In April 1963, the same year Kenya achieved independence from the fast-declining British Empire, the reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., published a letter from Birmingham, Alabama, where he was being held in prison. He was responding to “fellow clergymen” who described his “direct actions” as “unwise and untimely.” They urged him to wait and see. To wait for time to decide. To wait for justice to unfold over history. Things would change, they claimed. Eventually. King’s letter is on my mind as I watch the repeated calls for “peace” by Kenyans online, by political leaders, by civic leaders, and by ordinary wananchi. Everyone is calling for “peace.”
As the calls for peace have intensified over the past few days, they have felt increasingly disciplinary and forbidding. We have been urged not to question the process of voting; not to question the process of tallying; not to question the unusually high voter turnouts which, in at least a few cases, have exceeded 100% of registered voters; not to question electronic failures; not to question the amount of money spent on election equipment that failed; not to question credible allegations of rigging; not to question the law; not to question anything. Instead, “peace.”
Some of us have wondered why we are not hearing words including “truth,” “justice,” “equality,” “accountability,” “transparency.” Why, instead, we are being urged to “accept” whatever results happen and to rely on “the courts” to resolve whatever inconsistencies might arise. It might be wise to question how this election has been conducted. I am less concerned with questions about electoral processes, and more concerned with the vision of Kenya that has emerged during this process. This election took place in a highly militarized state. On Monday, March 4, as Kenyans went to the polls, beaming TV presenters assured us that we would be “safe” because over 90,000 security personnel had been dispatched across the country. Pictures online showed soldiers holding guns, military vehicles rolling down empty city streets with locked shops. It was difficult not to imagine we were in the middle of a coup. But this, we were told, was “safety.”
The empty city streets were one symptom of a broader problem with public space.
At the same time as our militarized elections were being celebrated by TV announcers, the same announcers and other public figures urged voting Kenyans to “vote and go home.” Voting Kenyans were urged not to congregate in public spaces, to retreat to the privacy and ostensible safety of their homes. Voting Kenyans were asked, in other words, to cede the world of the public, to yield public space to the state in its military guise. Militarized personnel and vehicles could occupy public space, but voting Kenyans could not. Or were not supposed to. At a moment when voting Kenyans were ostensibly exercising their democratic rights to choose, they were, simultaneously, being told that hard-won freedoms—rights to free speech, rights to expression, rights to assembly—had to be sacrificed on the altars of “peace” and “calm.”
“Peace” became a way of disciplining affect, refusing politics, and promoting disengagement. Repeatedly, Kenyans were told to “remain calm.” The excitement and enthusiasm and passion that had fueled the election was to be forgotten, discharged in some way, but not in public. Not collectively. We could not be excited about the elections. Simultaneously, Kenyans were discouraged from imagining politics as an ongoing site of contestation, a place of competing powers, diverse strategies, coalitions and fractures. Instead, the political was re-imagined, or, rather, attenuated, as a series of banal juridical procedures: casting votes, tallying votes, and, now, it seems, petitioning the courts. As necessary as these procedures are, I am interested in how they were used to manage affect—to dispel passion and enthusiasm—and also to render the idea of the political less unruly, less, in a word, radical. Finally, as the election process dragged on, it was clear that more and more Kenyans were becoming exhausted and disengaged. Resigned to whatever would happen. Something had won. But it was not us. Not our will. Not our energy. Not our enthusiasm. Exhaustion. Disengagement. Apathy.
This use of “peace” to manage affect and to manage the political is not new. Those of us who grew up in Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya know the word peace: the oft-repeated slogan “peace, love, and unity” dominated Moi’s Kenya, where it was also used to manage affect and to rob the political of any meaning whatsoever. It was assumed that if this slogan was repeated enough times, we would forget or ignore those political prisoners held and tortured in Nyayo House, those Kenyans in exile, those political groups organizing outside of the country, those dangerous intellectuals and dissidents who threatened Moi’s Kenya. Better, after all, to live with the peace provided by a benevolent dictator than with the disruptions of a contested political world.
It would be presumptuous to suggest we are returning to the Kenya created under Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, a “conflict-free” Kenya, as these things are measured by certain international metrics: the political literature surrounding both presidencies has tended to describe Kenya as “conflict-free” in comparison to other African countries. The sustained work of many political actors since the late 1970s in Kenya has created an infrastructure that might make it impossible to return to the Kenyatta and Moi eras. I really wish I could be more definite than “might.”
I am hoping that as the elections conclude, we will hear more claims for justice, truth, equality, and freedom that contest the disciplinary silencing trafficking under calls for “peace.” I am hoping that we will reclaim a robust notion of politics as active, ongoing contestation. I am hoping that, learning from King, we will affirm the importance of what he describes as “nonviolent tension”:
My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
I am hoping that we will affirm the bold twitter hashtag #kenyadecides instead of the more attenuated #kenyaccepts.
Keguro Macharia is an Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Maryland, College Park.