Boniface Mwangi is a Kenyan human rights activist and photojournalist. Some call him a daredevil for mustering the guts to boo a sitting president.
He says his life motto is “Live my life to make a difference”. He uses his camera to tell distinct stories about police brutality, poverty, unfairness and injustice that happen in his homeland, Kenya. Inspiring a young generation of Kenyans, he uses any means to fight the unjust system including taking pigs to Parliament to symbolize MPs’ greed. Spiritedly, he ridicules MPs, arguing that they live in luxury while many people die of hunger and live in destitution. This revolutionary spirit who has been several times for his audacious deeds says he is not scared of death. This photojournalist, famous for his post-election crisis pictures, has won many awards, including the Prince Claus Award 2012,CNN Multichoice Africa Photojournalist of the Year and he is now a Senior Ted Fellow. Creating a platform for young people in Kenya, he observes, engages and inspires them to aspire for a better Kenya. He came to Addis Ababa to take part in the Wax and Gold workshop, organised by Netsa Art Village. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter sat with him for an exclusive interview.
The Reporter: As part of the workshop, you planned a project. What was it about?
Boniface Mwangi: The one thing that struck me when I arrived in Addis Ababa is that Meles Zenawi’s picture is everywhere. He has been dead for about a year but he is at the airport, on billboards and in the taxis. Actually, his pictures compete with the orthodox crucifix.
Someone is out to benefit by having Meles everywhere. It is for a political purpose and I think Ethiopians see through the political propaganda. Why are they using Meles? Meles is a smokescreen for what they want to do. I know it is good to respect the dead, but he is a dead man. This doesn’t mean they should worship the man, or the country should stand still. I think Ethiopians have moved on. The country has to forge forward.
So, for my project, I put a drum around Arat Kilo, with a picture of Meles covering the drum. I urged Ethiopians to come and beat the drum, to say good-bye and move on. During my performance, I witnessed how Ethiopians were scared. Some saw his picture and passed by with disgust. Others asked, “Why are you celebrating a dead man?” But I was not celebrating a dead man; I was spreading the message to move on.
How did your activism start? From a previous interview, you said you were tired of situations. What were the things that made you tired?
From an early age I have been politically aware and I have been very vocal with my small situations where I grew up. I am still the same Boniface that they used to know many years ago, but with an amplified voice. My turning point came about after the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, which I was able to document as a photographer. People died because of the politicians and, at the end of the day, the whole country lost. After the violence, our politicians moved on like nothing had happened, which disturbed me. Half a million persons were displaced and 1,133 people died during that time. Forget about the death and the displacement: it was the audacity of politicians to assume that there was no violence and to pretend that nothing happened when they were in power that really threw me. Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga shook hands, signed a peace agreement and pretended nothing had happened. To them, the violence was secondary; that greatly bothered me. I was tired of the politicians, the political system and how they were manipulating people.
I quit my job and started preaching peace, furthermore encouraging people to talk about revolution, the class struggles and how they didn’t elect the right leaders to power. So we spoke about a ballot revolution and we had an election a few months ago. It did not turn out the way we wanted. We did not get the right people in power but it is a start. So we learned our lessons and we have another election in four years time. So our biggest task at the moment is to keep our leaders accountable and true to their promises. I’m preparing young people for leadership, because if something happens or there is an opportunity, we can rise to the occasion.
We need to learn from the Arab Spring, where young people revolted and went to the streets. Egypt is a very good example. As we want change, are we organized enough to take over power as young people? Are we ready to offer the alternative that is needed in the country? We protested that we want change, but change to what? Hosni Mubarak left and Mohamed Morsi came; now the military have taken over again, but the question is: what next for Egyptians? I think as we organize, protest and even fight the government, we need to be able to say if the government falls can we take over power?
I think it is time that young people of Africa stopped being the foot soldiers of politicians and the military. If you look at the military and the police, they are composed of young people, but we have old politicians and it raises the question why? Is it that we are not ready for power? Or are we ill-prepared for power? Maybe we don’t even know what we want.
