into and urging him to seek help. Somewhere in the post, Boni also mentioned that the late Fidel Odinga, son to opposition leader Raila Odinga, succumbed to a drug overdose. That one of the country’s former Vice President’s also died of HIV/AIDS related complications. Of course this has caused a clamor. The post’s comment section is full of sycophants baying for Boniface’s blood, tribalists throwing insults in all directions and extremely logical people trying to reason with extremely stupid people. The usual lot.
Everybody seems to have an opinion about what was said, but that is not what this is about. This is about some reactions that surfaced in a WhatsApp group I belong to. This is basically how the sequences of events laid itself out after someone asked what Boniface Mwangi had done this time (the brackets are my addition):
News Breaker: “He (Boniface) called Uhunye an alcoholic, Former VP Kijana Wamalwa HIV positive and Fidel Odinga a druggie” (Bear in mind that the said VP’s name was not actually mentioned on the post.)
[pullquote]News Breaker: “Aki his balls should be squeezed.”[/pullquote]
Reaction One: “There is a big line between big balls and suicidal balls. Sometimes I can’t tell which ones Boni has.”
Reaction Two: I miss Moi.
Reaction Three: (After someone pointed out that Boniface is quite popular and wouldn’t disappear without causing a furor.) “Even kina Ouko were famous and their cases were never resolved. This is Kenya.”
I have a problem with that. The fact that so many Kenyans are as comfortable with the idea of torture as to bring it up and wish it on someone for just speaking his mind. We are a country that has a history of imperial suppression, a violent struggle for independence, two dictatorial presidents, numerous ugly clashes and terrorist attacks. All of these events have involved torture, both/either psychological or physical and the evidence is everywhere. There are chilling tales of torturers from Nyayo House who still roam around our streets in broad day light probably hoping someone will restore their old jobs, former opposition member living with mental complications as a result of speaking out during Moi’s regime, folks missing limbs because someone who didn’t like that they were asking for their freedom decided to get creative with a machete and many more examples. Living (suffering and dead) proof that people struggled and gave their lives for us to have the semblance of freedom that we have today. The mere thought of bringing those times back is a great dishonor, not only the causes, but also those who fought for them. It is pissing on the legacy of the likes of Wangari Maathai and Rev. Timothy Njoya.
The thing is, though none of the members of that group was born before 1985, which means they all grew up singing “Tawala Kenya Milele”, listening to the news bulletins that started with what Moi had been and what he had said, they were there in 2002 and know why people were rejoicing at the idea of having a new government (well, arguably). They are young people who are flourishing in (no matter the number of cluster-fucks we have tangled ourselves up in) a democratic, multi-party country. I am the youngest in the group, so my questioning the reasoning behind torture suggestions from people who know and read as much as the bunch does elicited responses such as, [pullquote]“Torture heals douche-baggery. Trust me.”[/pullquote]
No sir, I won’t trust you. Why? Because we have a Bill of Rights in the constitution that has a clause which reads like this:
(1) Every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes–
(a) freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas;
(b) freedom of artistic creativity; and
(c) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
(2) The right to freedom of expression does not extend to–
(a) propaganda for war;
(b) incitement to violence;
(c) hate speech; or
(d) advocacy of hatred that—
(i) constitutes ethnic incitement, vilification of others or incitement to cause harm; or
(ii) is based on any ground of discrimination specified or contemplated in Article 27 (4).
(3) In the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, every person shall respect the rights and reputation of others.
We should not even be talking about Boniface’s right to say whatever he says. It should be a given by now, that you can talk express yourself without consequences. All that should worry us is whether he abused the right and violated section 3 up there.
[pullquote]I may not be a lawyer, but the language in the constitution seems pretty clear.[/pullquote]
Every person has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right not to be–
(a) deprived of freedom arbitrarily or without just cause;
(b) detained without trial, except during a state of emergency, in which case the detention is subject to Article 58;
(c) subjected to any form of violence from either public or private sources;
(d) subjected to torture in any manner, whether physical or psychological;
(e) subjected to corporal punishment; or
(f) treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading manner.
And in fundamental rights that may not be limited:
Despite any other provision in this Constitution, the following rights and fundamental freedoms shall not be limited–
(a) freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
(b) freedom from slavery or servitude;
(c) the right to a fair trial; and
(d) the right to an order of habeas corpus.
Read 29 (d) and 25 (a) again. Freedom from torture is mentioned twice. So no, Boniface Mwangi doesn’t need his testicles squeezed. His “douche-baggery” doesn’t need curing. Actually, as one of the other members of the group said, “We need to build these voices… This country needs more activists, not less.” I may not agree with what the activists are raising ruckus about, but as Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote in Voltaire’s biography, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. We need to cultivate this culture of discourse to the point where our first reaction to someone speaking out about something is seeking conversation, not suggesting manners of silencing them.
