Kenya’s University of Nairobi has been closed indefinitely. Student protests over the reelection of Student Union president Babu Owino, led to violence in the streets of Nairobi, and the dreaded General Service Unit cracked down hard on pretty much any student they could get a hold of in true 1990s fashion.
Except that because this is not the 1990s but the 21st century, somebody captured footage of the police’s excesses, uploaded it onto social media, where it went viral in spite of dubious claims that the video was from the 2008 post-election violence.
Added to that was the reaction by some that, the students were simply being ‘disciplined’ for their unruly behavior. Discipline is a word that many Kenyans have come across in many different guises.
In most contexts it is associated with the harsh punishment of infractions, or maintenance of outrageous, and sometimes counterproductive expectations on them by some angry authority figure. This dominant narrative often results in the most grievous violence by people in authority on others being passed off as discipline.
Husband beating their wives for petty offenses like overcooked dinner, wives beating husbands for being drunk, teachers putting their pupils in the hospital by way of the cane, and police brutality at demonstrations, all get rationalized through the mantra that discipline and violence are pretty much one and the same thing.
Some of it, like the domestic violence is connected with cultural view towards husbands and wives, while the institutional violenece meted out by teachers, police, armed forces and so on traces its roots to the colonial approach to subduing the ‘natives.’
Much of the reasoning behind these forms of discipline has persisted unchallenged in modern Kenyan society even when the reality that brough it into existed has long since faded away.
Yet even with all this ‘discipline’ going around, Kenyans are hardly the orderly, peaceful and well-mannered people who all this ‘discipline’ is supposed to the make us.
The vandalism and destruction of property caused by UoN students was hardly a one-off, what with arson, and looting being a common part of student protests of most public schools and colleges even all the way down to the primary school level.
Violent crime is on the rise. Carjacking, armed robbery in urban areas, cattle rustling in the rural areas. Even the ‘disciplined’ forces are not beyond engaging in looting, as Kenyans saw in the Westgate mall fiasco from 2013.
Yet the narrative of violence as discipline and discipline as violence persists. At whet point will we realize that this hackneyed approach has gone way past its use by date?