Letters from TZ

Animals and the African spring

If there is a message, fanfare and controversy will usually kill it. People are more likely to remember the song and dance than they are the lyrics and the score. Instant gratification is the way of the world, and it goes perfectly with our short-term memory. But then we find ourselves in a quandary because while messages are lost in mayhem, mayhem makes the news.

On Tuesday last week, protestors in Nairobi organised a peaceful demonstration in the central business district. The people gathered to protest a push by the Kenyan Parliament to raise MP salaries through the roof of the House and way into the stratosphere. Just to be absolutely clear: The purpose of the demo was to protest the House-driven agenda to award Members hefty pay packages. Something they want to do without reference to anyone, least of which a Salaries and Remuneration Commission that has been established to moderate that very behaviour.

Notice was given well in advance that the protest – dubbed OccupyParliament – was going to take place on 14 May. Anyone who had an ear to hear heard about it, members of the press included. But when the protest started, the only coverage it received was from citizen journalists who reported from the trenches using social media outlets. Few were interested in the cause save the organisers and participants, and those who took an interest and followed the developments on the Internet.

That was all before the pigs were unleashed. And bathed in blood that had been purchased from a slaughterhouse. The pigs, symbolic of greed, were fed at the gates of Parliament, where they gorged on molasses with complete disregard for their surroundings. This is when all press broke loose. Suddenly, local media houses, previously unmoved by the proceedings, were scrambling for live pictures, streaming the demonstration on their digital platforms and all the rest of it. Shortly after, the police descended on the demonstrators in full force, drenching them with water canons, tear gassing and clobbering them into submission. By the end of it, they had arrested quite a significant number of people whose only crime was to assemble peacefully and in the process, offend the delicate sensibilities of the ladies and gentlemen who sit in Parliament.

The noble men and women of the dignified house have long abhorred the term MPigs, a pet name Kenyans coined with reference to their greed. The presence of actual swine at the very threshold of gentility must have been too much to bear. Indeed, inside the House, some Members were up in arms that the people would dare to exercise their constitutional right to assemble peacefully and demonstrate. Ultimately, the gates of Parliament prevailed and the protestors were first brutalised and then dispersed.

They were beaten like animals for letting a few pigs loose. But that shocking display of police brutality was quickly forgotten by some observers who were more concerned by the alleged violation of animal rights. Attention quickly shifted to the apparent “cruelty to animals”. Who was looking out for the pigs? How were they supposed to make it out of the CBD? How would you feel if you were drenched in blood and paraded in public? Why were the protestors being so inhumane?

And if someone was not up in arms about the pigs, they were so shocked by the barbaric display as to abandon the cause and conclude that no MP was badly-behaved enough to warrant such a gratuitous exhibition of dissent. The organisers lost the plot, they said. They should have kept to the script. These sideshows are all that anyone will ever remember. Was all that blood necessary? I think they took it too far.

The message was being consumed by the mayhem. But without the mayhem, the message would never have gotten out. The pigs brought all the press to the yard. Without them, the peaceful protest wouldn’t have received as much attention. Unfortunately, for a good number of onlookers, the pigs stole the show and the entire ‘greedy pig’ analogy was lost in the melee.

As the dust dies down, the people’s representatives who have the honour to sit in Parliament still have every intention to raise their own wages. They remain unperturbed by the public outrage. The animal rights activists moaning about the treatment of the pigs would do well to remember that as they advocate for the rights of swine, they are effectively shifting the focus away from the humans. And the humans were treated much worse.