A top Kenyan newspaper published a fake death notice of a prominent opposition financier on Wednesday, a bizarre error that rights groups interpreted as another sign of an anti-democratic slide.
The Daily Nation apologised by mid-morning for publishing the funeral announcement for businessman Jimi Wanjigi, whose picture, history and family details were used but whose name was slightly altered. The paper said the ad was published in error and it was working with police to uncover who placed it.
After a week of arrests of opposition politicians and a crackdown on independent media, a prominent rights campaigner said the announcement amounted to a death threat to Wanjigi, who funded opposition leader Raila Odinga’s election campaign last year and whose house was raided by police in October.
“It sounded like a threat to Jimi Wanjigi and must be understood as forming part of the intimidation to which the political opponents of Jubilee (the ruling party) are being subjected,” said George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.
Wanjigi was unavailable for comment.
Few Kenyans have forgotten the killing of Chris Msando, a top election official whose tortured body was found days before the August 8 election. It is unclear why Msando was killed, but his death added to a climate of fear surrounding the vote.
The killing sent shockwaves through Kenya, a key Western ally in a volatile region.
Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won the August poll, but the Supreme Court annulled the results on procedural grounds, forcing a repeat election on October 26.
Mr Odinga boycotted that contest because he said it would be unfair; Mr Kenyatta won 98 per cent of the vote.
Now Mr Odinga claims he won the August election, although he has yet to produce credible evidence. Last Tuesday his supporters symbolically inaugurated him as president, provoking Mr Kenyatta’s government into a much-criticised response.
Since any move against Mr Odinga would likely spark widespread street protests, the government focused on those around him. First, they shuttered three television stations --NTV, Citizen and KTN News -- planning to stream Mr Odinga’s event live. The government justified the shutdown on security grounds.
Larry Madowo, a journalist at NTV, said the censorship “feels like the time when I was growing up under President Moi.”
Moi, a strongman who presided over decades of one-party rule, tortured his critics and presided over a government that became a byword for graft.
Since he left power in 2002, Kenya has become the region’s richest economy, with relative media freedom, regular multiparty elections and a vigorous public debate on governance.
Two of the stations, NTV and KTN News, that shut down are now back on air, but not until four days after a court order that their transmission should be restored.
The censorship prompted criticism from the United States, Britain and the United Nations.
Three opposition figures have also been detained. Two were released on bail the same day. But firebrand lawyer Miguna Miguna was held incommunicado and charged with treason before being quietly deported to Canada on Tuesday night, despite an order to produce him in court on Wednesday.
In Mr Odinga’s western strongholds, Mr Miguna’s treason charges prompted demonstrations in which one person was killed on Tuesday.
The government argues Miguna lost his citizenship because he renewed his passport under old laws that forbade dual nationality. Lawyers maintain the government ignored due process and violated the country’s popular new 2010 constitution, which permits dual nationality.
CJ: Obeying court orders not an option
On Wednesday, Chief Justice David Maraga issued a rare rebuke to the government.
“Compliance with court orders is not an option for any individual or institution,” he wrote in a statement. “To disobey a court order is not only a violation of the Constitution but also a dereliction of public duty.”
“I wish to reiterate that every government officer, institution or private citizen are obliged to comply with court orders. Failure to do so has consequences and judges and magistrates are at liberty to enforce those orders,” said the chief justice.
So far, Mr Kenyatta has not commented on Mr Odinga’s inauguration as “people’s president”, and his spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on the crackdown. But veiled references appear in Mr Kenyatta’s speeches.
“Elections are over, the people of Kenya have chosen their leaders,” Mr Kenyatta said on Wednesday.
The crackdown has played into the hands of an opposition that had appeared in trouble, analysts say.
An opposition dossier presented as proof Mr Odinga won the August election was debunked by a British IT expert and Kenya history author Charles Hornsby, who said it claimed some polling stations had a turnout exceeding 100 per cent.
Several opposition leaders, some of whom hope to stand for the presidency in the next election, skipped Mr Odinga’s inauguration. They had privately expressed misgivings over the event, diplomats said.
“There is so much theatre going on,” said a Western diplomat. “Most of these are insiders who are doing this for political gain, for power. And the tragedy is that real young men end up dying on the streets.”
Mr Odinga has yet to outline his strategy and failed to show up to a rally on Sunday.
But the crackdown has ensured that headlines focus on censorship, arrests and flouting of court orders instead of the opposition’s lack of direction.
“Kenyatta’s Jubilee government seems intent on wrecking every chance it gets of occupying the high ground,” read a note from research group NKC African Economics. “They have made a complete mess.”
In an editorial in the Washington Post on Tuesday the influential US paper urged President Donald Trump to warn President Kenyatta of "punitive actions, including sanctions, if he does not stop... the wave of repression.”
“Kenya’s African neighbours and Western donors ought to be demanding that the president reverse course before it is too late,” the Post noted.
The Post further suggested that Mr Kenyatta should have ignored Mr Odinga's “auto-inauguration” but by subsequently “shutting down media, ignoring court orders and charging peaceful opponents with treason, [Mr Kenyatta] is dangerously raising tensions in an already polarised society and inviting ostracism for his government.”
-Additional reporting by NMG's Kevin J Kelley.