Building tensions between Kenya's President William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga is likely to lead to disruptions in its capital city Nairobi on Monday after the latter declared a planned protest march by his supporters “the mother of all protests.”
The March 20 demos, if they take place, will mark the climax of the opposition’s programme of mass action, including peaceful protests, civil disobedience, and product boycotts, launched by Odinga on March 9.
In the past week, pockets of anti-government protests have been witnessed in Western Kenya towns considered the opposition leader’s political strongholds.
Is there cause to worry about the protests?
Toll on economy
Disruptions related to elections and political uncertainty have always taken a heavy toll on Kenya’s economy and there will be similar concerns about the effects of the demos amidst the high cost of living in the country.
In 2017, an election year, the economic growth slowed down to 3.82 percent from 4.21 percent the year before, while in 2013 it decelerated to 3.8 percent from 4.57 percent. The 2007 post-election violence saw growth shrink to 0.23 percent in 2008 from 6.85 percent.
What’s the opposition’s beef with the government?
The list of demands made on President William Ruto’s administration by Mr Odinga’s Azimio La Kenya One Kenya Alliance — a coalition of political parties that supported his unsuccessful presidential run in the August 2022 elections — has kept changing depending on public perceptions about government policy failures around the high cost of living.
The 11 grievances initially contained in the so-called Kamukunji Declaration in December 2022, when Mr Odinga first signalled their plan for mass protests, have since been whittled down to six, as read out by Odinga at a rally in Kisumu on March 18.
They include a sense of electoral injustice arising from allegations of fraud in last year’s election and accusations that President Ruto is out to weaken opposition parties by buying their Members of Parliament and pursuing an ethnically exclusionist agenda by giving a disproportionately large share of senior public service jobs to persons from two communities that gave him the majority of jobs.
What makes the planned Monday protests different from the past ones?
Ahead of the Nairobi protests, opposition leaders have raised public anxiety levels with rhetoric threatening to lead their supporters on a march to State House, the official residence of State House. Security agencies have in recent days erected roadblocks around the State House in Nairobi and the State Lodge in Kisumu, suggesting they are not taking those threats lightly and would do everything to prevent breaches. But any attempt to march towards what are easily some of Kenya’s most guarded government installations would still be unprecedented.
Kenya has a decades-long history of mass protests stretching back to the 1990s agitation for multiparty democracy and constitutional reforms.
Protests have also erupted in the aftermath of each of the country’s past four elections, whose outcomes have been marred by allegations of fraud.
The 2007 protests featured widespread violence that left more than 1,1000 people dead and displaced about 650,000 from their homes. The more recent protests have featured running battles between the police and disgruntled opposition supporters in the streets and residential neighbourhoods in Nairobi and other towns.
Will the demos be violent or peaceful?
Mr Odinga has maintained that the protest march will be peaceful, but President Ruto on Wednesday suggested the government would not interfere with the protests and asked the opposition leader to co-ordinate with the police to ensure that the demos don’t cause disruptions in the city.
The cautious approach taken by the government is most probably informed by the experience of the last major of civil disobedience in Nairobi on January 30, 2018 when crowds of opposition of supporters made their way to Uhuru Park for Odinga’s controversial oath as the “People’s President” and dispersed within 20 minutes without police firing a shot. But there could also be trouble in case of violent encounters between protesters and police.