Wednesday, December 17, 2008




Fred Odhiambo’s protest on food price inflation, delivered from the vantage point of Nyayo Stadium’s VIP dais on Jamhuri Day, reminds us of the challenge of accommodating freedoms of political speech while safeguarding the dignity of State functions and offices.

The self-styled political aspirant and activist, who has heckled President Kibaki in the past, was firing the latest shot in a long-running battle between authorities and Bunge la Mwananchi, a "civic forum" that had its base at the Jevanjee Gardens until its advocacy on the food crisis was judged to be incitement and the Gardens cordoned off.

His presence on the dais was a major security breach as well as politically embarassing for Kibaki, who had to cut short his address to the nation. Naturally, we support the activist’s right to speak truth to power, to remind all and sundry that it was "njaa" (hunger) that had led to the people’s change of mood. We, however, concede that exercising this right to ‘heckle’ or ‘advise’ in the middle of a presidential speech should warrant his removal.

State functions ought to proceed with some degree of decorum and, unlike political rallies, with some degree of respect for officials and dignitaries gathered, not least the Head of State.

The manner in which Odhiambo was removed by presudential security agents, however, and the nature of the ‘interrogation’ he was later subjected to, leave much to be desired. His disorderly conduct, if indeed it amounts to that, and breach of security did not warrant such violence.

Not surprisingly, when some activists and journalists marched in the direction of a presidential function four days later, police were on hand to break up the protest and forestall any direct messages to either Kibaki or Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

It would not be necessary to go to such extreme lengths to avoid the ‘embarassment’ of protests if we deliberately sought to accommodate contrarian voices. Take Bunge la Mwananchi: This forum has been around for several years, providing in turn an outlet and a voice for citizen concerns. It wasn’t until April, when it sought to organise a "peaceful procession" to call for action on rising food prices, that a clampdown on its activities began.

A May 31 protest by several hundred persons was dispersed and a handful arrested. In the months since, Bunge la Mwananchi has had numerous run-ins with the law and lost its ‘voice’ even as the crisis it sought to forestall unfolded.

Is it any surprise, then, that its members took the daring option of interrupting a State function?

Political speech is protected in many mature democracies in recognition of the importance it plays in an open society. At London’s famous Hyde Park, the British provide a Speakers’ Corner where lawful public speech is allowed without need for licences.

The street on which the White House stands, 1600 Pennyslvania Avenue, is littered with protest stands, some of which have been up for decades. In both countries, protestors are often provided with designated areas from which they can hector leaders to their heart’s delight. You can be sure there will be a strip of pavement set aside for anti-Obama protestors during the US President’s January 20 inauguration.

Hecklers who interrupt events attended by the nation’s leaders are removed by police with no more force than absolutely necessary and dealt with using public nuisance laws.

We are aware that Kenya does not have a tradition of peaceful political protest and, thus, Government is leery of allowing potential subversives the freedoms available in mature democracies. But if the Bunge la Mwananchi saga has taught us anything it is this: Those with something to say will not be easily silenced.

Let wananchi speak freely as they did through much of Kibaki’s first term. If any speaker’s words amount to illegal incitement or subversion, or is defamatory or profane, let the courts determine so and exact appropriate punishment. Preventing any speech, political speech included, will only lead to grief.