In the world’s current climate, so much is amiss. Social and political injustices are pervaded across the globe on a daily basis. The character of a generation is showcased in how much social injustice it tolerates and allows to prevail or its efforts to counter it. How many calls to action do you see on your social media pages per week? To march, rise, support? How many of these have you taken up and participated in? It is not apathy as many would have you think that keeps the average African youth safely indoors avoiding the melee despite ancestors that bled for freedom giving them the liberties they now enjoy.
It’s simple survival instincts. Which is why the boycotts are the perfect form of protest for a generation that has been taught to value education and knowledge above all. A generation that was brought up to put books before all else, yet are expected to drop the tools they gained through education and arm themselves as past generations did to secure their freedom and civil liberties. Instead they should be allowed to successfully evolve and create or engage in forms of protest more suited to them.
Existing forms of nonviolent protest
There are a number of different ways that you can express your dissatisfaction with issues, and one of them is through peaceful protest. A peaceful protest, nonviolent resistance or nonviolent action, is the act of expressing disapproval through a statement or action without the use of violence.
Nonviolent resistance (NVR or nonviolent action) is the practice of achieving goals such as social change through symbolic protests, civil disobedience, economic or political noncooperation, satyagraha (passive resistance), or other methods, while being nonviolent. Types of non-violent protest include: Sit Ins, Marches, Boycotts, Legal Action and Strikes.
Although nonviolent protest is ideally meant to be peaceful, experience has however shown that the simple congregation of a group with opposing views from the status quo is seen as a show of force and therefore a threat. The loss of life and property damage that has occurred from the notion that disagreeing with the popular opinion or leadership is unacceptable, is innumerable.
Thus the genius of boycotts. By removing the visual representation of resistance and thus the target of retaliation both life and property is safeguarded. The opposing group can destabilize companies and by proxy entire regimes through the ‘passive’ action of choosing one telecommunications provider over another because of its ties to the leading party.
Kenya, did it work?
I’m sure by now you have gleamed through my not so subtle hints that my case study for why boycotts are Africa’s way forward for nonviolent protest is Kenya. The past election period has been trying at best and horrific if we refuse to be politically correct. The country should be in mourning for the people that have been slain as a result of conflicting views but one side is too proud to admit blatant apathy and the other side although noble in their grievance refuses to see their leaders strategic flaws.
So lets discuss why Kenya’s opposition boycott did and did not work.
Opposition Nasa’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) wing called on its supporters to opt out of services and products from telecoms giant Safaricom, milk processor Brookside and fast goods manufacturer Bidco Kenya. The political coalition said the boycott was an act of economic sabotage against corporations they claim are affiliated with the Jubilee administration. “This is the beginning of the liberation of our country against corporations that have gone to bed with the Jubilee regime…The companies have denied Kenyans their right to participate in democratic elections,” Suna East MP Junet Mohamed told journalists at Okoa Kenya’s Nairobi office.
This was the first time in the country a boycott of company products was attempted as a strategy to agitate for change. Until that point, the opposition has mainly fought its battles on the streets utilizing its numbers and ability to mobilize to push its agenda. However, with the boycott, NASA finally found an avenue to engage the aforementioned non-militant, educated and elusive middle class.
Just like that the term “resist” was tangible to supporters from all classes and tribes alike. Now anyone could actively participate in building a future they wanted, but had not up until that point, had a role in creating. And they came out swinging. Bridging the gaps for the average person who would have trouble identifying which products were part of the boycott e.g. Bidco makes several brands of soaps and edible oils meaning most supermarket shelves are so replete with Bidco products it would be difficult to know what belongs to the company and what doesn’t. They facilitated spaces where conversations could be carried out and collectively chipped away at the brands that were shortlisted.
The problem child in the companies that were shortlisted for the boycott was Kenyan chess master and constant innovator Safaricom. The company has a love hate relationship with its subscribers but holds the key to everyone’s proverbial house through Mpesa. Mpesa has become such a staple of the average Kenyans life it would be difficult to convince many to give it up. The service is convenience like no other place in the world knows or can fully understand. Ask supporters to boycott calls, texts, data and other services of the telecoms company and everyone will agree that Airtel; its competitor; is cheaper anyway. But asking them to boycott Mpesa is damn near impossible.
And this brings us to the issue of lack of plausible alternatives. In moving full steam ahead the opposition seemed to have forgotten to do their due diligence. The idea although brilliant lacked a realistic execution plan; without workable alternatives and inconsideration to the needs of their supporters the boycott was set-up to fail.
A mistake they repeated from the workers boycott that was attempted earlier in the year after Uhuru Kenyatta was declared winner of the August 8th election with a since contested 54 per cent vote.
Most traders and labourers did not uphold the boycott because it would mean inability to feed their families. “We have been running up and down because of the demos and there is no money we have made… We cannot continue being at home yet we have children to feed. That is why I opened business today,” David Ochieng, a second-hand clothes seller at the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground, told Daily Nation at the time.
Boycotts as the future of nonviolent protest
In the western world boycotts have grown in popularity, with a seemingly endless list of companies, movies, events and more being shunned at any given time. What separates an effective boycott from a futile one? A well-planned boycott with a clear, strategic purpose will have a greater effect and more lasting impact.
A major characteristic of successful boycotts lies in their focus. While spur of the moment or grassroots campaigns are usually aimed at convincing consumers to spend their money elsewhere, smart campaigns direct their attention towards a brand’s reputation instead of directly at its bottom line. Ultimately, the most desirable outcome is a behavioural change that extends far beyond a company’s short-term profits or a dip in its stock price.
Based on what the technologically savvy Kenyan microcosm has done in the past, a successful boycott is possible. Especially if the tools utilized target the brands reputation and image outside of it’s bottom line, thus negating responsibility on the vulnerable supporter who is likely to suffer in the process.
Change is not comfortable but it does not have to be life threatening, whether from actual bodily harm or tampering with supporter abilities to sustain themselves.