Letter from Africa: Kenya's tear gas wars

Kenya's opposition politicians and supporters run away from tear gas in Nairobi, Kenya - 9 May 2016 Image copyright AFP

In our series of letters from Africa, journalist and media trainer Joseph Warungu takes advantage of the temporary lull in tear gas to examine the rocky political climate in Kenya.

Kenya is walking dangerously close to the "mass grave" it dug for itself in 2008, following the disputed election of 2007.

The political and ethnic violence that ensued claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Kenyans and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

"We nearly lost Kenya," were the words that Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general and mediator in the Kenyan crisis, used to describe the mayhem that greeted the announcement of the final election result in December of 2007.

Nearly nine years later, and with lessons of the 59-day violence seemingly forgotten, Kenyans are once more pinning their country to the ground and holding a can of petrol in one hand and a box of matches in the other.

As a journalist who has been covering Kenya and Africa since 1989 I am now a worried man.

If nothing is done to pacify the society and cool the temperatures that have been recklessly raised by politicians, this nation could burn.

And if it does, the blaze will be a lot more fierce and destructive than in 2008.

'Hidden animosity'

In the last year, social media has continued to light up with hate speech.

Commentary and posts are being screened and responded to through ethnic lenses.

In one conversation packed with ethnic vitriol, a contributor commented:

"Going by the comments here, it confirms the fact that there is hidden animosity in Kenya and one day 2007/2008 violence will look like child's play. We will be worse than what happened in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo combined."

Joseph Warungu:

Image copyright BBC Sema Kenya

"Mondays are now called 'machozi Monday' - Swahili for 'tear gas Monday'"

Eight elected politicians were recently arrested and detained in police custody for three days on charges of hate speech.

One is accused of calling for the eviction of one community from Nakuru region in the Rift Valley, while another alluded to the assassination of opposition leader Raila Odinga.

At the centre of the current spike in political fever is the government and opposition stand-off regarding electoral reform.

In the last few weeks, Monday has been turned into a day of political protests.

The opposition has been calling their supporters onto the streets to push for the reforms by marching to the offices of the electoral commission.

And the response from the police has predictably been a healthy dose of tear gas, in an attempt to break up the demonstrations.

Four people have so far died in clashes between police and protesters.

Mondays are now called "machozi Monday" - Swahili for "tear gas Monday".

And the area around the offices of the electoral commission is now baptised "shisha corner" because of the heavy tear gas that fills the air.

So who are some of the main actors in this political drama and what do they want? I have selected seven of the key players:

1. President Uhuru Kenyatta

Image copyright AFP

He wants to continue occupying the residence he has known since childhood when his father, Jomo Kenyatta, was president - namely State House.

In other words he wants to be re-elected president for a second five-year term in the coming general election.

He has been forced to accept that he negotiate a way out of the impasse with the opposition.

But he wants this dialogue to be conducted through a parliamentary process, because he "swore to uphold and defend the constitution".

What he does not want is a street solution.

He saw what the Arab Spring did to those in power.

He has vowed to crack down hard on hate speech and his government has not spared leaders accused of spreading ethnic hatred.

The authorities have made the eight MPs arrested an example by denying them bail and forcing them to suffer in the infamous cold and miserable police cells for three nights.

2. Raila Odinga

Image copyright AFP

Poster boy of the opposition, he leads the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord), an umbrella grouping of several political parties.

Mr Odinga wants what his late father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga tried and failed to achieve for many years - enter State House.

Among other things he wants a total overhaul of the electoral commission and direct appointment of the commissioners.

He believes the body as currently constituted is not credible and cannot oversee a credible electoral process in 2017.

He does not want reforms through a parliamentary process.

He knows very well the current government has enough numbers in the house to frustrate his efforts.

3. Moses Kuria

Image copyright AFP

He is the MP for Gatundu South, a constituency in central Kenya that has produced two presidents - Jomo Kenyatta and Uhuru Kenyatta.

He is Kenya's Donald Trump (minus the billions and the presidential ambition): Straight-talking, unpredictable and uncontrollable.

He wants the opposition to tremble in their boots as they prepare for dialogue.

For the umpteenth time Mr Kuria is in trouble and facing serious charges of hate speech.

Many Kenyans view him as the government's kamikaze - a force of self-destruction that also conveniently distracts attention from the ruling establishment.

4. Johnson Muthama

He is the senator for Machakos County and a prominent opposition voice.

He is wealthy, loud and bold.

He will say the unsayable and often makes the government quite uncomfortable.

Mr Muthama is one of the eight legislators who were arrested for hate speech.

5. Isaack Hassan

Image copyright AFP

He is the chairman and face of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

He does not want to go home - at least not yet.

He wants both government and the opposition to leave him and his team alone to continue preparing for next year's election, arguing that a change of guard now will have a negative impact on the 2017 elections.

6. Tear gas

Image copyright AFP

It is a non-lethal chemical weapon that irritates the eyes, mouth, lungs and skin.

In Kenya, it is personified by the cabinet secretary in charge of internal security, Joseph Nkaissery.

The former military man talks and acts tough.

In mid-May he cautioned opposition protesters: "Let them be warned that I have enough tear gas - which I will not run short of soon - to use in smoking them out of IEBC offices if they attempt to force themselves there."

Throughout Kenya's history, in the absence of talks to resolve political disputes, tear gas talks.

I have personal experience of this having inhaled enough tear gas as a student and journalist - from being caught up in the streets of Nairobi during a violent military operation to suppress an attempted air force coup against President Daniel arap Moi in August 1982 to reporting the countrywide demonstrations demanding an end to single party authoritarian rule in July 1990.

7. Mwananchi

Image copyright AFP

This is a Swahili term meaning the ordinary citizen of Kenya.

Every political blow unleashed, every tear gas canister fired and every word uttered is done in his/her name.

But the mwananchi is not present at the ongoing talks to reform that key institution that will referee the election and shape the future.

Many wananchi (Swahili plural for citizens) noted two striking photographs that remind them of their true place.

One was an image from 2008 that showed then-President Mwai Kibaki, Mr Odinga and Mr Annan sharing soft drinks in a relaxed atmosphere soon after the country went ablaze with Kenyans fighting the two rivals' battles.

The second photo was of a recent event and showed President Uhuru and Mr Odinga in a jovial moment at State House, while out in the streets life was disrupted as clashes between security forces and protesters ensued on behalf of the two men.

But it is this same mwananchi who will be called upon to decide which man goes into rent-free accommodation at State House in next year's election.

If mwananchi makes the wrong choice, the soil of Kenya will drink his blood and the mass grave will quickly fill up.

More from Joseph Warungu:

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites