A short while ago a story about African governments imposing lockdowns and curfews in a bid to control the spread of the novel coronavirus declared: “Covid-19 lockdown in Africa starts to the soundtrack of violence everywhere.”
From Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, across the swath of this fair continent, in most of the countries where these control measures went into effect, the scenes have been much the same — police and soldiers flogging the people for being out late on the first day, trading and walking in wrong places, or making a desperate rush to catch the last bus, train or ferry out.
The general exception in this brutality are the female security officers who, in Kenya, for example, have been very helpful, especially to older citizens and women with their children caught out in the curfews.
This raises the question why, even when they are trying to save them, in most of our continent, the police and army must torment and brutalise people.
It is a familiar story. When there is distribution of food by the State during a famine, the wananchi lining up to get supplies will be flogged.
It is not uncommon for voters who get restless in the queues when officials delay the start of the ballot to be beaten, and even shot.
It can get so absurd that when the 'Big Man' is visiting some part of the country, where local political functionaries want to give him the illusion that he has a lot of support, they will mobilise students and residents to line the road and wave national and party flags, plus a few leaves in between.
The police will beat them when they get excited at approaching convoys, and in the end will send them home dehydrated and hungry.
It’s true that the masses can often seem unruly and allergic to discipline, but smart enforcers need to understand why.
It is because of scarcity. The food lines will often fall into disorder because the supplies won’t be enough for everyone, some (if not most) of it having been stolen by corrupt officials. It’s only natural that one scrambles to get a piece.
The people fear, often rightly, that if they don’t hassle in the voting line, they might not get to cast their ballots, or that if it’s not well settled at the bottom of the box, election-stealing returning officers might not count it.
Not everyone will patiently queue for the bus or ferry, if they think or know that it won’t make enough trips to take them all, and if they are late, they will be mugged, raped, or murdered in a dark alley by street criminals.
The solution, therefore, is not violence. It is to offer wananchi incentives to be patient in line, and that means providing enough of whatever goods or services they are scrambling for.
Indeed, there are community organisations and NGOs that have mastered this, and deliver goods to the people in larger numbers than states, and they don’t need sticks to have order.
That tells us there is something more going on. Critics slate African police for having a “colonial mentality”.
The colonialists took the view, to use the earthily expression, that the “African’s brain is in his buttocks”, so he had to be shackled, whipped, and beaten down.
It’s partly why police violence is often so gratuitous. They chase protesters and corner a few.
If the object was firm chastisement, they would slap them once or twice, and strike them once on the leg, and leg them off.
But they won’t. Six of them will surround a hapless protester, beat him repeatedly, stomp his neck and stomach with their boots, and leave him limp or dead.
Doing that is not “colonial”; it is a logical approach chosen because of the democracy deficits most states suffer.
The first goal is to be so extreme, that it strikes fear into present and future protesters, curfew breakers, that they won’t repeat it.
Mostly, however, so they don’t try to negotiate for things like moving the curfew hour from 7pm or 8pm.
If citizens can negotiate a shift in the curfew hour, they will not stop there. Next, they will demand that the potholes in their street be filled; that the state bring water to their neighbourhood; that a rigged vote be properly counted, and that taxpayers’ money stolen by corrupt officials be returned and the officials punished.
A citizen walking on a desolate street because she had to see an ill mother will be sat in the sun and humiliated all day, when a chit asking her to pay a token fine at her chief’s office the next day would suffice. Well, there is no spectacle to display in that.
Many African states are incompetent, but even the worsts ones that cannot walk and chew at the same time will do one thing extremely well - turn otherwise good men and women into minions, and instruments of oppression. You have to hand it to them there.
Mr Onyango-Obbo, a journalist and writer, is the curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3