Thursday, 7 February 2013

Season of discontent.

I stand accused of creating a disturbance by jumping over the fence in Parliament and stripping a flag off a cabinet minister's limousine to symbolize the government's loss of moral authority to govern. - Dec 2004. (Picture courtesy of the Daily Nation)

2004 marked a season of discontent in Kenya. It did not take long for a country that had been voted the most optimistic nation on earth following the NARC victory in December 2002 to sink to the depths of despair as the lofty promises of the rainbow dream dissipated into a mere mirage and the political elite descended into the gutter of mudslinging and name calling in the wake of a dishonoured MoU. The only thing the new government seemed agreed upon was the urgent business of raising MPs salaries and processing their non-refundable duty free car allowances and tax-free mortgages. Corruption skyrocketed with the advent of Anglo leasing hot on the heels of the yet to be resolved Goldenberg scandal. As usual, it was the ordinary citizen who bore the brunt of the failure of governance, struggling to eke out a living amidst skyrocketing inflation.

Rather than merely join in the chorus of disapproval that was taking place in every bar, bedroom and boardroom, I decided to dramatize the outrage most people were feeling but did not know quite know how to express. But first, I took three weeks to do a whistle stop tour of all the eight provinces speaking to ordinary people about the performance of their government to ensure that I was not alone in the despondency I felt towards the new government and its broken promises. Visiting all the eight provincial capitals, I rode on buses and matatus, slept in lodgings and hang out in bars, listening to the ordinary people express their despair especially as they watched the news on television. Indeed I was not alone. 

Towards the end of November 2004 on returning to Nairobi from Garissa which was my last stop, I drafted a 10 point recall notice addressed to the 9th Parliament making a cogent case why the MPs had lost the moral authority to govern and should vacate the august house to enable the people to elect a truly representative and effective parliament. I proceeded to post the memorandum on the main entrance of the National Assembly. In doing so, I was following in the footsteps of Martin Luther who posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31st 1517 to protest oppressive practices in the Catholic Church leading to the founding of protestantism. From Parliament, I visited the leading media houses in Nairobi and distributed the Recall Notice and also did some television interviews. I also distributed the Notice via email and it was shared widely that weekend among Kenyans of various persuasion.   

A few days later, on Tuesday 30 November 2004, intending to escalate the debate and dramatize the government's and parliament's failure to govern, I planned a visit to Parliament. I took the afternoon off from the international NGO where I was working as head of advocacy and went to Parliament Buildings. All the while, since posting the Recall Notice and doing media interviews, I knew that I was being trailed by my old friends from the national security agency. And so it did not surprise me that as I queued to get into the public gallery and just before I went in, a young police woman came running from the Parliament Police Station across the road from parliament and announced that the public gallery was closed to public. Never mind that a good number of people had already gone in and others were waiting in line. When I protested, she told me that those were her orders and  if I had any questions, I would have to go and see her boss at the police station. 

I had made a reconnaissance tour of the site the day before. I had noticed that Parliament had two fences; the outer perimeter fence which was about four metres high, and an inner fence which separated the public area from the private members parking and the chamber beyond. This fence was about four feet high and easy to jump over. There was a public booth at the entrance to the private area manned by one or two policemen who were busy processing constituents going in to see their MPs. 

My plan had nothing to do with going into the public gallery that Tuesday afternoon. I only did so as a decoy to confirm that indeed I was being watched. Rather, my plan was to scale the inner fence and get into the grounds of Parliament. Having been refused entry into the public gallery, I did not argue further. Rather, I walked as if to go to the police station but instead of turning right and crossing the road, I turned left and entered the public parking within parliament buildings. Ensuring that the policeman at the booth was too busy to pay any attention, I scaled the fence and strode casually unnoticed towards two sleek Mercedes Benz vehicles, one belonging to the Speaker and bearing the registration plate SNA 1, and the other a GK belonging to a Cabinet Minister. Each had the mandatory symbol of governmental authority, a pennant flag on the front left hand side of the car. I had no immediate quarrel with Speaker Francis ole Kaparo. It was the politicians who had pissed us all off in the preceding months. So I removed a pennant flag off the Cabinet Minister’s limousine. In so doing, I hoped to symbolically demonstrate the government’s loss of moral authority to govern. Contrary to press reports that appeared the following morning stating that I had slapped Assistant Minister George Khaniri in the process, my action was entirely nonviolent as Khaniri himself later confirmed. 

Shortly after I had taken custody of the ministerial flag, Assistant Minister George Khaniri strolled out of the Chamber accompanied by two gentlemen whom I did not recognize. "George," I spoke to him calmly not using the title 'honourable' as I did not think there was anything particularly honourable about this bunch of MPs. "The Kenyan people are completely fed up with your shenanigans and those of your fellow MPs. You made all these fake promises when you came to power and promptly forgot them as soon as you assumed office. Well, the people of Kenya want their government back. I am taking this flag to demonstrate the simple fact that the NARC government has lost its moral authority to govern. Indeed, it has only demonstrated to us through its many sins of omission and commission that NARC really stands for "Nothing Actually Really Changed!" Khaniri looked terrified but he need not have been, for I meant him no personal harm. 

