Sometimes, you can almost admire the skill with which our rights are being stripped from us. There is a kind of finesse to it, a mastery that you don’t see very often. It would be impressive if it wasn’t so goddamn terrifying.
If you’re a government that wants to arrest people for speaking against it, and you’re unfortunate enough to be in a democracy, you’ve got to pick your words very carefully. You cannot say that you were insulted, that would seem petty – you call it undermining authority. That has weight. It sounds important, dangerous even.
He’s in prison for insulting the president. No. That just screams dictator.
He’s in prison for undermining the president’s authority. Yes. Now you’re onto something.
How a slight can undermine the authority of the most powerful man in the country is, as these things always go, something that need not, and will not, be explained.
Once you have the right words, you now have to pick the right targets. You can’t just round up any old critic. You’re trying to send a message and set some precedent. If you choose badly you won’t accomplish either. For example, take Gado. It is unlikely that you will find anyone who has depicted the president in an insulting manner more often than Gado. If an insult can undermine authority, then Gado is public enemy number one. In the face of Gado, the president is very nearly out of authority to be undermined. But you cannot arrest Gado. At least, not at first.
You really cannot justify arresting a popular satirist without turning everyone against you. He’s too easy to defend. He’s too well liked. Charging him with anything, even something as important sounding as undermining the president’s authority, is just too clearly wrong. You cannot sell it. So you need another kind of target.
You need someone not very sympathetic. Someone guilty of something else, preferably something they said. Someone difficult to defend because no one really wants to be associated with them. You need to find yourself a Wadi Okengo.
Once you find and arrest a person like Wadi, you’ve already won the first battle. Dissenters will find that they cannot defend the right they think is important without defending Wadi as well. He is someone an injustice is being carried out against and they have to defend him, it’s all part of the responsibility. But, the very moment they do, his hate speech will come up. The disgusting tribalist things he said will inevitably become linked to the whole case and it will all seem like part of the same issue. His defenders will find themselves in the untenable position of both defending and distancing themselves from him. Predictably, this is not a very effective way to convince people you’re right. They’re in a fight and they don’t have sufficient ammunition. You win.
But you can’t stop there. The message needs to stick. If you really want them to watch what they say you need to show them that no one is safe. That no fish is too big to fry. That’s where someone like Robert Alai comes in. Extremely popular but not very sympathetic. A man with such an even distribution of allies and enemies that any debate involving him will quickly descend into noise. And should anyone be willing to put aside their loathing of the man to defend him, what of it? He is the man who prays for women to be raped. Who said he would strip scantily clad women himself? Etcetera etcetera. Defending him is just as difficult as defending Wadi if not more. Again, you have them fighting an uphill battle to get anyone to even care about the issue at hand.
Lastly, the smaller players need to get in on it. Maybe a Governor somewhere should have someone pulled in and level the same kind of accusations. Let that kind of thing crop up and spread about for a while. And when you’re done, one will have to ask whether what they want to say about you is really worth going through what Alai did. What every other person you go after will. Because it’s not about insults, it’s about undermining authority. And because no one truly knows what that actually means, they’ll have to watch themselves.
People are going to ask if they can afford to have hundreds of thousands (or any significant amount) held up for months during court proceedings. They’re going to wonder if they can stay employed if they’re accused of undermining a public official’s authority. All of that risk? Just to make a criticism? They’re going to look at the effect of one person talking versus the potential cost it could bring and do the math. They’re going to ask the kind of questions that make people afraid to talk.
When you finally start going for the people you really want to get, you wont need tricks anymore. You’ll have legal precedent on your side and the entire process will be normalized by then. It’ll be like police taking bribes, just another ugly facet of Kenyan life they accept as unavoidable. The way of things. Blasé. You can even let them talk a little then. It won’t matter because those who complain will not meet a willing audience. They will meet the face of defeat. They will hear those three little words that both excuse and explain away everything. They will be told…this is Kenya.