What kind of changes are you offering?
For us, what we want back home is actually leaders of integrity. We want revolutionary leaders in the country. We don’t want mere politicians who are populists, who do things for the sake of votes or say things to become popular. We want men and women who can lead with integrity. People who can actually help us forge new values because our country lacks values.
Our country urbanized at a very fast rate and there is an important need for job creation, so that we can stop the rural-urban migration. There is a need for quality of education. There is a need for a secure country so people don’t die because of insecurity. We have a constitution that is not enforced. I think constitution that is not enforced is like having a Bible in a brothel useless!
My take is that the African governments in power are too populist. They should be more courageous to move away from populist policies. Kenya has a very progressive constitution that should be implemented.
A lot of money used in this past election and most of it was illegally acquired money. Our current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is a product of corruption he used the money his father, Jomo Kenyatta, stole to finance his campaign. His father, the first president of Kenya, was a very corrupt man. I am sure Uhuru is not going to prosecute the criminals or the thieves, because his father stole large tracts of land and most of the officials in power are land grabbers
We talk about land redistribution and land policy. For Kenya, the current administration would not bring about change. What we have in Kenya is bad leadership.
What is your strategy for bringing about change?
My strategy is simple. I did my first real demonstration last year, after Members of the Parliament decided to increase their salaries. I organized a demonstration and our message was very simple: We need courageous Kenyans who are able to defend the country at any cost, but in a peaceful way. We are followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, but we use the rhetoric of Malcolm-X: forceful language and powerful words. Malcolm X was non-violent. His language was very strong and he was never arrested for his language. He said do not turn the other cheek. If a man sends you a dog, you kill it. If the dog attacks, you don’t start kissing it, you kill the dog.
So is it an eye for an eye? Or how do you deal with it?
You fight the system strategically. Gandhi and Dr King used non-violence because they were smart. They realized the State has the monopoly of force. You cannot overthrow a government that is more armed and well equipped. It is impossible, and history teaches that you cannot do that. So you have to use various strategies. Using violence is defeatist, because you end up killing innocent people. Violence does not kill the president or the ministers; it kills innocent people on the street. When you start using violence, it turns the population against you. Extreme issues sometimes call for violence, like the confrontation between the EPRDF and the Derg. In this modern day, violence does not help. Look at Syria. Eventually the country bleeds.
What about the countries where political demonstrations and non-violent struggles are not allowed?
I will give Ethiopia as an example. Ethiopians should use insurgent methods. If you find the government is not allowing political demonstrations, find a way to fight the government secretly even if it’s doing graffiti at night. Go underground and organize a community. Search for that voice. Eventually, there will be a crack, a space to come out through. The other option would be holding a march for a million people. It might not be possible here since Ethiopians are passive. They suffer in silence. I think it’s wrong for the Ethiopian government not to allow freedom of expression. Dictators are cowards. They do not allow free speech. They must be very afraid of the people, which is why they don’t allow people to demonstrate. If they are popular leaders and if they are doing the right thing, why are they afraid of demonstrations unless they have something to hide? The Prime Minister of this country should ask himself why he does not allow free speech and demonstration. The people should not be afraid of governments; it should be vice versa. Leaders are to serve the people and they are in that position by the will of the people. Why are the people afraid of them? Because the governments are killing, arresting and persecuting. They should learn from history that, eventually, all authoritarian governments crumble.
So how is your fight so far? There was a famous demonstration called Occupy Parliament. Was it fruitful?
Occupy Parliament was meant to be a protest against the greed of Members of Parliament. We had a plan to go and occupy Parliament, literally, but we got kicked out by the government. I can say confidently that we were successful in the whole protest. It was on May 14 this year. We mobilized people online, mainly using Twitter and Facebook. I also used word of mouth: I have a community that I work with.
