The opposition is back in business but it is caught between the national security crisis and the government’s heavy-handed response
The opposition parties may have failed to pack out Nairobi's Uhuru Park at the long-awaited rally on 7 July but they set out the first credible political challenge to President Uhuru Kenyatta's government for a year. Their demands centred on the growing economic hardship, worsened by the raising of Value Added Tax to 16%, by the government's response to terrorist attacks across Kenya and by claims of ethnic favouritism in public appointments (AC Vol 55 No 13, Confused response to terror attacks). The rally followed a weekend of armed attacks on the coast in which at least 29 people were killed.
Although the Somali Islamist militia Al Haraka al Shabaab al Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attacks, Deputy Prime Minister William Ruto insisted they were the work of unnamed opposition politicians. 'If you are unable to wait for the next general election, you are in a hurry, you want to make the country ungovernable so you can get into office through the backdoor, that will not happen in Kenya,' Ruto said in Lamu just after the attacks.
Three weeks earlier, Kenyatta had blamed attacks at Mpeketoni, which killed over 60 people, on 'local political networks', although Al Shabaab claimed responsibility. All this is ratcheting up political and regional tension, a year after the disputed elections. Then, the opposition grudgingly accepted the Supreme Court's ruling that the elections had been credible and kept off the streets to prevent a repeat of the violence of the 2007 polls. Now, opposition parties want to exploit the government's growing unpopularity.
Leading the charge are Raila Amolo Odinga and his Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD). The former Premier told the Nairobi rally that the government should 'take immediate steps to withdraw our gallant soldiers from Somalia' as well as tackle insecurity and inflation.'
The rally was staged to commemorate the start of pro-democracy demonstrations against President Daniel arap Moi on 7 July 1990, the 'Saba Saba' (Seven Seven) rallies, that descended into a violent confrontation between oppositionists and government forces. Despite some skirmishes between police and youths in the streets around Uhuru Park, this year's rally went off peacefully. Opposition supporters said the threat of terrorist attacks and the risk of mass clashes between crowds and police had kept many people at home. Fewer activists turned out in Uhuru Park on 7 July than had a month earlier to welcome Odinga back after his lengthy sojourn in the United States.
The rally also marked Odinga's return to frontline politics. Until now, the Kenyatta government has benefited from a leaderless and directionless opposition: in Parliament, Odinga's allies have appeared tongue-tied and confused in the face of Kenyatta's Jubilee Coalition. CORD has not effectively challenged what it says is government bungling on the economy and security.
Neither Odinga nor his CORD Alliance partner, former Vice-President Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, sit in Parliament. So it has been the job of Moses Wetang'ula, also in the CORD Alliance, and leaders of Ford-Kenya (Forum for Democracy), to marshal the opposition in the Senate and National Assembly. In both houses, CORD's performance has been weak. That was one reason for Odinga's dramatic homecoming at the end of May. He wanted to rejuvenate the opposition and galvanise supporters with his call for a 'national dialogue' on the growing crisis. That was immediately rejected by Jubilee, which argued that Parliament was the place for such discussions. Jubilee also feared that Odinga, a consummate political mobiliser in areas such as the Kibera township, would turn to the streets to ramp up pressure on the government.
CORD's demand for a meeting with the government reflected widespread grievances but was also a political tactic. Government officials feared that agreeing to such a meeting would restore Odinga to the high political status that he had lost along with the last year's elections.
Yet government pressure on mainstream media to toe the line works against CORD. November's media bill shifted regulation away from media-owners to the state-controlled Communications Authority and the government removed all state advertising from private media houses and put it on an online platform.
CORD's Saba Saba was treated with a total media blackout; the event didn't attract the numbers hoped for but at least there was no serious violence for Jubilee propagandists to latch on to. Numbers were also reduced by the 15,000-strong security force that cordoned off Uhuru Park and vetted all-comers. What went largely unnoticed was the list of CORD's demands, which included the threat of a boycott of goods deemed unaffordable if Jubilee did not review its taxation rates; a demand for a national referendum to address the most pressing issues, including insecurity and corruption; and the withdrawal of the Kenya Defence Forces from Somalia.
For the youthful crowd, mostly from the scores of informal settlements that ring Nairobi's upmarket districts, these were not the main issues: they had expected a radical call to arms and street agitation. They, rather than the Jubilee government, may pose the greater headache for Odinga in the near future.
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