The challenge of street protests
Posted by CM on January 20, 2008
Movement for Democratic Change’s secretary for information, Nelson Chamisa, had to quickly retract his statement that Kenya’s post-election violence would be “nothing compared to what we will have here if Mugabe rigs the elections again.”
There are no doubt many Zimbabweans who would support Chamisa’s initial statement before the negative heat to it forced him to back down. But at the very least, it was ill-advised for an opposition party official to have come out with a statement like that.
Apart from bad public relations, it gave the appearance of threatening mayhem as long as the election does not go the MDC’s way. As unpopular as Mugabe and ZANU-PF may be, it is far from clear now that the MDC, mired as it is in all kinds of problems, is guaranteed of victory in March’s general election.
Apart from issues of the two parties’ relative “popularity,” ZANU-PF has over several elections honed the cynical practice of dangling a mixture of relief food and threats to get people to vote for it. At a time of great hardship and hunger, this tactic cannot be underestimated in swaying the outcome of elections.
But apart from all this, Chamisa’s statement was also reckless in giving the state’s military machine an easy excuse for the kind of violence it has already shown a great propensity for, even against peaceful protestors.
Past events have shown Mugabe would like nothing more than to be able to accuse the opposition of inciting violence and having an excuse for the kind of heavy-handed responses we have seen before over the years.
Both Kenya and Zimbabwe present the dangerous situations of opposition movements with deep grievances who find many of the means of flexing the muscle of their popular support severely curtailed. They have significant representation in parliament but it means very little. The forms of Western-style democracy exist, but the substance is missing.
And street protests are put down with astonishing brutality. In both Kenya we have seen graphic evidence of the amazing enthusiasm with which state police and para-military forces put down protests. It is difficult to know if protests that are usually started as “peaceful” often turn violent because of official over-reaction to them, or if the police heavy-handedness is really to prevent the violence from spiralling out of control.
Whichever it is, what should be an important safety valve for fairly harmlessly releasing public pressure is effectively sealed off, merely postponing the release while building up the pressure even further.
In both Kenya and Zimbabwe, it is becoming increasingly apparent why calm does not equate to peace.