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Why aren’t Kenyans killing each other in Diaspora?

A question: why are all those Kenyans in Diaspora not chasing each other with pangas?

I’m being entirely serious. There are hundreds of thousands of Kenyans out there, in dozens of countries. They come from all tribes and all social classes. Some are very well educated, but many are not.

They are not necessarily in harmony. A casual look at internet chat forums and the ‘blogosphere’ would confirm this. Those guys out there are just as divided, just as resentful, just as ready to lash out as we seem to be back home. If anything, the anonymity of the internet seems to give Kenyan bloggers and surfers the confidence to spout all the tribalistic venom that they would not otherwise deploy in polite company.

So, Kenyans in Diaspora are divided, angry, crazed by perceived injustice; why aren’t they organising mobs in which to attack each other? You know the answer, and so do I. It has many different dimensions, and it is important to understand it if we are to save ourselves back home.

First, Kenyans out there have an economic stake that they want to protect. Going out and engaging in violent activity would quickly lose them their livelihoods and put them in a cell, if not a plane coming home. People with jobs, businesses, professions, and occupations have something to lose if they lose their heads. So they tend not to.

Second, they live in societies that, by and large, allow them to express their grievances constructively and seek institutional redress. I have watched footage of Kenyans (of all tribes) marching up to Kenya High Commission offices in London and Johannesburg and engaging in noisy (but peaceful) protest about the state of their home nation. They do what they have to, and they go home. No one is tear-gassed, clobbered or shot.

Third, more advanced societies have learned that you can’t hide the truth for too long. They don’t muzzle the media as soon as there is a bit of trouble; they don’t suppress independent thought; they don’t try to control who sees what. Here, our instinct is to clamp down on ideas, opinions and perspectives as soon as a problem emerges.

Fourth, more mature countries have learned that good institutions are the very bedrock of a successful society. They, too, have experienced stolen elections; they, too, have nefarious politicians; they, too, have corrupt people in high places. But they have robust, protected institutions that provide recourse and redress, and people believe in them.

I was a student at the London School of Economics (and so was one Emilio Mwai Kibaki, decades earlier), an institution renowned for a tradition of student protest. True to form, my fellows and I once marched onto London’s busy Waterloo bridge and engaged in a sit-down protest during rush hour, because we were offended by the Thatcher government’s refusal to disengage from apartheid South Africa. We brought that part of London to a near standstill. But no heavily armed coppers came to clobber us; we were allowed to do our thing for a reasonable period, and then we went back home (feeling, at least in my case, somewhat sheepish).

My point is that there is nothing wrong with peaceful protest. Things do go wrong in all societies, and have just gone horribly wrong in Kenya. It is perfectly OK for people to take exception and be allowed to demonstrate in protest (provided, critically, that they do not themselves harm anybody while doing so). Here, we persist with the gas ’em, whack ’em, shoot ’em school of crowd control.

Our demonstrators, equally, need to learn the art of peaceful protest. There are many, many ways to make your point, and they do not involve starting fires, breaking into shops or molesting onlookers. That kind of behaviour is brainless and self-defeating and weakens the very cause you are fighting for. It concedes the moral high ground to the opponent.

There is a final reason why Kenyans abroad are not hacking and burning each other: they are not sitting on their ancestral lands. My wise friend Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote in Uganda’s Monitor newspaper recently: there is “a devil that lives on every plot of African land.” In Africa, your family could live on a piece of land legally for 200 years, but there will still be some “indigenous” people there who consider you to be “foreigners”. A cold resentment can be nurtured by the “locals” for generations.

If we want peace, we must have the building-blocks in place. A society that gives everyone a stake is one that can protect itself from itself. A society that builds and defends strong, independent and fair-minded institutions gives its people the confidence to believe in it. A society that allows people to articulate their anguish as well as their joy allows safe channels of expression. A society that has many dimensions to its economy and allows people to generate livelihoods from multiple sources prevents destructive and desperate battles for resources.

Kenya needs to be that society.

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