The number of young people who bring up torture and assassination as options of dealing with problems facing the country is scary[/pullquote], but who is to blame if we have all gone through a system that teaches white-washed history and, in an awkward hurry, skids past inhumane acts committed by past regimes. Those who tried to write our history were harassed and their material confiscated. We rarely mention the public beating of Reverend Timothy Njoya by the police on the streets of Nairobi or the random picking up of innocent suspects such as Silvanus Oduor by the special branch allegedly belonging to the infamous Mwakenya outfit. The Nyayo House torture victims are still being compensated or still waiting on their cases to be settled. The names of men such as James Opiyo (the “Torturer In Chief” at the Nyayo House dungeons) still causes terror in the hearts of over 300 victims (30 of whom died in incarceration or immediately after release). The murders of Alexander Muge, Steven Mbaraka Karanja, Robert Ouko and JM Kariuki haven’t been resolved yet and the man under whose presidency they were committed is still alive. “This is Kenya” shouldn’t be a banner under which to take us back to the era of burnt, mutilated corpses being discovered in forests and cause of death termed as suicide.
Is this personal? Yes. I am an artiste. I make films, write and do performances in front of people who may not agree with my opinions. The day I perform a poem that rubs someone the wrong way, I don’t want to end up on the city mortuary slab. And if I do, friends, colleagues and my fellow members of the book club should be in a place to call for justice and prosecution of my murderers. Not to dismiss the occurrence, sending messages reading, “all I know is never fuck with someone who has State resources at their disposal as well as loads of their own cash” like one did during that discussion. Performance artistes especially have no option but to support activists, lest we find our precious spaces burnt down like Ngugi’s Kamirithu in the 1980s, ourselves doing hard labour at Kamiti and our audience suppressed.
Today, you will support (or just ignore) denial of someone’s freedom because you don’t like them or you don’t exercise that freedom, but that will lead to the obliteration of another, then another and before you can say “haki yetu”, you will need signed permission slips from your chief to buy airtime or access the internet.
The flaw people keep pointing out concerning Boniface is his alleged tactlessness. Which raises the question, who cares about anything you say in this country if you say it tactfully? Would anyone have commented on that post had Boniface meekly suggested that it might be time for the president to switch from whiskey to RedBull? Let us face it; diplomacy is extinct in the world of activism. How possible is it to have ethical activists protesting against unethical actions by unethical politicians? Other non-governmental bodies should deal with the tact, the role of activists is to upturn the rubble and trigger discussions.[pullquote] They should be free to execute their crazy ideas without a risk of torture in retribution.[/pullquote] Even Wangari Maathai, who keeps being brought up as an example of tactful activism, was called a mad woman in public by Moi and lead mothers who stripped in demonstration of illegal detention of their sons. Our parents had these discussions (albeit in secret) then and I bet not many of them saw the sense in what Wangari Maathai, Kenneth Matiba or Charles were pushing for, but today we paint them as saints and saviors.
We have gotten to a point where we dismiss whatever Boniface says as pointless vitriol, attention seeking and basis for donor funding. It takes a lot of courage to stand against injustices and most of those who accuse him of being paid to cause trouble wouldn’t fight for their families if the government was after them. Even with donor funding. I have my reservations about what agendas Mwangi pushes and how he does it, but if any of them went through, 15 years from now, when we are all benefitting from what he fought for, I’ll be telling stories of the number of PAWA254 t-shirts I owned and the numerous fictional protests I attended. You too buddy, you too. You will claim you were part of his graffiti team. We will all paint a picture of his sainthood.
In conclusion, the law exists for a reason. If Boniface has committed a crime, let him be legally arrested (the police always seem eager to host him anyway) and lead through a fair trial. If he is found innocent, let him be. Let all the voices out here be. It doesn’t matter what they are speaking about, how stupid they sound, what platform they are using or whether we agree with them or not. It is bad enough that we don’t teach our children to speak out against injustice, let us not silence those who are brave enough to.
As my older friends in the book club pointed out,[pullquote] I’ve grown up in multi-party state and haven’t experienced living under fear. I do not want to know it[/pullquote] (and I thought you’d know better than to wish it back if you’ve seen its evil). I’d rather be able to share internet jokes and cat videos on my social media platforms without having to consider that some government bigwig hates cats and is ready to burn cigarettes onto my skin for contributing to their popularity.