You may have heard that there’s a bit of unrest in Kenya at the moment.
After an election (that was widely-seen as fraudulent) returned President Mwai Kibaki to power, the opposition organized protests, and violent mobs spread brutal chaos through the country.
Charles Kanjama is trying to encourage the opposition to embrace a nonviolent resistance strategy, with tax resistance at the forefront. He writes:
In two months, the fabric of Kenyan society has been torn apart following a flawed presidential election exercise. All because Kenyans failed to protest peacefully and effectively without recourse to violence and other discreditable means of resistance.
As we reach the last lap of the mediation talks, both local and foreign observers are worried at the likely consequences of failure.
Kenya is already reeling from the politically-inspired violence which has taken an ethnic dimension. There is a natural fear that failure of the mediation talks will lead to more violence and property destruction. Failure can easily cause irreversible ethnic purges, balkanisation, a growing spiral of violence, and possible militarization of the conflict. Ultimately, failure can lead to the disintegration of this country we love so much.
Violence will not be the solution to Kenya’s crisis. It is not the proper response to failure of the mediation talks. Violence fails to discriminate between the innocent and the guilty and ends up injuring both the aggrieved and the aggressor.
Even where violence can distinguish aggressors and is applied rationally to fight political oppression, traditional moral norms still set a high standard before violence can be considered legitimate. In such a case, there must be clear and grave violations of fundamental rights. Other means of redress should have been tried within reasonable hope of success.
Violence should not provoke worse disorders and it should be capable of achieving the desired goal.
Not even national independence movements can easily surmount the conditions for targeted violence to become legitimate. Hence, the development of alternative peaceful forms of resistance, which can be just as effective in achieving political goals.
Mahatma Gandhi recognised the perils of violence when he elaborated on his Satyagraha philosophy of non-violent resistance. It was part of the blue print that India used on its path to Independence from British dominion.
Gandhi remarked that he did not seek India’s freedom out of the ashes of a destroyed Britain.
He advocated for various forms of economic boycott, non-payment of taxes and civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a form of protest in which protestors deliberately disobey a law they deem illegitimate, or other laws such as traffic or trespass laws.
The aim is to make government respond to the protestors’ legitimate concerns or to bring down an illegitimate government. Gandhi commented: “Withholding payment of taxes is one of the quickest methods of overthrowing a government.”
Another successful practitioner of non-violent resistance was Martin Luther King, who pressed for civil rights for African-Americans through protest rallies and economic boycott.
Unlike Malcolm X whose violent rhetoric threatened to tear the blacks from America, King succeeded in achieving the political goals of the movement without any misdirected violence or bloodshed.
Sceptics have argued that Kenyans are ontologically incapable of engaging in non-violent protest.
Similar arguments were made to Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in America, yet they persevered and succeeded.
Even in Kenya, violent resistance to political oppression has generally failed, such as when the British crushed the Mau Mau or when the attempted coup was scuttled.
In contrast, diplomacy, peaceful mass action and non-violent resistance have often succeeded. They led Kenya to independence in and they succeeded in bringing back multiparty democracy in .
Some cynics have argued that no African government would yield to non-violent pressure. The regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is the cynics’ example. A former U.S. Secretary of State dismissed the threat of peaceful protestors with a similar argument, “Let them march all they want as long as they continue to pay their taxes.”
This underlies the dangerous belief in Kenya that an illegitimate government is immune to non-violent resistance. Government opponents are tempted to utilise violent protests, while the government is tempted to develop oppressive structures of a police state to safeguard itself.
In contrast, the great American writer Mark Twain remarked on the importance of legitimacy, “At bottom we know that the throne which the people support, stands and that when that support is removed, nothing in this world can save it.”
Some Kenyans believe that the government does not need a genuine mediated settlement to recover its legitimacy. This growing group of partisans has now resurrected the endangered sovereignty argument to challenge the power-sharing proposals of the Annan-led mediation.
They argue that the idea of sharing power between PNU allies and ODM as equals is a foreign implant of Western countries that want to divide and dominate our country. This argument are put across as if the UN, AU, EU and the US are the cause of our divisions and weaknesses, rather than the hope for our reunification and strength.
Kenya is going through a greater crisis than at any other time in its history. Just like in the past, our current leaders should be willing to change the Constitution so that Kenya can overcome the current crisis.
It is not strange that some people fear change. Mark Twain commented a century ago, “There are some that never know how to change. Circumstances may change, but those people are never able to see that they have got to change too, to meet those circumstances. All that they know is the one beaten track that their fathers and grandfathers have followed and that they themselves have followed in their turn. If an earthquake come and rip the land to chaos and that beaten track now lead over precipices and into morasses, those people can’t learn that they must strike out on a new road — no; they will march stupidly along and follow the old one to death and perdition.”
Kenyans who fear change are prepared to blindly cling to a constitutional structure that encourages despotism. Hence, the need to utilise pacific methods of resistance and civil disobedience.
The aim is to fight despotism without falling into anarchy, which is an equally perverse political evil. Foreign countries concerned about the consequences of failed mediation are doing their part. They have threatened to use economic and diplomatic pressure to nudge the negotiating teams towards a credible power-sharing agreement.
External pressure cannot work on its own without concomitant internal pressure. Hence the growing realisation that Kenyans will need to participate more actively in non-violent forms of resistance against an illegitimate government.
This spectre of non-violent resistance will loom large if the likelihood of a power sharing agreement fades. It involves three related activities.
First, peaceful protest rallies and other manifestations, such as white and yellow ribbon campaigns.
Second, a campaign of civil disobedience like working against traffic obstruction laws.
And third, an economic and tax boycott to starve the government of cash and force it back to the negotiating table.
Economic boycott and tax resistance is an old tested approach and has been tried in many countries with varying success. During the time of Jesus, Jewish Zealots resisted the poll tax of the Roman occupiers of Palestine.
In many Quakers refused to pay taxes to finance the French and Indian War. In , American protests at taxation without representation led to tax boycotts, which ultimately triggered the American War of Independence.
William Wilberforce used tax boycott to increase pressure on Britain to abolish the slave trade. Gandhi in India also employed tax resistance to ramp up pressure for Indian independence.
Currently, an American anti-war association is campaigning for a tax boycott on account of the Iraq War.
In Kenya’s situation, protestors can use compliant and non-compliant tax avoidance. Both forms of boycott would target income tax and VAT and would seek to gain co-operation of small and medium-size enterprises in the first stage, then larger corporate organisations in the second stage.
Compliant tax avoidance plays within the rules of the current tax statutes to reduce, delay or eliminate tax liability. For PAYE for example, participating employers and employees can enter into a voluntary contract to convert monthly employment into quarterly or half-yearly employment, thus effectively delaying tax liability for several months. For VAT, tax resisters can decide to only engage in transactions that are not eligible for VAT.
Non-compliant tax avoidance operates on the principle that an illegitimate government has no right to levy taxes. This form of tax resistance should only be attempted in a collective exercise under the direction of a recognised authority, say the Law Society of Kenya or other civil society organisation.
Tax resisters can utilise various mechanisms, such as putting money into escrow accounts pending the resolution of the political dispute, or unilateral reduction of their tax liabilities by say Sh10,000 each.
However like violent protests where participants risks their lives, tax resisters must be ready to pay a price — tax penalty if their resistance is not successful. This is better, kinder and more civil than getting killed or killing a fellow citizen or destroying other people’s property.
Kenyans may need to embrace non-violent resistance, as opposed to unjust forms of violence, should the Annan-led mediation fail. But non-violent resistance must be carefully designed to avoid anarchy.