February 4, 2008 4 Comments
(This post originally run in the February 3, 2008 issue of The East African.)
Watching television news the other day, I was struck by how many of the pictures of the rioting youth showed them apparently in good cheer. This despite the anger in the country about the presidential election results, at the lack of economic opportunities and at the violence being meted out by both rioters and the security forces.
When the cameras roll they capture among the perpetrators of violence is one of euphoria and carnival despite the suffering and destruction that the country has experienced in the past month.
They were rolling recently when a group of young men stopped a car, forced out the driver, and stripped it of whatever was easily carried before setting it aflame.
They laughed and celebrated, holding their machetes and clubs aloft, a few pranced around the car’s burning hulk. In another scene, a crowd, again mostly of young men, uprooted a section of a railway track. Others chased children from school and burned down government offices.
These young men, especially the ones in spontaneously formed groups as opposed to well-organised ones, are in the grip of a moment of intense fellow feeling. They are experiencing euphoria at their shattering of moral and material boundaries.
Power, the power to destroy what seemed so unassailable, so permanent, they are increasingly realising, is like a drug that you need in ever greater supply. The burning and the maiming, and especially the increasing instances of rape when combined with the pictures of euphoric expression combine to suggest that some of the country’s youth are part of a gruesome festival that can potentially engulf ever larger parts of the country.
These bands of young men on television are like young men everywhere in the world and, throughout history, who have been caught in the periodic joining of political rage and the licence to transcend normal social limits. They are unmaking their world.
THE BURNING OF SHOPS AND homes, the destruction of transport infrastructure and government property and the taking of life, is not chaos as so many of us term it. Rather it is the flipside of order.
Their destruction overturns, if only momentarily, the normal order of the Kenyan universe. However, as many of their elders would like to believe, their violent actions do not eject them from Kenyan society. Rather, they are an intimate yet alienated part of it that has decided for the moment to defy the normal laws and morals of their upbringing.
To transgress a boundary you must first believe in its existence and its importance. Burning chiefs’ houses and destroying infrastructure paradoxically confirms how important these are to their destroyers.
By trying to unmake the hold of the law on themselves, they are confirming its policing of the bounds of a society that they now believe deserves rupturing and remaking.
If the high politics practised by elected leaders does not address past injustices and does not heed the anger and alienation of the young, then it will be replaced by the politics of the street. This is a politics of fire that seeks to destroy all in a desperate and very rarely successful attempt to justly remake society and re-establish its shattered moral bounds.
Why are there so many fires? The obvious and correct answer is that they are being started to send a message to politicians and their supporters about the widespread opposition to the election results — or support in some areas.
A more speculative answer is that they are a kind of political pyromania, a fundamental rhythm that dictates the life of euphoric violence; and they will only increase the more the political realm continues to withhold a good reason to return to the status quo.
I am saying here that violence and war have their own logic, which is not shared by those who set them in motion.
The violence may have its architects or patrons and those who benefit from it in the tit-for-tat of politics, but it owes to none of them its intimate rhythms, its joys and excesses. The mistake is age-old: leaders believing that they can switch the rage of their supporters on and off at will. But if they ever had any control of the situation, then this is power that is growing more distant by the day.
The reason such atrocities as we have suffered in Kenya are possible is that the perpetrators believe that they are engaged in just actions. The anger at the election results has morphed into a state of festival: a period when normal laws and habits are suspended.
This feeling of living in a world or a time outside society’s normal bounds accounts for the euphoria experienced by the youth around those bonfires and riots. According to them, they are quite literally destroying their world in order to save it.
If there is a lesson in all this to the political elites, it is that if Kenya’s morals and laws excuse injustice for too long, as is the case with our history, then there will come occasions when enough people will feel the need for a radical change.
If this happens outside the normal political space, due, for example, to a failed election, then all that is needed is for a spark to allow for a violent reaction.
Too often, Kenya’s political analysts and writers insist on believing that politics is a secular affair governed only by material means and ends.
Yet even as they believe that about politics, the rest of their lives are suffused with belief in the transcendent.
We go to church on Sundays and intersperse our day with prayer. But politics too is a realm of charismatic belief. Our politicians understand this intuitively. Their promises are akin to promises to be Moses leading their constituents to the Promised Land.
POLITICS IS A REALM THAT STRA-ins toward the transcendent, which is to say it periodically makes a dash toward its boundaries and retains the potential to breach them. These young men in the Rift Valley, Central Province and elsewhere destroying and causing so much suffering, are exploring moral spaces beyond the frontiers that have up to now governed their everyday lives.
The longer the political impasse continues, the more the society they left behind will seem less real than the violent and unjust one they are creating.
There is still time to douse the fires and stop the deaths. The leaders whom Kenyan citizens have given the responsibility to police the precincts of this moral community we call the Kenyan nation have failed more often than they have succeeded.
If they do not stand tall for once, or move aside for those who can, then politics will indeed move from the halls of government to the streets.
For now, the young men causing so much suffering still believe in the existence and importance of the boundaries they have violated. They believe that violence will lead to a new season that speaks to their aspirations and hopes.
They are mistaken. All around Kenya are examples of countries that have fed on the flames and now need decades to recover what they built so laboriously.
It is a simple choice for those who are in positions of political and adult responsibility: either move decisively to enthrone just rule and a political and economic system that is broadly believed to be fair or face the flames that will pulverise Kenya and leave nothing standing but the memory of your failed leadership.