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Civil society protest noble; mode too crude

Thursday May 16 2013

By WILFRED NDERITU

There is no doubt that the civil society has a very strong, if irrefutable point, in objecting to demands for higher pay by MPs.

But there can also be no doubt that the means by which they tried to exert pressure on the Members of Parliament on Tuesday were totally unacceptable.

In the first place, the civil society is supposed to be civil. This means that its actions must be seen to be befitting citizens as individuals.

Put in other words, the actions of members of civil society must be marked by satisfactory adherence to social usage and must not offend the larger society of ordinary citizens (civilians), of which the civil society itself is part.

By dumping pigs and piglets outside Parliament and pouring blood for them to lick, the demonstrators were insensitive to the feelings of many private citizens.

I, for one, as a survivor of the 1998 American embassy bomb blast, to this day find the sight of raw blood extremely detestable.

I am sure there are thousands of other citizens who for different reasons also cannot stand the sight of blood.

The pig is regarded as the symbol of greed. But it is also seen as a lot more than that. In Islam, Judaism and various Christian denominations, the pig is considered to be an unclean animal.

Inscribing the names of Mithika Linturi, Aden Duale and Jakoyo Midiwo, and others on the bodies of the pigs evokes negative feelings associated with religion.

And it was not lost on those who saw TV clips on the incident that some protesters wore white kanzu, insensitivity that could stir intolerance. Let us not throw out the baby with the bath water.

One other reason why I take issue with the protesters is because the civil society is supposed to be the paradigm of freedom of expression.

Starehe MP Maina Kamanda may never have been in support of the demands for higher pay, but by forcing him to sign their petition protesting the proposed salary increment, the protesters showed little respect for his own free will.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote in French philosopher Voltaire’s biography the following phrase: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

This captures the principle that in enjoying one’s rights and freedoms, one must also ensure that the freedoms of others are respected. Disrespect for the rights of others can never be the path to respect for one’s own rights.

Then, of course, the protests were marked by a host of illegalities.

These ranged from total disrespect for laws against cruelty to animals, to violation of health and environmental laws and also simply “acting in a manner likely to cause a breach of the peace”.

There need not be violent protests for there to be a breach of the peace; it is enough that one’s otherwise serene state of emotions is upset. Mine certainly was.

Non-violent protests are a welcome way of expressing displeasure in governmental excesses, and the civil society must remain at the forefront of providing the necessary checks and balances in this regard.

But care must be taken to ensure that the mode that protests take finds favour with the body-politic.

Otherwise, people might not notice the difference between the MPs agitating for higher pay and protesters against financial impunity.

Mr Nderitu is an advocate of the High Court. ([email protected])

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