I was promptly arrested by armed policemen and frogmarched to Parliament Police Station. I stayed there in the holding cell for the rest of the day before being transferred to Central Police Station where I was locked up for the night. The following morning, I was loaded into a police truck along with other miscreants and we were carted off to the High Court. I was produced in Court Number 1 before Chief Magistrate Aggrey Muchelule and charged with creating a disturbance in a manner likely to cause a breach of the peace.

“Yes, I am mad!”

Knowing that if I pleaded guilty or not guilty the story would merely fizzle away, when the charge was read out before a packed courtroom and in front of TV cameras, I opted not to plead, but rather to sing the national anthem to further dramatize the nature of and the reason for my nonviolent protest. Magistrate Muchelule patiently waited as I sang the entire national anthem in Kiswahili.  

"Mr. Njonjo Mue, you are the most patriotic Kenyan I have seen in a long time," he said with genuine admiration. "Not many people can still remember all the words of the national anthem." Still, he ordered that I be taken for a psychiatric examination. At that point, I addressed the court:

“Your honour, if in Kenya today it is considered normal for ministers to drive vehicles worth ten million shillings while a family of six in Kibera subsists on forty six shillings a day, then you don’t have to ask a psychiatrist, I will tell you myself, I am mad; if it is considered normal for MPs to be taken to Mombasa on fully paid holidays by BAT to be bribed to block tobacco control legislation while our people continue dying of tobacco related ailments, then I am mad; if it is normal for our leaders to traverse the land hurling insults at each other while our people are robbed, raped and murdered, then I am mad; and I take comfort in the fact that I am not the only one, we are millions of mad people who do not want to act normal while watching our country going to the dogs.

“As for the charge before you, your honour, I beseech you not only to find me guilty, but to hand down the harshest sentence permitted by the law.” I concluded.  

While many dismissed my actions during that November of discontent, a few read it for what it really was, a legitimate and well targeted act of protest against the country’s failing leadership. Writing later in an article aptly titled, Kenya – a nation in despair that appeared in a local daily and on the African Economic Analysis blog, one commentator, Michael Mundia Kamau, said:

There is something terribly wrong in this country. There is a devastating and looming crisis in our midst, and direction out of this needs to be established fast. Government and local authority functions have crumbled to the detriment of an entire nation. It is this sheer frustration that drove an exasperated Njonjo Mue to confronting two government ministers on the grounds of parliament on 30th November 2004. Njonjo Mue’s bold and courageous act of confrontation will one day rank alongside that of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14th 1789, the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the United States on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama and the brave, bold and courageous manner in which civil rights activist James Chaney met his death at the hands of white captors in June 1964 by telling them to their faces, “I aint running”.

After paying tribute to other Kenyans throughout history who had gone against the grain and stood up for what they believed in, Mundia went on to say:

Njonjo Mue’s bold and courageous act of 30th November 2004 is nevertheless an enviable and inspiring wake-up call to both the entire Kenyan leadership and to the ineffective and heavily compromised Kenyan middle class in deep slumber, a heavily compromised 21st century Kenyan middle class that makes 18th century France’s Marie Antoinette and her callousness, appear saintly. The Kenyan middle class on which the country relies on for direction and intellect is decadent, and hopelessly preoccupied with sex, pleasure, alcohol, flashy cars and flashy cell phones. Fresh impetus and direction needs to be given to the Kenyan dream, struggle and movement, and Njonjo Mue played a shining role in this respect on the 30th November 2004. Sanity and direction urgently require to be restored in this country. ( ).

Writing in her weekly column in the influential regional newspaper, The East African, on 13 December 2004, in an article boldly titled: Bravo, Mue, we all don’t believe in NARC, The Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, Muthoni Wanyeki, commented:

I felt the same way on learning that it was actually Njonjo Mue who had scaled the walls of parliament and torn a flag off a government car. Mue was protesting what he felt was our new government’s complete betrayal of all of the ideals, all of the people’s struggles, that brought it into power. His audacity made me feel somewhat gleeful – for I find I have to try harder and harder every day to continue to believe in all of the reforms initiated or promised by the National Rainbow Coalition. And although, unlike Mue, I am dealing with my disillusionment from the comfort of my organised, safe work space and certainly not scaling parliamentary walls, it gives me great pleasure that someone else is. Because I do still believe in dialectics – thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And actions like Mue’s enable, make possible, the kind of actions I contemplate now. Actions like Mue’s highlight, in all the ways that organised advocacy, diplomacy and negotiations of the kind that many organisations do not, the basis on which we are all acting. So, I agree with the National Constitution Executive Council in their calls for all charges against Mue to be dropped on the basis that they constitute legitimate protest – an exercise of his freedom of expression. Dramatic gestures. They have their uses.

Back in Court No 1, Muchelule ordered that I be remanded in custody for a week during which time I was to be taken for psychiatric examination. It was not the first time I would be a guest of the State at the Industrial Area Remand Prison and it certainly wouldn't be the last.


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