Kenya’s Leaders Walk Tightrope Between Political Attacks And Stoking Ethnic Tensions


Opposition leader Raila Odinga addresses protestors in Nairobi

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Nairobi on Monday to demand that president Uhuru Kenyatta step down after failing to hold national talks on security and corruption. But government supporters claim the opposition is exploiting deep seated ethnic divisions for political gain.

The protests coincided with Saba Saba day (or 7/7 day), which commemorates pro-democracy protests that occurred in 1990 and claimed over 100 lives.

Raila Odinga, the President’s primary political opponent and leader of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), began calling for a national dialogue just over a month ago. His appeals resonated with the growing subset of the Kenyan population frustrated with what they see as the government’s failure to respond to charges of corruption and escalating terrorist attacks.

Just last Saturday, militants killed 22 in the coastal region where 60 were slain last month. The protesters also demanded that the President withdraw Kenyan troops from neighboring Somalia. Many believe that Kenya’s intervention in Somalia against the Islamist group al-Shabaab prompted the terrorist sect to carry out the recent attacks. While the group itself claimed responsibility for the murders, and survivors confirmed this account, President Kenyatta instead blamed members of the political opposition for the massacres. Meanwhile, the government has done little to investigate or quell the violence, even as the terrorist threat has crippled the tourism industry that makes up the backbone of Kenya’s economy.

The protestors, led by Odinga, certainly speak to popular grievances. But supporters of the president claim the Saba Saba day rally is part of a larger effort by Odinga to further destabilize Kenya’s shaky political order so he can make a power grab. They argue that Odinga and his allies in CORD, which holds nearly half the seats in both of Kenya’s parliamentary bodies, should pursue constitutional means of addressing issues instead of threatening to inflame sectarian divides.

All Kenyans are fearful of witnessing a return to the violence of 2007. After Odinga claimed he was cheated out of victory by his opponent Mwai Kibaki in 2007’s presidential elections, clashes between rival ethnic groups led to over 1,000 deaths and 250,000 internally displaced. Fortunately, a U.N.-brokered peace deal restored stability and formed a coalition government where Kibaki and Odinga shared power. However, Odinga once again contested the results of presidential elections in 2013, claiming President Kenyatta’s Jubilee party engaged in fraud. While President Kenyatta gained notoriety in the E.U. and U.S. for his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of inciting violence in 2007, President Obama has recently moved to consolidate ties with his government as the ICC case against him has shown signs of falling apart.

Regardless of whether Monday’s rally was a smart move in Kenya’s tense political climate, critics of President Kenyatta argue that the government has no right to place limits on peaceful protest. Nonetheless, Kenya’s highest court handed down an order banning Odinga from calling for mass action at the rally.

Most Kenyans in Nairobi hoped to avoid the tension between police and demonstrators on Monday, causing many businesses to close for the day. The government’s national communication authority rebuked broadcasters accused of propagating hate speech leading up to the political contentious demonstration. “Some broadcast stations are taking advantage of the prevailing political situation in the country to air content containing hate speech,” it said, warning that “incitement to violence and advocacy of hatred” was a crime.


Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.