Picture of the crowd attending Raila Odinga swearing in at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. Note that everyone is a male.

On Tuesday, 30th January, after two previous postponements, Raila Odinga, holding up a Bible, was sworn in as the “People’s President of the Republic of Kenya”. Previously Kenya’s Attorney General had declared that this was a “treasonable offence” that carried the death penalty. (Note that Kenya has not executed anyone for more than thirty years; I have no understanding of why Kenya hasn’t just abolished the death penalty).

The government had declared that Uhuru Park was being renovated and that the NASA opposition had not received permission for any meeting in the park. The NASA opposition relied that freedom of assembly was a basic right from the Constitution and that they would proceed with the swearing in. I like almost everyone else predicted major violence with the possibility of numerous deaths as had occurred in previous confrontations between the opposition and the security forces.

On Tuesday morning, the government backed down and withdrew its heavily armed police force from the park and allowed the swearing in to proceed. The park holds about 60,000 people. As you can see from the picture above it was filled to capacity. Without provocation from the police, there was no violence or destruction of property. An important lesson to note not only for Kenya but elsewhere is that the police themselves with their tear gas, water cannons, live bullets, batons, and other weapons are the primary instigators of violence.

After the government backed down on swearing in at the park, they had to assert themselves elsewhere:

  • The government shut down three private TV stations for planning to cover the event. They did not close down the state sponsored TV station nor the one owned by Uhuru Kenyatta himself. (American readers will be aware of the tendency of presidents to make decisions that support their own business interests.)
  • It withdrew the bodyguards of the opposition politicians, withdrew the licenses to carry weapons from opposition members, and confiscated the vehicles of some of the opposition.
  • It arrested three of the politicians who were prominent at the swearing in but did not arrest Raila Odinga himself or the three other prominent leaders of the NASA alliance.
  • It has withdrawn the passports of fourteen of the NASA leadership, but not the four main politicians.
  • The government has outlawed the National Resistance Movement, one of the vehicles that the opposition was using for organizing the non-violent resistance to the Uhuru government, as a terrorist organization. Its main activity to date has been to spearhead a boycott of Uhuru Kenyatta owned companies and those that they feel are biased towards the Jubilee party. The government equated it with terrorist organizations like al-Shabaab, al-Qaida, and other violent groups.

More alarming is that the government has defied court orders. When the courts ordered the government to reopen the three TV stations, it ignored the court order. Four days later, bending to pressure and outrage, it allowed two to reopen with the third still closed.  (Disclosure: Gladys prefers Citizen TV which is the station that remained closed.) Then last evening after ten days the government allowed Citizen TV back on the air.

When the courts ordered the release on bail of Miguna Miguna, one of the three detainees, the government continued to keep him in prison, moving him secretly from prison to prison, and failing to bring him to court as ordered. On Tuesday evening the government deporting him to Canada where he holds dual citizenship. There were many protests on this deportation in Raila’s home area. In Miguna home village, demonstrators were attacked by the police with tear gas, water cannons, and live bullets. One innocent bystander was killed and a seriously wounded demonstrator is now in the hospital.

I can confidently predict that all of this is going to result is many, many court cases, some of which have already been filed. I cannot predict the reaction of the government when they lose some of these court cases. Will they support the “rule of law” and abide by all judicial judgments as Chief Justice David Maraga has demanded? Or will they continue to defy court orders leading to a return, as many Kenyan and international commentators have noted, to the imperial, autocratic ways of the Jomo Kenyatta regime and the following Moi regime?

Interestingly enough the government has not yet done much to attack Raila Odinga himself or the other three main leaders of the opposition. The spin here is that the government is trying to “test the waters” to see how much support Raila has and if they will be able to move against him with only a manageable amount of protest. My take is that they can’t lay a hand on Raila without his strongholds in western Kenya, some of the Nairobi slums, and the coast region exploding into demonstrations with the resulting police strong-armed responses leading to destruction and death. This could easily quickly spiral out of control.

Last Tuesday, the Washington Post in an editorial titled “Kenya is sliding into a dictatorship” wrote:

KENYAN PRESIDENT Uhuru Kenyatta could have presided over a landmark consolidation of democracy last year that would have positioned Kenya for political leadership in Africa. Instead, he is leading the country back toward the autocracy it thought it had left behind. By shutting down media, ignoring court orders and charging peaceful opponents with treason, he is dangerously raising tensions in an already polarized society and inviting ostracism for his government…The Trump administration should warn him of U.S. punitive actions, including sanctions, if he does not stop.

I started writing this report on Monday and each day I have had to update it with new developments. The story is still unfolding. Its outcome is uncertain. Like Kenyan civic organizations, church groups, and the international community, I would support dialogue between the two sides rather than continued confrontation to resolve the various issues. At this moment this does not seem likely to happen as each side has backed itself into a hardline corner.

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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region. He is an analyst on eastern Africa issues for TVC News in Lagos, Nigeria.

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David Zarembka

Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC)

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