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Leaders, pay attention to the fruit-seller who changed the world

Kenyan leaders, I know you don’t read much. Your time seems to be wholly consumed by midnight meetings, political plots and ugly utterances. So I thought I would offer you an executive summary of the story of a man who has just changed the world. Please read this as your driver overlaps through our 24/7 traffic jams, or perhaps as you lounge in your first-class seat during your next flight to a non-event.

Mohamed Bouazizi is the Tunisian fruit-seller who set himself, and the entire Arab world, alight on 17 December 2010. What happened to him? Ben Macintyre produced a superb account of the life and death of Bouazizi for The Times recently. Let me provide you with some highlights.

On 17 December Bouazizi set up his usual stall on a street corner. Unfortunately, a familiar and intimidating figure, the municipal inspector, showed up with her goons in tow. Under Tunisian president Ben Ali’s tyranny, every business activity required permits – and therefore bribes. The inspector began confiscating Bouazizi’s apples, and when he resisted she slapped him and spat on his face. Her fellow thug-officials seized the hawker’s scales and tipped over his barrow.

When Bouazizi went to the municipal office of his little town of Sidi Bouzid to complain, he was ignored and humiliated further. He came back a little later, poured two bottles of paint thinner over himself, and set himself ablaze.

I trust you know some of the rest, as the fire is still burning. Ordinary Tunisians swept to the streets to protest, and were met with fierce resistance by security forces. President Ben Ali reacted like all dictators do, blaming extremists and troublemakers. But technology kicked in: word about Bouazizi spread across Tunisia via Facebook and Twitter. Ben Ali, now sensing real trouble, showed up at Bouazizi’s hospital bedside, trying to look troubled.

By January, the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ was in full swing. Many protestors were shot dead, but within a week of that, Ben Ali had fled the country in disgrace. Now the flames spread further, to Egypt, claiming the government of Hosni Mubarak; to Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Iran; and back, most violently, to Tunisia’s neighbour Libya.

What happened? How did a fruit seller ignite chaos across an entire region? As Macintyre eloquently put it, all he did was the provide the spark. The tinder was bone dry.

Across all those countries, there is a youth bulge in the population alongside lamentable illiteracy. Young people have little hope for betterment. Those, like Bouazizi, who try to embark on modest private enterprise find themselves in the hands of petty tyrants like policemen and municipal goons. Their endeavour and their dignity is attacked daily. They are terrorized and humiliated routinely. They are angry, and they have nothing to lose.

So, leaders, please jolt yourselves awake. Did any of that sound familiar? Here, too, most of the population is very young. Here, too, we have not constructed an economy that can employ and deploy young people to good effect. Here, too, we unleash state goons onto common people every day: policemen and council askaris specialise in ignoring the real criminals and bullying and humiliating the common Kenyan.

A fundamental rethink of economic activity is needed, to make it inclusive and participative. We don’t need failed scams that lie to the youth – we need intelligent and concrete initiatives.

But that’s later. The first thing is to call off the goons. Leaders, do you ever talk to ordinary Kenyans? They are routinely picked up for no reason at all by your state thugs and locked up until they pay to get out. Innocent slum-dwellers are routinely herded into trucks, made to sleep standing up in cells, and released in the morning if they can afford the exit pass. Is this your leadership?

Let all ordinary Kenyans go about their lives with dignity, not having to be tormented at every turn by crude extortionists and cruel bullies. You owe them at least that basic human right.

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