Monday, August 29, 2011

Celebrating the triumph of hope over cynicism

Sunday Nation 28 August 2011

Twenty years ago, some time in early July 1991, hundreds of excited high school boys were let out of school early due to riots that were then going on in Nairobi.

The country was afire with opposition leaders playing hide and seek with the police while their followers shouted slogans in favour of constitutional change. I was among those excited boys, happy to take part in a national event we had hitherto only been hearing about on radio and television.

As we drove home along Limuru Road, my father and I had to keep flashing the two-finger salute then synonymous with the multi-party movement.

Protesters had blocked all roads and were only allowing through those who supported their cause. At the turn-off to Banana, we came across a police road block with a huge crowd milling around shouting slogans.

We later learnt that a primary school pupil was shot dead at that same spot when police officers attacked demonstrators with live bullets.

The next day I stood by the roadside and watched matatus plying the Limuru-Nairobi route ferrying demonstrators to the city, occasionally flashing the two-finger salute at them.

Those heady times served to feed my then testosterone-driven enthusiasm for anarchy and disorder, but they also etched a sense of history irreversibly into my impressionable mind. Full of optimism, I shared Martin Luther King’s conviction that the arc of history is long, but it inexorably bends towards justice.

The bigger picture

As we marked the first anniversary of the promulgation of our new Constitution yesterday, the emotive scenes from 20 years ago served as a backdrop for my memories. When one looks at the bigger picture, it is obvious that things have changed in a big way.

For a long time, we had been very pessimistic about the prospects for change in our country. This pessimism was informed by the heavy-handed approach the then regime dealt with any dissent, real or perceived.

Twenty years ago, when the tide was seen to be too heavy to be held back, the then President Moi drained its force by cunningly accepting minimal constitutional changes, specifically by repealing section 2A that had established a de jure single-party State.

One may be forgiven for thinking that the years since 1991 would provide ample justification for enhanced pessimism, given the number of powerful individuals and institutions that are ready to sabotage any move towards fundamental change.

However, although the 20 years since the repeal of section 2A have been turbulent, the promulgation of a new Constitution last year must be viewed as the logical culmination of all the efforts at creating a freer, more equal society. In my opinion, we must celebrate it as the triumph of hope over cynicism and cynical use of State power for personal aggrandisement.

Despite the spirited fight being put up by reactionary anti-reform forces, we must continue to demand the full and unconditional implementation of the Constitution.

We must not give in to those who tell us to go slow; instead, we must remind them of the thousands of lives lost due to this habit of pussyfooting around the most essential and practical solutions to the fundamental problems of our society.

Paraphrasing Georges-Jacques Danton, we must say: “The kings of impunity would dare challenge us? We throw them the head of tyranny!”

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine

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