KENYA’S main opposition party is gearing up for a mass rally on Monday in a major challenge to the country’s year-old government amid mounting security woes and fears of renewed ethnic violence. Opposition leader and former prime minister Raila Odinga plans an anti-government rally on July 7 in central Nairobi, the anniversary of protests for multi-party democracy in the 1990s, a date heavy with symbolism and known commonly as “Saba-Saba” , or “Seven-Seven” in Swahili.
Attacks last month on the coastal Mpeketoni district left at least 60 dead and were claimed by Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents, but President Uhuru Kenyatta blamed “well-planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence” carried out by “local political networks.” The reaction served to highlight the intensity of the rivalry between Kenyatta and his longtime rival Odinga, who failed in a bid for the presidency last year.
Odinga, 69, says he is organising the rallies to address major government failures, including worsening crime and insecurity, rising living costs, impunity, corruption and allegations of ethnic favouritism in government appointments. “Kenya is a nation apparently at war with itself... inter-ethnic relations between our diversity of communities have deteriorated to their lowest point in our history,” Odinga’s CORD party said in a statement ahead of the rally.
Police say they will deploy 15,000 officers to ensure the rally passes off peacefully, with the country already on high alert fearing attacks by Shebab gunmen, who have vowed revenge for Kenya’s military presence in Somalia. Attacks have badly damaged Kenya’s key tourist industry, adding to the woes of the economy. Foreign embassies have urged citizens to stay away from the demonstration. A series of smaller rallies in recent weeks have been held across the country, all passing off peacefully.
Kenyatta’s government has dismissed Odinga’s accusations, and has warned him not to overstep the mark. “If it is an honest discussion between Kenyan leaders, they know they can get one from us,” Vice-President William Ruto told Kenyan media. “What we don’t want is discussions about mass action, that ‘we are going to make the country ungovernable if you don’t do what we are saying’. Spare Kenyans that kind of discussion.” Some Kenyans are returning to home areas fearing violence, despite appeals from police the day will pass calmly.
Bitter memories are still fresh from 2007, when elections escalated into ethnic conflict in which more than 1,200 people were killed, violence for which Kenyatta and his deputy Ruto face crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The 2007-8 violence erupted when Odinga accused then president Mwai Kibaki of rigging his way to re-election, but what began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic killings of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, the country’s largest single group. In turn, they launched reprisal attacks, plunging Kenya into its worst wave of violence since independence in 1963.
In Naivasha, situated just 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Nairobi and a key agricultural area packed with farms growing flowers for export, some were leaving on buses. “We are leaving this town, as we fear that chaos could break out and the 2008 violence was an example to us, “ said Judy Odour, as mother of two, waiting to board a bus from Naivasha, one of worst affected areas during the 2007-2008 post-election violence.
“We fear that many people may be killed,” said taxi driver Peter Otieno, in the western port of Kisumu, Odinga’s heartland. “Our businesses will be affected if there’s chaos.” The rally, due to held in Nairobi’s central Uhuru park — or “Freedom” in Swahili — on Monday, kicks off at noon (0900 GMT). Police spokeswoman Zipporah Mboroki warned rally organisers they would be held “fully responsible” for violence. Away from the heated political debates, concerns are high as to the impact it is having on the ground.
“The fact that some are finding it prudent to abandon their homes and move to areas in which they feel more secure provides a chilling illustration of the fear and anxiety in the air,” the Daily Nation newspaper said in an editorial, warning of worrying cases of hate speech and threatening messages via social media and leaflets. Despite efforts to heal the wounds of the ethnic killings, tensions still run deep between communities, with many key grievances that fed into the violence — most notably land ownership rights and claims that minorities are being marginalised — still unresolved.
“It will make Kenyans fight for nothing. He (Odinga) lost the election, he should simply wait for another election,” said Leah Njuki, a 27-year-old saleswoman in Nairobi. But there are those who support the protest too, amid growing anger at rising costs of basic goods. “I think that’s the only way to make Uhuru (President Kenyatta) understand how serious the issues affecting this country are,” said Francis Ondara, a 29-year-old barber in Nairobi. “The prices of almost everything have gone up — from maize flour, petrol to bus fares — and life is unbearable.”
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