This week, the country was stirred by news that Brian Kibet Bera, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, had been shot and was under police protection at Kenyatta National Hospital.
It was reported that upon attempting to climb over State House’s Gate B, Kibet was confronted by security officers manning the President’s official residence but he allegedly unleashed a knife, resulting in his shooting.
From a myriad posts on his Facebook page, Kibet seemed to be a disturbed man who was on a singular mission. He had written long status updates in the week preceding the State House incident, lamenting about various injustices—some of them incoherent.
He claimed to have written a letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta to allow the poor and oppressed homeless people—in Kibet’s words—to live in the caves of Mount Elgon National Park. He made similar posts until the day before he made good his threat to go to State House.
Knowing that his utterances on social media will be construed as words of a mentally unstable individual, Kibet took the liberty to outline his academic prowess, reminding everyone that he was barely two months away from completing his engineering degree, and prior to that, he had worked hard from his Kitale home and gained admission to Nairobi School, where he scored an A plain.
However, what was more telling was the overwhelming support Kibet’s actions elicited from Kenyans on social media. Some saw him as a kind of hero, getting praised for his Facebook posts and making good his pledge to storm State House.
Some even went as far as drawing comparisons between Kibet and Mohammed Bouazizi, the man who sparked Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and the infamous Arab Spring in December 2010, by setting himself ablaze. Bouazizi, a street vendor, was protesting the action of municipal officials confiscating his wares and humiliating him.
Kibet’s online backers saw his actions as an act of defiance at a time when there’s growing disgruntlement with the state of affairs in the country, characterised by runaway corruption and economic hardship witnessed across board.
The online masses found an outlet, someone through whom they could project their own sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Kibet’s actions may not have caused a revolution like Bouazizi’s did, but the act of a twenty-something-year-old brilliant and gifted young man deciding to risk it all and walk straight into a potentially life-ending situation raises many disturbing questions. Do the reactions Kibet’s actions elicited in a sense reflect the national mood?
There’s certainly a conversation to be had about Kibet’s mental health, as intimated by his distraught father David Bera during a TV interview, where he volunteered his son’s psychiatric history, including admission to an Eldoret hospital in 2018. Doctors are said to have diagnosed the young man with a mental disorder.
Yet some — like Kibet’s praise singers online — may read this in the context of Burkina Faso revolutionary Thomas Sankara’s words to Swiss journalist Jean Philippe Rapp during a 1985 interview, that ‘‘you cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness…’’
With Kibet’s actions being viewed as either revolutionary or a cry for help by a tortured mind, what must not escape our attention is that a mental health epidemic is slowly but surely taking root in Kenya, going by the staggering number of suicides, femicides and similar tragic occurrences.
There’s, therefore, an urgent need to destigmatise mental health, and for the state and other actors in society — including health insurance providers — to develop robust interventions on how to de-escalate the ailment.
The other glaring realisation is that Kenya’s bankrupt politics of self-seeking parrots and their masters, fuelled by grand corruption and blatant disregard for mwananchi, has reached a level where it is directly affecting the nation’s collective psyche, cascading down to affect individual citizen’s well-being.
Therefore unless our politics and governance changes, and unless mental health is urgently prioritised as a national emergency, there can be no guarantee that there won’t arise another Kibet, and that the action of such a future Kibet may result in something much bigger, just like in Bouazizi’s Tunisia.
For now, Kibet should receive the necessary medical attention, and be allowed to sit his final examination while going through any required legal processes.