Sometimes the media pick up the story and run with it, so we use many channels. The demonstration was very colourful. The scene was like a movie set, covered with pigs, blood, armed police and angry protesters with placards. We had live coverage on all the TV stations and also on the international media. Around a thousand people showed up but there are 40 million Kenyans. So that is not a big number. Even if we did not have many people on the street, the people at home got the message and I hear our work is famous everywhere, which is a good thing.
We took pigs to Parliament and we fed them with cow blood. We did not slaughter any pigs. The pigs represent the worst of our Members of Parliament: greed and short-sightedness.
Pigs are greedy animals and the MPs are greedy at the expense of our country. Truth is that no matter how much money you steal, ultimately you will die. The Kenyan pig farmers responded by saying that, actually, pigs are better than our MPs. Some of the pigs had MPs’ names written on them. The demonstration was active for a few hours until the police came. We were beaten, tear gassed and arrested. Seventeen of us were arrested and released but there is still a pending court case. We did Occupy Parliament Reloaded after the first demonstration, this time going to Parliament with more blood. This year we had three demonstrations the coffin protest (where we burned coffins), and the two Occupy Parliaments. At the end of the day, our Members of Parliament did not get their salary increment, so we won: it was because of our protests. They were able to sneak back and get more allowances. An average Kenyan MP gets US$12000 inclusive of allowances a month, which is a lot of money in a country where you have people who make less than US$100 a month.
Apart from the demonstrations, you use graffiti to oppose the government. Are you a graffiti artist?
I am not a graffiti artist but I work with graffiti artists. I come up with a concept and we implement it on the streets. The vulture graffiti was another symbol of greedy politicians. The vulture eats dead flesh, and our politicians are like scavengers who take advantage of us. African politicians have been doing it since independence. Fifty years later, we have to rely on the Chinese to build us an AU building. We are still begging for money from the West while we have resources on our continent. Our leaders do not plant or cultivate, but they want to harvest. People loved the vulture graffiti, and there are two left in the city centre. The others were painted over by the city council. They did not know that it was I who was behind it, but I was threatened by some groups so I had to go public and talk about it.
Your activism started with taking pictures. How did it come about?
My photojournalism was inspired by a man who is famous in this country: Mohamed Amin. His Ethiopian work inspired me to become a photographer. His photography saved lives. The world gave as a response to Amin’s images. The famine would not have happened if the government did their work in the first place. I became a photographer and won a couple of awards, including the CNN multi-choice award twice. One of the pictures was taken in Afar, Ethiopia.
I used to freelance for Bloomberg, AFP, Reuters, and The Boston Globe, where they bought images of the post-election violence. Even if they portray Africa as backward, we have to blame ourselves for that. It is the leaders that made this continent backward.
This continent has every single resource it needs to go forward; what we lack is the thinking capacity. Our leaders do not think when they steal our money; it is stashed abroad. Our leaders are a contradiction: they are black outside but white inside.
They have an imperialist mentality. It is like the British colonizers over 100 years ago, conquering the continent and stealing our resources. What the Belgians did in Congo is what our leaders are doing now. They are looting our country and they hide the money abroad.
Their children go to school abroad. I don’t know any single African leader whose child goes to a public school. They will go to these American, British and French schools because they want to be Western. Their ideas and values are like those of the colonizers 100 years ago. Our leaders act like that. Apart from that, what we have in this continent is economic slavery, neo-colonization, where there is a huge presence of multinational corporations.
The post-election pictures were very graphic. How did you find the courage to show it?
The street exhibition was deliberately graphic. The majority of Kenyans knew about the violence, but they didn’t know the extent. More than one thousand people died. That was just a number to many people. The whole idea of the exhibition was to positively disturb people; to stir them internally; to make people more aware of what had happened, so that they would never again rise to fight one another on behalf of a politician. It was a calculated exhibition.
People responded positively to the exhibition. It is important to revisit our history and talk about it. This continent would progress positively if we learn from our history and move forward if we were good history students. But we are not.
The government resisted the exhibition and I was arrested on the launch day, briefly. We went to some towns and were denied permission for the exhibitions. But, ironically, the government has been using the same pictures and documentaries we produced to preach peace. The government is using our pictures but we are not recognized officially.
