Kenya’s opposition, buoyed by its relative success shutting down Nairobi on Monday, has called its supporters out for another round of demonstrations this coming week, escalating a political standoff that poses considerable risks to the country’s economy and national security.
Former prime minister Raila Odinga, who leads the opposition Azimio One Kenya Alliance Party, announced on Tuesday that the mass protests are meant to put pressure on the government to reduce the cost of living, halt a contested process of reconstituting the electoral commission and to get a nod to an independent audit of last year’s presidential election results.
President William Ruto, whose legitimacy the opposition continues to question despite the country’s Supreme Court having upheld his victory in the August 9, 2022 election, has dismissed the protests as part of an alleged ploy by opposition leaders to blackmail him into a power-sharing deal.
The president, speaking during his tour of three counties in western Kenya on Thursday and Friday, sought to depict the opposition leaders as economic saboteurs and repeated his assurances made at the Nairobi Securities Exchange on Wednesday that his government will deploy enough security officers to prevent lawlessness and disorder during the protests on Monday and Thursday.
Ruto has also appeared to bet on the opposition leaders buckling under the threat of international sanctions, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently writing to foreign missions to issue travel bans against them for allegedly destabilising the government.
But his promises of security have done little to reassure many businesses in Nairobi that were last Monday forced to shut down amid day-long violent confrontations between protesters and anti-riot police.
While the police managed to stop the opposition leader’s convoy from entering the central business district by barricading roads and teargassing supporters, Odinga was still able to make his way to the city’s populous Eastlands area to address huge crowds.
In Kisumu, a university student was killed by police allegedly confronting a crowd that had vandalised businesses.
A police report said several people, including 24 police officers, were injured while about 200 were arrested during the protests.
The Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa), a business lobby representing majorly the country’s big companies, on Thursday issued a statement describing the protests as ‘harmful’ and appealed to the opposition to call them off.
“Demonstrations where property and lives are lost, such as what we witnessed on Monday [March 20], do not have any winner and we all stand to lose… Such actions undermine the future of the country, cause economic damage and cause apprehension and fear,” said Kepsa.
Calls to end standoff
It is one of scores of lobby groups, including those for Catholic bishops and other clergy, that have come out to call for an end to the standoff amid concerns that it could grow into a much bigger threat to the country’s national security, political stability and democratic rights.
Civil society groups, which reported incidents of police brutality during the Monday protests, have taken issue with a curious statement by the telecommunications regulator warning broadcasters against live coverage of scenes deemed inciteful to the public.
Anxiety over the next round of demonstrations has also been heightened by rhetoric by ruling party politicians warning that their supporters might mobilise to protect businesses, harking back to the past when political elite battles degenerated into ethnic mob violence.