On the morning of June 11, 2020, Benard Obonyo breathed his last at St. Jairus Hospital in Kisumu. Were it not for who he was and the kind of following he commanded, his funeral would have been just like any of the numerous others that have taken place in Kisumu County during the coronavirus era, with a small group of mourners witnessing the internment of his remains.
But what would have been an ordinary burial ceremony quickly turned into an ugly spectacle. Three factors contributed to that melee. First, Ja Chiga was a popular musician.
At the time of his death he was riding the popularity wave with such Ohangla hits as Kasinde, Anayekupenda Pendana Naye, Usidharau Mwenzio, and Osiepe.
Joshua Nyamori, a social justice activist and lawyer, uses that popularity factor to explain why this was not going to be an ordinary funeral.
“The family of Abenny had lost a son, a husband, a brother and a father. They were in pain and needed the space and time to mourn him. He, however, had also outgrown the immediate family circle and developed a much larger family base of fans who subscribed to music. He was their icon and their interest in his burial was not misplaced,” he says.
Then there was the issue of the timing of his death. Abenny died on the first day of a health workers’ strike that crippled public healthcare in Kisumu for days. As news of his death swept through social media platforms, residents blamed County officials for the demise, saying Ja Chiga would not have died had he received the emergency medical care he needed.
The family was forced to move him to three different private health facilities a day before his death because it could not afford the costs of tests he required for a conclusive diagnosis.
And then, to add insult to injury, the government told his family that he must be buried within 24 hours, per new regulations that are part of the strategy to fight the spread of Covid-19. With that well-meaning announcement that was interpreted as insensitive by Ja Chiga’s fans, the stage was set for a battle between his fans and relatives on one side, and the local administration on the other.
Fred Madanje, a freelance journalist based in Kisumu, covered the funeral procession from the mortuary to the graveside.
“From the moment the body left the morgue it was evident that there was going to be a clash between the police and mourners, who had come in their hundreds. From the songs and chants, you could tell that they were not happy with his hurried burial. The presence of police in anti-riot gear didn’t help matters either,” he explains.
With the crowd swelling as the procession got closer to Ja Chiga’s final resting place, police officers lobbed teargas canisters to clear the road. And at home they said there would be no body viewing ceremony; Ja Chiga’s remains would be interred as quietly as those of tens of others who had died during the coronavirus period.
And that lit the powder keg of emotions that had been boiling inside the chests of the hordes of fans who had escorted the body all the way home. Their patience ran out. Their sense of social discipline vanished into thin air. They couldn’t take it any more. Pandemonium.
“They wanted to be allowed to view the body at a nearby primary school, but the police officers would not let them. When the officers forced their way to the burial site and attempted to take over, they were repulsed by the mournes with a volley of stones. The mourners then carried the body back to the mortuary, saying Ja Chiga deserved a better send off,” he says.
Could the chaos have been avoided? Joseph Nyamori believes so, and says County officials and security officers should have assessed the mood and revised their protocols to accommodate the wishes of the mourners.
“They should have facilitated an understanding that fostered a joint funeral programme where the needs of Ja Chiga’s fans are respected. This happens at funerals of many social and political icons. There is always a public event for everyone before a private family event. Instead, the overzealous administrators and police threatened, intimidated and violated both groups, hence the anger and the riots,” he explains.