Has Kenya sparked a trend?

My interest in Kenya was ignited when I studied Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Weep Not, Child, for ‘O’ level Literature in English in 1985.

The central themes of colonialism and land-grabbing by European settlers, laced with activities of the fierce Mau Mau movement dovetailed into each other almost seamlessly and the author’s other novels along similar lines simply drew me in an emotional way to the country.

Different kind of protest
The street protests in Kenya against the government’s tax bill passed in Parliament shot the country into the global headlines last week, with the death toll standing at 22 a day after the protests.

Many were hurt and there was some considerable damage to public property. Analysts agree that this protest is significantly different from earlier protests, in that it was led primarily by urban-based young people and was multi-ethnic, with protests taking place in 35 out of Kenya’s 47 counties, forcing the government to withdraw the bill.

In an article on Reuters.com last week, Aaron Ross and Guilia Paravicini noted that “the movement has little precedent in its mass mobilisation of Kenyans across ethnic and regional divisions, while rejecting any kind of political leadership. Protests in Kenya have historically been led by elites, often ending in power-sharing deals that yielded few tangible benefits for demonstrators.”

Ghana’s history of protests
On various social media platforms, there seemed to be a lot of admiration among Ghanaians for the Kenyan youths who took to the streets, with many insisting that Ghanaians were too cowardly to engage in street protests against the economic situation in the country.

I found this claim rather surprising, if not ignorant, for the simple reason that even a cursory glance at this country’s political history would reveal quite the contrary. Indeed, as far back as 1896, John Mensah Sarbah and others fiercely resisted the British colonial government’s Crown Lands Bill, which was to vest all lands in the colony in the name of the Queen and eventually forced the government to drop it.

The Christianborg riots in 1948, Positive Action in 1950, the widespread protests against General Acheampong’s Union Government proposal in 1978, the various university students and labour front demonstrations against the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) government in the 1980s, the Kumepreko demonstrations of 1995, the demonstrations against the acquisition of a hotel by President Kufuor’s son, ‘Occupy Ghana’ protests of 2014, the ‘Let My Vote Count’ protests in 2015, ‘Dumsor Must Stop’ demonstrations in 2015,

‘Fix the Country’ protests in 2022, the ‘Occupy Bank of Ghana’ protest in 2023, among several others collectively point to anything but a docile Ghanaian populace when it comes to historical demands for reforms in our body politic.

I wondered how many of those sneering on social media platforms had ever bothered to turn up for any of the numerous demonstrations this country has witnessed.
Perhaps, what has rather been the case, particularly in the lifetime of our Fourth Republic, is that the various protests have been perceived as being clothed in partisan political colours.

This is because most, if not all of these protests and demonstrations, have been supported, organised or led by persons or movements either belonging to the opposition party of the day or perceived to be thus aligned or sympathetic.

In a country that is deeply politically polarised and almost split in the middle between the two main political parties, it is unsurprising that these contemporary protests and demonstrations have not enjoyed a groundswell of support from across the political divide.

Perhaps, this is what the Kenyan youths have managed to transcend despite their country’s deep political divisions, which largely run along ethnic fault lines.

What next?
Beyond the understandably giddy triumphs of last week arising from the Kenyan government’s climbdown, what happens next in real terms? How can real economic reform be achieved and sustained beyond the radical street protests, setting buildings on fire, fiery rhetoric and intense activism?

I suppose the big challenge for the Kenyan youths, going forward, is exactly how to maintain both its unity and its momentum while pursuing broader, less immediate goals. This is particularly critical because of their lack of a clear, defined leadership to engage the political class.

“The President has said we need to have conversations. All of us cannot sit in a stadium and have a conversation,” says Christine Odera, co-chair of the Kenya Coalition on Youth, Peace and Security, a civil society organisation, as quoted by Ross and Paravicini in their article.

The political elite may be rattled by the developments of last week but they are wily, seasoned political operators and the protestors must always bear this in mind.

I believe that the full, longer-term impact of the protests remains to be seen and depends primarily on how the youths negotiate this opportunity to address the country’s $80bn debt and associated economic indicators to help bring the desired change to their country.

It is quite a maze, but if they succeed, it will be a wake-up call for the continent’s rulers and an ignition to youth activism.

I do wish Kenya well in these trying times. The country remains high on my bucket list and beckons with the temptation of a safari on the lovely Masai Mari, even if my bank balance has many holes in it.

Hopefully, I will not get caught up in another protest while feeding the giraffes there. So help me God.

Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng,
Head, Communications & Public Affairs Unit,
Ministry of Energy.
E-mail: rodboat@yahoo.com

Source: graphic.com.gh