In Photo: Boniface Mwangi at a past public demonstration
Celebrity Activism Vs Real Activism: A street observation in Nairobi.
By Dikembe Disembe
I found Boniface Mwangi’s rants on CORD not doing enough to bail out the protesters who were arrested during the course of the debate on the security bill (now law) quite unwarranted and mendacious. Both civil society and opposition political formations should be able to oppose the government complimentarily and without financial obligations to each other.
Mwangi himself recently quit activism, and returned, did he ask CORD for permission to do so?
Mwangi was the photographer who took most of those gory post-election violence photos, and, being of entrepreneurial kind, he made a point of selling most of the photos to third parties which wanted to use them, thus raking in millions. Which is okay. However, my point of departure with people like Mwangi is that they are ‘celebrity activists’.
They do streets for the camera, and more often, for the international press.
He is quite different from, say, activist Gacheke Gachihi, who is a conviction human rights defender. No wonder, in the last couple of arrests, it is often Gacheke who go in, as Mwangi enjoys the ‘fame’ which comes with ‘organizing’ and ‘participating’ in protests.
During the first protests, dubbed Occupy Harambee Avenue, I took time to join the protestors. Earlier, I had attended the last of the many mentions of my ‘ethnic contempt’ case at Milimani and while waiting to appear before the presiding judge, Gacheke and six others joined me; as they had also come for the hearing of a case in which they were charged with incitement to violence and unlawful assembly. During that protest, someone had brought pigs and blood town.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe Mwangi has contributed something to civil activism in Kenya. He has had his credits for it. However, the biggest challenge facing civil activism in Kenya is a new form of activism merely for the cameras, for the international press and, or, international awards.
Coupled with twivism -twitter-based activism – the urgency of treet struggle fails. You find people organizing on social media how they want to occupy parliament and when you arrive around the precepts of parliament, there is no one!
Sadly, you get online and there are all these ‘activists’ sharing photos of what’s going, and condemning whatever is going on in the strongest terms possible, always around some hashtag created for just that occasion. And that’s all they can do.
That is why I got exasperated when all Mwangi could do is to blame CORD for not bailing out the arrested comrades. He didn’t even bother to point out the lethargy and ‘hollowing out of street activism’. And when you are too concerned with those arrested being released ‘as quick as possible’, not why they were arrest and what their arrest and incineration mean, you help the regime achieve its ends, for all it wants is to create fear and despair by publicising those it has arrested, and, blaming the opposition for ‘not doing much to come to their rescue’.
In my view, Mwangi should spend more of his time re-educating the current mass of citizens why it is still important to come out on the streets. He wastes all our time by only confining the struggle to what the opposition didn’t do, or, aren’t doing. That’s what all Jubilee regime apologists do: focus on the opposition. So what’s the difference between Mwangi and Ngunjiri, for instance?
He should tell his admirers what being on the streets is all about. Real activism isn’t this romanticised photo activism. Real activists pay the ultimate prize of activism – arrest and being charged – because they pique dictatorial regimes; and so each youth coming on the actual street, or on Facebook and Twitter, the new ‘convenient streets’ for the majority, should get ready for this, and, expect to stay longer behind bars, as their bail is getting processed.
Better believe me: When you are taken in, the world will get you out. The world doesn’t pass the buck eternally. Gacheke and other comrades will be released. This is a surety and Mwangi can take it the bank and get a loan.
Only that there are things that should change in the Kenyan activism scene.
During the Occupy Harambee Avenue, I also noted some very disturbing trait of team Mwangi. They seem to be only concerned with the ‘props’ – the visual tools for activism.
If it is not the pig, it is the donkey. If not the donkey, it is the red cross.
The tragedy with visualizing street protests is that people spend more time ‘thinking’ about the props than the reasons for the protest. And our current media, with its penchant to trivialise issues, only go for the props. In the process, when activism reaches prime time news, voices are already diminished, in fact, cleared out. All that remains are pigs and donkeys and red crosses.
So we must get back to the basics of street activism. I have spent considerable time studying the Arab spring from Morocco, to Tunisia, to Bahrain, to Libya, to Egypt, to Syria and one thing often stand out: The protesters understand why they are on the streets. In Kenya, however, too many people join protests because they are bored, have been mobilized and or just want to share the selfies and photo moments with meeting celebrity activists. The celebrities are themselves in it for money and fame and awards. There is need to do away with the current pretenders. And there is need to get celebrities out of activism. I dare say, T.U.M.E.C.H.O.K.A!
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I may be wrong.