“At a time like this, scorching irony and no convincing argument is required,” said American abolitionist Frederick Douglass in a speech in 1852. He referred to the futility of arguing the illegality of slavery against a nation whose founding documents were freedom Declared a fundamental right. Rather than trying to convince his audience of the obvious, Douglass used humor as both a buffer and a weapon against the absurd inconsistencies of enslavement in 19th century America.
But he might as well have been talking about Kenya today, where every new day seems to bring with it new government absurdities. Since last weekend, police have closed key thoroughfares in the capital, Nairobi, under the pretext of enforcing a curfew related to COVID, resulting in massive, hour-long traffic jams.
Ambulances carrying patients and other emergency vehicles, parents with young children and employees rushing home get caught in the resulting traffic chaos. In response, Kenyans have turned to social media to express their outrage, and many have phrased it in satirical diatribes.
Humor and satire have become a preferred means of torturing the kleptocrats and the incompetent in power. But the Kenyan state doesn’t laugh. Two weeks ago, activist Edwin Mutemi wa Kiama was arrested by the police for breaking Kenyans online against recent attempts by the government to raise funds from the International Monetary Fund for distributing a poster – a parody of general newspaper reports from companies after employees were laid off – were armed. which stated that President Uhuru Kenyatta “had no authority to act or act on behalf of the people of Kenya”.
In court, prosecutors said, “The presidency is a symbol of unity and any attack on the institution is contemptible.” They called for Kiama to stay in prison for two weeks while they work to bring charges. In one ridiculous and widespread ruling, the judge instead beat him on bail of $ 4,600, a wage of over two years for the average Kenyan, and banned him from discussing Kenya’s foreign debt or the president online.
The fifth rule in Saul Alinsky’s classic about grassroots organizing, Rules for Radicals, says, “Mockery is man’s greatest weapon. It’s almost impossible to counter ridicule. It also infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage. “Faithfully, the state’s overreaction to ridicule worked to Kiama’s advantage, exposing his intolerance and brutality and inspiring even more online memes and ridicule.
Throughout their modern history, Kenyans have had to learn to use humor when dealing with the absurdities of the state. “I think it is undoubtedly true that for many Kenyan viewers, laughter was a means of drawing missionaries and officials away from attention, awe and authority,” says Derek Peterson, professor of history and African studies at the University of Michigan Colonial Kenya.
Whether it was a loud laugh during services and prayers, thwarting the missionaries’ attempts at conversion through an ostensible faith dialogue, or joking about their “predicament by unreasonable people” in the torture camps set up by the British government, humor was a constant feature of the Resistance to colonial rule.
After independence, and particularly during the despotic 24-year reign of Daniel Arap Moi, satirists ranging from playwrights to writers to columnists and cartoonists led the charge of regaining the rights of the state. When the state stepped down, the satirists grew bolder.
Today, with the advent of the internet and social media, it’s a rare day not to come across acrid tweets, memes, and cartoons lambasting the personal and public failures of President Kenyatta and his acolytes. For example, there has been an increase in new monikers for the president making fun of everything from his widespread addiction to alcohol to his choice of clothes to his sheltered life. Indeed, Kenyatta himself blamed the incessant ridicule for his decision to flee Twitter.
Much depends on who will win the war between the state and the satirists. All previous incarnations of totalitarianism, from the British occupiers to Moi, relied on a cult of invincibility and omnipotence to cement public approval. As Kenyatta seeks to rebuild his father’s brutal and centralized dictatorship, a determined mass of Kenyans work to deny him the intimidating aura and stature he craves and get him to size at every opportunity. The democratization of satire through the internet and social media makes it very difficult for the state to either control or ignore it.
So far, it has regularly turned to the law and the courts to silence critics. In December 2014, a prominent blogger, Robert Alai, was accused of undermining the presidency after tweeting that Kenyatta was a “young president”. A month later, a college student, Alan Wadi, was sentenced to two years in prison for calling Kenyatta a “criminal” [marijuana] Smoker and unfaithful red-eyed man ”.
More recently, several bloggers and journalists have been charged for posting misleading information about COVID-19, which they believe was public incitement to the government, or for posting allegations of corruption.
All of these are worrying signs. The satirists are Kenya’s canaries in the mine, testing whether the air is suitable for democracy and free speech. If Kenyatta can silence them, Kenya’s democratic dream will die with them.
The views expressed in this article are from the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.