With riots, a nullified election, attempted government shutdowns of the media, a new fake president, and two powerful political leaders polarizing the country, Kenya has certainly had a dramatic past few months. And the men at the center of all the drama? President Uhuru Kenyatta and his long-time political opponent Railia Odinga.
If you are a supporter of President Kenyatta, it is hard to dispute that there are certainly some startling signs of democratic erosion happening right now in Kenya. The same could be said as a supporter Odinga. The blame for these signs of democratic backsliding can be placed on either men, depending on how you feel about them.
Tensions have been rising between the two for months, but boiled over when Odinga refused to concede defeat or recognize Kenyatta as the president after his defeat in the 2017 election, resulting in him declared himself the “people’s president” in a self-orchestrated swearing-in ceremony in early February. The event was attended by thousands of Kenyans, and probably would have been watched by even more, had the news stations covering it not gone black.
Lets back it up for a second. How did Odinga get to the point that he swore himself in as fake president? Well it certainly wasn’t his first choice. The 2017 Presidential Election was won by sitting president Kenyatta, but Oldinga challenged his loss on the grounds of electoral violations. After review, the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified the results, a decision that was accepted by Kenyatta, powerfully cementing the Kenyan courts as a strong independent power, and showing that the 2010 Kenyan constitution passed its first great test. However, things got shaky come time for the second election when Kenyatta tried to ban all demonstrations, resulting in Odinga calling the electoral process unfair and his supporter boycotting the race, handing Kenyatta an easy victory and new term as president. Riots ensued resulting in 110 people killed, most by police.
The aftermath has resulted in a sharp divide in Kenya’s politics, with polarization at an all-time high in support for the two men. So much so that Odinga, and his National Resistance Movement (NRM), took to declaring himself the voice of the people as the people’s president, a move that was condemned by the U.S. Thousands of people refusing to trust the vote of the people, especially when they themselves boycotted the election, even after it was re-done to ensure fairness, can and has been viewed as eroding democracy since it discourages participation in voting and mistrust in government. In fact, Kenyatta and his staff have described Odinga’s mock oath as president as a full-on coup on the government and has called the NRM an “organized criminal group”. On the flip side, Kenyatta hasn’t been perfectly democratic either.
On the day of Odinga’s governmentally meaningless swearing-in ceremony. Kenyatta told media not to cover the event, possibly violating the Kenyan constitutions free speech rights. Three of Kenya’s largest independent news stations were there to cover the event anyway, but Kenyatta’s government pulled their stations off the air before they could. Journalists slept in their newsrooms that night after rumors of police coming to arrest them came out. The courts found this to be a blatent attempt to silence the media and an impediment of free press laws and ordered the government to turn the programming back on immediately. In contrast to his reverence for the court’s decisions just months prior, Kenyatta ignored the Nairobi court’s order and kept the news black for days, only allowing government-owned stations to air.
This is not the first time the President has made some questionable decisions regarding the media. In pre-election 2017, Kenyatta ordered all political advertising be taken out of Kenya’s four main newspapers. Journalists that refused, or even just toed the line were fired. On top of that, he has been quoted saying the newspapers were only good for wrapping meat.
Refusing to abide by orders from the courts, and in doing so delegitimize independent court power, has angered many Kenyans, who see Kenyatta’s move as more harmful than Odinga’s. As an outsider looking in, turning off independent news that is broadcasting your opponent definitely doesn’t make the Kenyan government look like the poster child for democracy. Then again, neither is refusing to concede in not one, but two elections.
All of this does not bode well for the future of Kenyan democracy, but there is some hope on the horizon. In second week of March, Kenyatta and Odinga appeared together on national television to call for open dialogue between their two groups. President Kenyatta said in the appearance “will begin a process of discussing what ails us and what creates division amongst us,” to which Odinga said “it is time to resolve our differences”. This is a move that, in addition to being incredibly shocking, might help repair the damage the two men have done in the form of increased polarization, and maybe mend the cracks forming in Kenya’s democracy.
“Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga Now ‘Brothers’.” BBC News, BBC, 9 Mar. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43345217.
Moore, Jina. “Kenya’s About-Face: Fear for Democracy as Dissent Is Muzzled.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/04/world/africa/kenya-political-repression-kenyatta-odinga.html.
Parrin, Anjli, and Rahma Hussein. “Analysis | Kenya’s Government Just Let the Opposition Candidate Swear Himself in as a ‘Parallel’ President.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 31 Jan. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/01/31/kenyas-government-just-let-the-opposition-candidate-swear-himself-in-as-a-parallel-president/?utm_term=.9987a4a603bb.
Peralta, Eyder. “As Government Ignores Court Order, Kenya’s Media Blackout Continues.” NPR, NPR, 2 Feb. 2018, www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/02/02/582649991/as-government-ignores-court-order-kenyas-media-blackout-goes-into-4th-day.