A population can only share information, mobilize, organize, and claim their rights if civic space is open. Now, Covid-19 has presented governments with a golden opportunity to shrink the civic space more. Activists and human rights workers need to go back to the drawing board and push back hard against these attempts.
Insert Video on Demo in Mombasa against Covid Corruption
Corrupt systems have had a field day stealing funds that are meant to address the plight of citizens affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Civil society and the general population have expressed their disgust using various platforms. Protests have so far been held in Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu, and Nairobi, calling out the corrupt individuals and government who have been charged with the duty of containing the pandemic. But these demonstrations were immediately deemed illegal. The first reasons cited by the government when it dispersed the protesters were directly related to Covid -19 containment measures, like social distancing and limited numbers of persons in social gatherings.
This reminds me of an old Chinese fable….
The Monkey Master Fable
In the 14th century in China, there was a man named Mr. Jugong - the "monkey master". On his farm, he lived with monkeys and he had a very simple rule – their tenancy on his farm would be anchored on loyalty and obedience. Every morning, the monkeys would go out to the forest to eat fruits to their satisfaction, but each had to come back with a tenth of their collection to give to their master. Failure to do this would result in a ruthless flogging. This arrangement lasted for centuries without any protest from the monkeys.
One day, a young monkey decided to challenge the thinking of the old monkeys. He did this by asking simple questions, which were thought-provoking to the rest of the monkeys:
Did the master plant the fruits? The older monkeys replied: no, they grow naturally.
Can’t we take the fruits without his permission? "We all can", replied the monkeys.
Then why should we depend on the master? Must we serve him?
Before the young monkey finished his questions, the other monkeys had become enlightened.
That night, the monkeys tore down the barricades of the farm stockade and took all the fruits before running off into the woods, never to return to the master. The master later died of starvation.
The fable is a classic analogy of the government’s new Covid-19 tactics at closing the ever-shrinking civic space. Now civil society must ask itself the hard question about how to fight back. How do we protect and expand civic space under these circumstances?
The recent protests were termed illegal, but the government stopped the protesters illegally. It criminalised citizen’s rights of assembly and association, to demonstrate, and picket; and on the flip side, it legitimized the rampant corruption around Covid-19.
Insert Video on Demo in Nairobi against Covid Corruption
To gain freedom, we must challenge the rules or laws that are used to take freedom away. We must challenge bad laws that govern protests, including the so-called Covid-19 containment measures, and more so discriminatory ones.
Why don’t these pandemic containment measures apply to market places and meet the people tour by Kenyan politicians?
Just like in the monkey master fable, we need to change the power balance by asking ourselves the right questions.
If the Covid-19 regulations suspended Article 37 of our Constitution, what new tactics can we use to open up the civic space? Would 15 people who came out in several public spaces in Mombasa or Nairobi really have an impact? Why are we not mobilizing a large number of protesters to come out – more than the Police Officers deployed to crush the protests?
The Covid -19 regulations on public gathering have brought the fight right to our doorsteps. We are at ground zero, but we can only fight the thieves better with a new way of thinking, because their new Covid tactics are here to stay.
By SK Wandimi