Thursday, 10 May 2012

Can nonviolent direct action work in Africa?

By David Leonard and Benard Lisamadi Agona

In 2007/08 Kenya was swept by serious post-election violence. Similar unrest broke out during elections in 1992 and 1997. But this time violence reached the capital Nairobi and threatened the stability of the state itself. This article looks at examples of nonviolent community responses to abuses of authority.

Kenya's need for political and social accountability

Throughout tropical Africa, electoral violence is often fuelled by inter-ethnic conflict and outrage at malpractices at the polls. In Kenya this is aggravated by land shortages that elite control of large estates exacerbate. But citizens also resort to violent protest because they see no other way to hold government leaders accountable. There is a lesson to be learned. 
One critical way to help people avoid violence is to help them build the skills to hold leaders and public institutions accountable and to promote social change through nonviolent forms of protest and direct action.

Debates about conflict in Africa tend to completely overlook the potential of nonviolent forms of action. Groups in Kenya are demonstrating how communities can become adept in nonviolent direct action, and use it to take on corruption and mismanagement.

The Quakers and their response to the Kenyan crisis

Western Kenya is home to a third of the Quakers in the world. This Christian denomination is known in Europe and the USA for its dogged commitment to peace. Prior to 2008, however, most of the 130,000 Kenyan Quakers had thought of peace as a luxury that deserves attention only after development has been achieved.
But during the violence of 2008, Kenyan Quakers came to realise that peace is a pre-condition of development and asked what their faith had to say about it. They had already been promoting programmes of reconciliation and mediation in the region, but the electoral violence clearly required something different.
In response British Quakers agreed to help Change Agents for Peace International (CAPI), a local Quaker organisation serving the African Great Lakes region, to develop a specifically Kenyan nonviolence programme. A similar Catholic initiative, the inter-denominational Chemchemi ya Ukweli (Wellspring of Truth), was already underway.

Developing nonviolent methods to challenge authorities

CAPI does not have its own social change agenda. It provides training in nonviolent methods to community groups of all faiths working on their own social change priorities. Being told that it promotes nonviolence one might think that direct action in the mould of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. would result. Instead, the groups receiving training have focused on analysing local power structures, planning campaigns, mounting legal petitions and using non-confrontational styles of communication.
Kenyans, especially the young, are very aware of injustice, and they desire to correct it. But in their experience, there have been only two possible responses to the wrongful use of authority: submission or riot. Those who reject violence are eager to challenge authority respectfully but they are often ignorant of the tools that could allow them to do so.
The activists CAPI has trained have been willing to challenge abuses of authority. And they have achieved remarkable success using nonviolent tools.

Two success stories of nonviolent activism in Western Kenya

Two illustrations come from Western Kenya. The Shinyalu Boda Boda motor-cycle taxi drivers successfully challenged their County Council staff for corruptly issuing false taxi licenses and failing to provide services. The Boda Boda drivers’ peaceful demonstration was covered on TV. In the end, they succeeded in changing the County Council’s practices.
The Boda Boda drivers group is now planning a campaign on absentee teachers. Public school teachers often use government loans to buy motorcycles, and some then work as taxi drivers themselves rather than attending the classes they are paid to teach. 
The Boda Boda drivers group plans to protest to school principals and to the local office of the Ministry of Education in order to ask that the pay of the offending teachers be docked. They will use mobile phones to take photos of the taxi-driving teachers. They expect parents will join them as allies in the campaign.
Another example comes from a Catholic community group in Chekalini that also received support from CAPI. The group challenged corrupt overcharges on small business licenses by posting the correct fees in the district’s markets. For this, they were arrested and charged by the District Revenue Office with interfering with the collection of taxes. The leaders have been found not guilty by the courts but are continuing the struggle to recover their impounded property.  

Will new training for communities prevent violence in the next elections?

Training in the techniques of community organisation is what is needed now. These techniques open new channels of social change and they reduce the perceived need to resort to violent protest. They are a force both for change and for peace. By helping more communities build the skills and tools to challenge authority with nonviolence, we not only reduce violent conflict, but also help hold governments and leaders accountable to citizens.
Will nonviolent groups like the Boda Boda drivers and Chekalini businessmen be able to prevent violence in Kenya’s upcoming presidential elections in early 2013? Perhaps not yet. But they are on the right path.

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