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Phenomenon is a sign of the tension between the youth and the privileged

Ever since Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo and Muthoni Likimani and other writers were hounded out of town by the Moi administration, Kenyans no longer have mirrors on which they can reflect us as a society. We rarely know when we are going wrong and are often surprised by the predictable turn of events when they occur.

Our error is compounded by our own ostrich like approach to challenges. We avoid unpleasant developments by burying our heads in the sand pretending that they don’t exist. If there is a lesson we should have learned from the post-election violence is that we are sitting on a powder keg, and we are giving off sparks. It had been said that the situation in Kenya was unstable. The National Security Intelligence Service told people in power that there would be violence. No one faced the challenge.

Today, we are still being told to address fundamental issues or face a perilous future. We have again buried our heads in the sand, hoping that this challenge will go away. Discussions on Agenda 4 of the Kofi Annan- mediated peace accord have virtually collapsed.

As observed by US Senator Russell D. Feingold in a statement to Congress on Kenya issued on Wednesday, “Now over a year later, while the power-sharing agreement remains intact, the fundamental problems that led to the violence in December 2007 remain unchanged. In some cases, they have even become worse.”

A social phenomenon

But as unpleasant as it is, there are issues that we must address before it is too late. And all these issues are finding themselves enveloped in one social phenomenon, the Mungiki.

The common reaction is obviously to brush aside this topic, ignore and pretend that the phenomenon does not exist or is not a threat to the society. But we need to ask ourselves whether this as any longer a “law and order” issue or is it the signs of a society about to implode?

For several years now, to the government security agencies have employed their best strategies to eradicate this organisation. Yet from what occurred in Karatina this week, all indications are that this war is not successful.

Indeed, judging by the government’s success in the past in dealing with proscribed societies, the war on the Mungiki has become a tragic fiasco. This failure is the result of addressing the wrong issues. Since the early 1990s when the Mungiki phenomenon entered our society, it has metamorphosed so frequently and rapidly that the government is always a few steps behind. The government has never addresses the social ills that are the very foundation on which this phenomenon is based: the scaring inequalities of our society and the privileged Kenyans increasing sensitivity.

During a recent intellectual discussion with Prof Abdalah Bujra, one of Kenya’s leading social anthropologists, he told me that Central Province is the epitome of all the factors that give rise to organisations such as the Mungiki. The region represents the worst of the nation’s diseases – inequality disempowerment of the youth and sensitivity on the part of the privileged few.

What has been happening in Central province over the past two decades is only a preview of what will happen to this country in the near future if we don’t change the tragic course we are now travelling. And the violence and criminal abandon of early last year in places like Kisumu show that the Mungiki is a regional express of a national predicament.

All the critical social factors in Kenya spell doom for our future. Firstly, the size of the young population is daunting. People below the age of 35 today make up over 75 per cent of the total population. The people above the age of 55 years make up only 6% of the country’s population.

This percentage is disempowered and unemployed, yet averagely, they have good education. They in the hope of the implementation of a development paradigm that seeks to cater for the interest the youth. Instead, nearly all policies formulated by the Government, including the recent railing of the retirement age from 45 to 60, are geared towards the comfort and convenience of a very small and aging generation.

Our economic policies also reflect a mediocre approach towards youth empowerment. Our answer to this challenge has been to give some 30,000 of several million unemployed youths, loans to start small enterprises. When most of them cannot afford the bus fare to their nearest town, our answer to economic challenges is to build more and better roads as well as privatise more public companies.

These policies do more than accentuate the inequalities that caused the social tension in the first place, such that in the future, our critical statistics will only become more grave. The response of our marginalised youth have hitherto ben cowered. The Kenyatta and Moi eras had the benefit of a highhanded rule and a largely adolescent youth.

These adolescents are now young adults living in a fee society in so far as the expression of dissent is concerned. And where high-handedness has been used to quieten them, the realities of the “global village” have been unveiled to us.

To this grim picture has been added the sympathies of the middle class. Regarded in political science as the “bulwark against revolution”, the middle class has always acted as the fulcrum of social inability. But the last three decades have seen its fortunes dwindle to the point that the scales are now tilted in favour of the dispossessed masses.

This fact may be realised by looking at the leadership of the lobby groups. While young and poor youths like Mr. James Orengo and Mr. Lawrence Sifuna were the social critics of the 1970s, today leaders of the lobbies are often well-to-do, middle-aged professionals who passionately despise the privileged class.

We have recently added hunger to the equation. The masses are starving and protesting at the lack of food. They shout “Unga” at their leaders who are still unable to resolve the food crisis. The worrying social realities. But we continue to believe that we are immune to the social upheavals that Western nations went through in the late 1700s.

Mistakenly, we believe that since we have adopted the economic and political policies of Western democracies, we are immunized from the violent upheavals that brought about the policies. It is like these Western nations suffered so that we may never have to suffer.

Thus Kenya’s privileged never see the dangers that build up every day. They see no urgency in solving current social problems, and they are more concerned about which of them will be crowned king without realizing that the kingdom may be doomed. This is why the Mungiki reality is a wake-up call to the privileged. And the truth is that we have a young population that has refused to accept the present social order. And their signal to us is that if we don’t change the order, they will do whatever it takes to change it themselves. This is the unpalatable truth.

Before dismissing the youth as incapable of off-setting our social structure, let us learn a lesson from Safaricom’s M-Pesa money transfer service. Until 10 years ago, Kenyan banks ignored the underprivileged and denied them banking facilities. The banks thought, and we all believed, that there was no money to be made from this class in an industry like banking. Then came Equity Bank. With what appeared to be a very revolutionary approach to banking, it took on these under-privileged people and opened accounts for them. Equity soon became the fastest growing bank and its profits showed that it could also become the largest and most profitable.

It looked impossible that anyone could come up with a better idea. Well M-Pesa has dwarfed even Equity I the size and profitability of its operations among the underprivileged.

What if such a development occurred in our politics? While our leaders, like the mainstream banks, are sitting pretty, thinking that the social order cannot be otherwise, a new one is born. A leader from the underprivileged class galvanizes political support from among its ranks. The only way to stop this possibility is to urgently address the issues we keep running away from. We are living in the false comfort that we shall see the warning signs and respond adequately to any social strife.

It is now going to one and a half years since the post-election violence, yet none of the fundamental issues that gave rise to it have been addressed. From what are we drawing our comfort?

This is where the privileged are guilty of insensitivity and, I think, ignorance. They continue to believe that nothing can shake the social structure that keeps them on top, when all around, the evidence is that this society is coming apart at the seams. They continue to enjoy their privileged positions when the middle class below them now identifies with the aspirations of an angry and disillusioned young population.

Before the National Accord of 2008, the underprivileged thought that the problem with Kenya was the government’s ethnic composition. With the grand coalition however, they have learnt that it is a class problem. The privileged are all the same, regardless of their ethnic origins or political affiliation. Next time the poor youth rise up again, they will not be fighting one another, for they now know that they are all equally poor. Yet those who are now the target of the next uprising still continue to bury their heads in the sand.