So, today was an adventure. There were large political protests here in Nairobi, centered in a park across the street from the hotel where I live. Last week and two weeks ago about 80 people in two coastal villages were killed by armed gangs. Most people attribute this to El Shabab, the Islamic terrorist group responsible for the Westgate Mall attack last year, and many atrocities since then. And by most people, I include both the families of the villagers who were killed and El Shabab itself, who has claimed responsibility. But then the government, who has been embarrassed by their inability to do anything to stop these attacks, tried to claim that the Somalia-based El Shabab was not responsible, an instead pinned the blame on local Kenyan opposition parties trying to force the current ruling party from power.
This egregious claim is what triggered the protest. On the whole, President Kenyatta has been reasonably popular, but the patent absurdity of the government’s official interpretation has pissed a lot of people off, and the main aim of the protest was to let the country’s leadership know that people didn’t believe their story.
Both my office and my client are in very secure sites, but I was not comfortable driving past the site of this protest to get to or from there. So, acting on the advice that I just posted in this blog, I decided to be respectful and work from my room today. As result, I had the opportunity to observe this protest for most of the day.
I am not very good at counting large numbers of people, but I would estimate there were about 5,000 people gathered in the park across the street. The protest was noisy — many vuvuzelas were put to good use today — and I had a chance to observe a lot of it from my hotel room. It remained peaceful throughout the day; the police seemed wary but respectful.
But then, around 18:00 local time a large number of people started walking towards the Supreme Court building, and gunshots rang out. I counted a total of eight shots; they sounded like they came from a pistol rather than an automatic weapon. These shots were not followed by any screaming, panic, or other excitement. Just the contrary, everyone seemed to calm down and disperse, the police as well as the protesters. My surmise was that the police had fired shots into the air as a way of telling the crowd to disperse.
My hotel went immediately into lockdown; I continue to be impressed by the efficiency and professionalism of their security team. The hotel’s security manager phoned me and confirmed my interpretation that the gunshots were fired into the air to disperse the crowd, but said they did not want to take any chances. About an hour later, the crowd had fully dispersed, the police were gone, and the lockdown was lifted.
What was interesting to me about today was how smoothly it all came off. Everyone I observed or spoke with throughout the day: protesters, police, hotel staff, IBM colleagues, and clients, handled what could have been a very difficult day with grace and professionalism. All it would have taken is a single stupid act from just one person on any side of the confrontation, and things could have gotten very ugly very quickly. But nobody did anything stupid. Everyone behaved, and nobody got hurt. Score one for humanity today. I wish I could say that more often.