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Where will this culture of violent protest take us?

Is violence the only way to make a point?

If Kenyan university students have a grievance – an injustice, a bad policy, or even just a power cut – they will be out on the streets rapidly. Not protesting, but rampaging: attacking and stealing from motorists and bystanders, hurling stones, destroying property.

When Nairobi hawkers have a grievance against the local government, which they often do, they will block the roads with burning materials and gridlock a city already choking on its own traffic.

If pretty much any group of disaffected Kenyans has a grievance, the answer is violent protest. Ordinary people have to be attacked. Innocents must suffer. Business as usual must be brought to a halt. That, it seems, is the only remaining way of making your point.

But what point is being made, exactly? So traffic jams are caused. So chaos is created. So anger is expressed. So stuff is broken. So some people end up in hospital. So what? What is solved? Nothing at all. The cycle will be repeated, incessantly. How many times do we see the Globe Roundabout mechanics up in arms against the county council askaris, or matatu touts blockading highways to protest police harassment, or warriors from rural communities attacking their neighbours over cattle thefts or water rights? Does it ever end? All we do is lay down arms temporarily, after venting visceral anger.

Our teachers and doctors and nurses are regularly on the streets, protesting against poor pay and broken promises. These professionals do not often resort to violence, thankfully. They go on strike; schools and hospitals are closed; their strike is declared illegal; they sing songs; some time passes; minor concessions are made; they return to work. Until the next time.

In December, our parliament descended into this mire when a crucial debate was conducted in the form of insults and fistfights. A society is what its leaders are.

What is happening to us? What happened to the art of negotiation? What problems are solved by outbursts and upheaval and disruption? Is the ability to sit down and reason lost to us now?

Don’t just blame the protesting parties. People only take to the streets or go on strike when other measures fail. When faced with intransigent or corrupt authorities, people will take to the streets. When no one is listening, the volume is raised. When the law does not help, lawbreakers emerge.

A mature society should be nothing like this. It should have mechanisms for protest to be channeled. It should allow for disagreements without disorder. It should have arbitrators and ombudsmen who are respected and obeyed. It should have respected courts that act independently and without bias.

These days, those seem to be far-off concepts. Even peaceful protests are banned or tear-gassed, thereby ensuring the next one will be violent. Macho schoolboy posturing is the order of the day. Those who conduct excesses on both sides of a protest are rarely punished. And so we feed the continuation of ill-tempered conflict as a method of discourse.

Wiser, cooler heads are needed everywhere now. We are ceding societal debate to thugs on one side and despots on the other. Fights over rights and entitlements and resources cannot be solved by breaking a few heads. They require proper dialogue and understanding of root causes. They require empathy and concessions and joint solutions. We cannot allow ruffians to hijack genuine causes; and we cannot allow self-interested rulers to quash genuine issues in society.

If there are still leaders around with the wisdom to understand that last paragraph, they need to step up to the plate and take back the debate. Right now it is in the hands of juvenile hooligans and tinpot tyrants.

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