Kenya’s opposition, buoyed by its relative success in shutting down Nairobi on Monday, has called for more protests this week, escalating a political standoff that poses significant 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 intended to put pressure on the government to lower living costs, halt a contested process of reconstituting the electoral commission, and secure approval for 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 upholding his election victory on August 9, 2022, has dismissed the protests as part of an alleged plot by opposition leaders to blackmail him into a power-sharing deal.
During his tour of three western Kenya counties on Thursday and Friday, the president sought to portray opposition leaders as economic saboteurs, repeating 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 also appeared to bet on opposition leaders capitulating in the face of international sanctions, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently writing to foreign missions requesting travel bans against them for allegedly destabilising the government.
However, his assurances of security have done little to reassure the many Nairobi businesses that were forced to close last Monday due to day-long violent clashes between protesters and anti-riot police.
While police were able to prevent the opposition leader’s convoy from entering the central business district by barricading roads and teargassing supporters, Odinga was still able to address large crowds in the city’s populous Eastlands area.
Protests are deemed ‘harmful.’
A university student was killed by police in Kisumu after allegedly confronting a crowd that had vandalised businesses.
According to a police report, several people were injured, including 24 police officers and approximately 200 people were arrested during the protests.
The Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa), a business lobby that primarily represents the country’s large corporations, issued a statement on Thursday calling the protests ‘harmful’ and urging the opposition to call them off.
“Property and lives are lost in demonstrations like the one we witnessed on Monday [March 20], and we all stand to lose… Such actions undermine the country’s future, cause economic damage, and instil fear and apprehension,” said Kepsa.
Demands to end the standoff
It is one of the dozens of lobbying groups, including those representing Catholic bishops and other clergies, that have come out in support of ending the standoff, fearing that it will escalate into a much larger 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 criticised the telecommunications regulator for issuing a strange statement warning broadcasters against live coverage of scenes deemed inciteful to the public.
Anxiety about the next round of protests has also been heightened by rhetoric from ruling party politicians warning that their supporters may mobilise to protect businesses, echoing the past when political elite battles devolved into ethnic mob violence.