You refer to Kenyans as cowards. Why is that?
We have crooks in power: we get humiliated and mistreated by the government, the police, and people in different positions of power but people do not protest. They suffer in silence. That is cowardly behavior. We have this cowardly generation that has refused to stand up for what they believe in. They live in this shell of fear. They only protest behind closed doors, but they are just complaining and whining.
Your life motto, one you are so vocal about, is “Live my life to make a difference”. Do you think you are able to do that?
Even if I were to die today, I would have made an impact through the work I did to inspire my generation. I have also left a legacy that is my three children.
How many times have you been arrested? And was there a time that you were beaten up? Does this not scare you?
I have been arrested so many times I cannot even count. I won’t be the first to be beaten up, jailed or even killed. I am not scared of that. I am not special. The message is being communicated and that is the most important thing. In the last two months, I have been arrested twice. There was the time I heckled the President, Mwai Kibaki, six years ago and they beat me so bad. It was a national day and I was at the stadium. My friends stood me up and I was alone in the field. I was beaten up and it was bad. I had to go to hospital for a fractured ankle.
And, two months ago, I was beaten up by goons during the Labor Day celebrations. The President, Uhuru Kenyata, was present, and did not say a word.
You have to live your life. I stand for what I believe in and I continue living on irrespective of who says what. I made my choice and my way. I like daring. Everyone will die so why should I be scared of death? It does not mean I want to die, though. Even those who would try to kill me will die one day. No one lives forever. Be afraid of the ones who can kill the spirit, not the body. If I worried about it, I would not change anything. Why would I worry about what I did not create myself? I believe in God. Not a single man on this earth will decide the day I am going to die.
Through these struggles, what gives you the courage to keep on?
I have fun in the struggle (laughs). I don’t see it as a struggle. I see it as a journey of life. I live it every day and it has become part of me. My children inspire me. I take them along when I protest. My older son, who is six, knows a lot of things. I don’t want them to grow up to be cowards. I am doing this for my children so that they can have a normal life. If I don’t finish the struggle, they will do it.
You also run a centre called PAWA254. What does it do?
It is for crazy people like me who love art. We do photography, filming, animation, graffiti. We discuss books. It is a group of people who love their country and it’s a meeting point. We train the youth in journalism, photography and activism. It is a place where there is no judgment of who you are. It is for crazy people who want change.
What is next for you?
I want to replicate the work that I do my activism projects. If I can get a thousand Kenyans to do what I do, I am set. They may use other means but we need people who can stand up for the things they believe in. If they do, the continent is going to change. We are preparing ourselves to take over power through non-violent means.
What is your impression of Ethiopia?
It is a police State and I am shocked. There are so many children on the streets working, even during the night. What does the government do? The society has failed to protect its children. In public university, Addis Ababa University, there was no running is no running water,that’s very surprising. In Kenya student protest when there is water shortage and here they don’t.
I think the government spend money, time employing police officers and military personnel than providing basic needs. Ethiopia is a good country. Once, Ethiopia fought the Italians and won. It was never colonized. It feels like you lost all your energy in that fight. You don’t fight anymore. Whatever happened to Ethiopia the land of the brave! I am asking myself: where are those people who fought the Italians? I can’t see them on the street. They live in a trance. I think Ethiopians should rise and demand an accountable government. They must ask where their taxes go. Ethiopians are highly taxed. Where does the money go? Is the money improving lives? I can see a lot of buildings. Will the poor live in those buildings? The gap between the rich and the poor is big. Public transport is unreliable. So you have nice roads but no public transport to use it. This government should get its priorities right. After visiting the Red Terror Museum, I saw the resistance of the Ethiopian people. I give my respect to the fighters. After fighting that long, Ethiopians seem to be tired of resisting. This younger generation is not aggressive, like those who fought the Italians, Mengistu. Fear has been created. But fear makes us captive. Today, they are detaining journalists and suppressing dissidents. And political prisoners are in jail. That is very wrong.