Parody to Survive Politico-economic Dire Times
By Dr. Godwin Murunga
I know a few friends in Kenya who get really exasperated when serious national issues are reduced in social media discourse to comedic moments. The danger of such reduction was once brought to bear at a meeting in Washington DC more than a decade ago when I made a presentation on the sense of belonging to the city of Nairobi that was followed by a presentation by a Cameroonian colleague who focused on parody as resistance to dictatorship.
Sitting in the audience was Prof. Dickson Eyoh, a Cameroonian scholar who teaches in Toronto. He wondered why presentations on Cameroon focus on parody, irony, mimicking to discuss resistance when more formidable approaches to resistance against authoritarianism are preferred in presentations from other countries. He obviously understood that serious forms of resistance against the regime in Cameroon were taking place but was unclear why scholarship tends to retreat to emphasize caricature.
Before Fred Mbogo accuses me of anti-humanities bias, this does not mean that caricature of the potentate, Achille Mbembe called them many years ago, is not important.
I am drawn to this discussion because in the last two weeks in Kenya, social media has been awash with a resigned parody of erstwhile Jubilee supporters who are being reminded of the things they said in support of Uhuru Kenyatta that are now punitively catching up with them.
They supported a more draconian security bill that gave police enormous powers that are evidently unconstitutional. They dismissed concerns around excessive government borrowing. They supported actions by government that ultimately need the government to increase taxes in order to cope. They laughed at and even incited more police violence against so-called opposition protests. They defended the government against claims of corruption.
All this time, some of us voiced a concern that the best laws for any country are laws you can entrust in the hands of your enemy. For such cautions, we were labeled, abused and demeaned. It seems the chicken are coming home to roost.
The big question is whether such resignation to parody is good for the country. In a country where consistency is a foreign vocabulary and where you cannot trust people to vote their own interests and safeguard a basic belief in some uncontestable national good, why should we blame those who resigned to a fate beyond repair in 2017?
In a country where politicians lie shamelessly, where the mass of Kenyans believe their politicians in moments of deep insanity around elections, where citizens recklessly abuse civil society and accept misleading and demeaning labels such as evil society, why wouldn’t resignation to fate periodically renewed every 5 years be an option?
In a country where Alice beats up an electoral official because he refused to inflate the vote numbers of her preferred candidate, where Alice pontificates on national TV every morning about the virtues of her preferred candidate and then, less than 3 years down, Alice wakes up to castigate the same preferred leader as the greatest danger to our country, why wouldn’t resignation to a fate sanctioned by Alice be an option? Why wouldn’t parody of Alice on social media be a pastime we invoke as a palliative against harrowing economic times?
In a country where an electoral official is murdered in cold blood and Moses (Kuria) parodies the murder on national television and proceeds to parody Double M when his rights as a citizen are violated and even posts a laudatory message promising to increase police budget for tear gas, why wouldn’t the parody of Moses be the first reaction of anyone?
In short, people do not resort to parody because they want. They resort to parody as resistance because they have invested too much in actual physical resistance and been defeated not by the potentate but by fellow citizens whose acquiescence in damaging the country is too obvious.
Dr. Murunga is the Director of the African Leadership Centre and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.