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September 23, 2018

In Defence Of The Kisumu Protests Over Sikh Statue

CONTROVERSIAL: The monument erected by the Sikh community on Mosque Road in Kisumu city.
CONTROVERSIAL: The monument erected by the Sikh community on Mosque Road in Kisumu city.

I know this is a tricky undertaking; the subject controversial. The chattering vigilantes are out in full force, condemning the mobs for chasing away the Luo Paramount Chief but cleverly disguising their hypocritical utterances as critical opinions on the mobs’ purported religious ‘intolerance,’ ‘artistic ignorance,’ and ‘cultural primitivity.’ Even the venerable cartoonist, Gado, has joined in the fray; correctly ridiculing the mobs for violently demonstrating their abhorrence of ‘idol worship,’ while continuing to worship their Dear Leader.

Unfortunately lost in the din of ensuing cacophony is the fact that the Kisumu mobs are becoming increasingly restless, riotous, violent and rebellious to the extent that even their deity has recently discovered that his personal safety and political security is no longer guaranteed. So, I plead with my readers not to laugh because things are Elephant at the lakeside city of Kisumu and I need a bit of patience to peel back this latest mask with rigour and detailed attention.

The Kenyan chattering classes have whimsically condemned the angry mobs that stoned and defaced the Sikh statue (or was it a monument?) in Kisumu last week without any critical analysis as to the mobs’ intended message and manner of execution. Nor has the Kenyan media been objective and allowed the protestors to openly voice their grievances, no matter how disagreeable and misguided they may be perceived to be. After all, the constitutional rights that many commentators have ascribed to the Sikh community in Kisumu cut both ways. Both freedom of religion and freedom of expression are guaranteed and entrenched rights for everyone. That includes the Kisumu mobs.

I have special interest on what transpired in Kisumu last week for numerous reasons. First, because Kisumu is the county where I was born; second, because I have interest in seeing demagoguery, hooliganism and political conmanship extinguished in Luo Nyanza; and third - and more significantly - because some of those mobs that defaced the Sikh statue might be the same ones that burnt my effigy and buried me in a mock funeral at Ahero on July 16, 2012 merely on account that I had written a book their deity, Mr. Raila Amolo Odinga, found disagreeable. Some of them might also have been the ones that attacked and nearly lynched me in Kisumu on August 23rd, 2012.

Ironically, whereas the attack on the Sikh monument (remember that not a single Sikh was physically attacked, harassed, intimidated or threatened in Kisumu last week) has received uniform and blanket condemnation from the chattering classes; brutal physical attacks on me only elicited feeble grumblings from three commentators. Even Father Gabriel Dolan who has hurled abuse on the Kisumu mobs and called them intolerant and castigated the spiritual leader of the Repentance and Holiness Ministry, Dr. David Owuor, alleging without any shred of evidence, that Dr. Owuor was responsible for the desecration, held his sharp tongue and poisonous pen when I was savagely attacked by the same mobs in August 2012. Did he believe that my rights were expendable?

The hypocrisy exhibited by the critics of the Kisumu mobs regarding the defacement of the Sikh statue is dumbfounding.

Images are powerful tools of communication. They are more powerful than words. Images captivate the mind and human soul. Images inspire. But they can also create doubt, despondency and even war. That is why the most intoxicating images are often controlled and regulated by law. Because Kenya is a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-linguistic country, we must be careful not to elevate any single religion, cultural group and/or linguistic image above all others. The Kisumu mobs have not constructed any monuments for their gods, nor have they demanded that other groups of people, including the Sikh, must worship theirs idols.

Tolerance cuts both ways.

The first question we must confront is this: Who commissioned the statue and why; not the person who moulded it. It shouldn’t matter whether he calls himself a sculptor; an artist; a moulder; or a curator. Whatever he made was conceived and produced under instructions and directions by the people who commissioned and paid for the monument. Was the Luo community in Kisumu involved during that entire process? Why not?

A related question that must be addressed is whether the image was intended as religious or secular symbolism. If it was secular, why has it been referred to as “Sikh statue?” What made it ‘Sikh’ if there was nothing immutably and inherently Sikh about it? Why was it significant to place it in a public space and not within a Sikh Temple?

 If the statue was an abstract image, a secular and non-religious expression of love as some critics, including the sculptor, have claimed, why are people like Mr. Dolan asserting, and others purporting, that they are protecting the right of the Sikh community to practice their religion freely?

The media have reported a few Sikh leaders asserting that the monument was intended to signify and commemorate 100 years of Sikh presence and cultural heritage in Kisumu. If so, why wasn’t the local community involved in its conceptualisation, planning and inauguration?

On Saturday, August 8th, 2014, the Kisumu mobs woke from their self-induced lethargy and charged at the statue. Not even the Luo Paramount Chief, a living deity among his people - Raila Amolo Odinga - could assuage the mob’s seething rage. He had to be rescued and escorted from the scene by heavily-armed police amidst exploding tear-gas canisters. Before Mr. Odinga ran away, his mobs had quickly descended on the statue and defaced it within minutes.

This incident was the climax of three days of demonstrations. And as the mobs destroyed the Sikh monument, they yelled at, heckled and shouted down Mr. Odinga. They stated that they “will not be used as rubber stamps to endorse other [people’s] gods…This time round, we say no!” They alleged that Mr. Odinga had been compromised by “Asian businessmen in Kisumu.” They rightly demanded that only statues of Kenya’s liberation heroes be constructed in public places in Kisumu.

Earlier on, in response to the mobs’ demands – and before he was literally chased away - Mr Odinga delivered “a good message” to the marauding mobs: “We are going to put up a statue of my father at the Oginga Odinga Street.” Predictably, Mr. Odinga didn’t promise to erect a statue in memory of Ojijo Koteko, Tom Mboya, Argwings Kodhek, Achieng’ Oneko, Gor Mahia or Lwanda Magere. That would have been too refreshingly progressive for him.

And with that, he had run away from his own angry and hungry people.

Yet, the Kenyan media subsequently tried to spin the story and claimed that it was the “first time” Mr. Odinga was being heckled by his own people.

That wasn’t true. During and immediately after the shambolic ODM party nominations of 2013, Mr. Odinga was repeatedly heckled and chased away from Ahero, Muhoroni, Homa Bay and Siaya.

Unlike when the mobs were attacking me merely for writing a book; those times and during the latest Kisumu incident, the mobs were protecting their inherent rights to think and make decisions for themselves freely. They were protesting against being used as rubber stamps for political and business deals they weren’t part of. The desecration of the Sikh’s monument was the mobs’ way of saying that they are tired of cheap and empty politics of self-aggrandisement, hero worship and idolatry, which they have engaged in for decades.

And so, to the chattering classes I say: Don’t spin the story. Let the marauding mobs of Luo Nyanza exercise their constitutional rights. Allow them to exorcize themselves of all human idols without your hypocritical pontifications.

Mr. Miguna Miguna is a lawyer and author of Peeling Back the Mask: A Quest for Justice in Kenya and Kidneys for the King: Deforming the Status Quo in Kenya. [email protected]

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