Hardline stances leave peaceful demos as only option 

Police officers patrol Haile Selassie Avenue in Nairobi

Police officers patrol Haile Selassie Avenue in Nairobi on March 20, 2023, during the anti-government protests called by opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Opposition leader Raila Odinga has called out his troops to protest every Monday and Thursday until President William Ruto’s government accedes to his demands.

The President and his team are categorical that the government cannot be bullied into making concessions that are at best unnecessary, and at worst, illegal.

This means the country will witness some form of protest every Monday and Thursday until one side gives in. There will be activity in the streets tomorrow and depending on how police respond, there may be unintended consequences. A student was killed by police in last Monday’s demonstrations. 

If the demos follow the expected pattern, the slow start of last week is likely to intensify as protesters become bolder and more frustrated that they are not triggering the intended results.

The likelihood of violence becomes almost guaranteed. At the very least, there will be losses due to the disruption of normal business.

Kenya can ill afford violent demonstrations, but what are the alternatives? The clergy and a few sober-minded leaders like Nairobi Governor Johnston Sakaja are exhorting the two parties to tone down the angry and threatening rhetoric and start a dialogue. But what will be the basis of the discussion?

The President has advised Mr Odinga to shelve demonstrations and start preparing for the 2027 election. “Stop bothering citizens. You are disturbing them by taking war, chaos and protests to them,” he says. 

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua sees the protest calls as blackmail. National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wa insists that dialogue can only be limited to discussions on the state of the economy and what can be done to ease the pain of Kenyans reeling under a cost of living that has gone mad!

He draws the line on demands that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) opens its servers for examination and that the process to appoint a chairman and IEBC commissioners to be stopped.

But where he draws the line is the starting point for Mr Odinga and his team. Open the servers. Stop the hiring. Reduce the cost of living.

Mr Odinga dismisses the belief held by some that the protests are inspired by his desire for a handshake – like the one that he had with President Uhuru Kenyatta, and which some believe is largely responsible for the governance and economic crisis the country is grappling with.

Best alternative?

With such diametrically opposed positions, is there any possibility of a BATNA? In negotiation theory, a BATNA is the Best Alternative To A Negotiated Alternative, a position that a negotiator adopts in case negotiations fail.

Of course, the two parties have not formally met but feelers must have been sent out and potential positions teased. That is just the nature of politics and the people now feuding have more in common than they disagree.

One is angry that they are not in power, and the other is determined to stay in power – and they have the backing of the law. Their publicly stated positions are irreconcilable and it is moot therefore to wonder what each party’s BATNA could be.

Since Mr Odinga has ruled out a handshake, the government’s ultimate alternative is force. It is allowed to use legitimate force to enforce law and order. 

Potentially, it can do this and the thought has been actively canvassed. However, arresting Mr Odinga and his key allies could trigger interesting outcomes, including violent protests by his fanatical base. 

Is the government willing to dare? It can if it is ready to violently stamp out a rebellion.

For Mr Odinga and his allies, the first concession is to drop demands related to the legitimacy of President Ruto’s government and approach the table only with the ask to the government to detail its plans to cushion Kenyans against the socio-economic turbulence they are experiencing. But the belligerence on the show and the aggression in their body language suggests that this may be a hard option to embrace.

This leaves protests as the only alternative they can pursue as a withdrawal without a win will be too serious a blow to contemplate.

Is it all lost, therefore? Perhaps not. We know there can be peaceful demonstrations. We have seen this in South Africa and a few other places. We can have marches, picketing and speeches that are robust but peaceful. Let Mr Odinga and his team ensure those coming out understand and live up to this. Police too can and must hold their fire. This seems to be the only winning BATNA for now.

The writer, a former Chief Editor of the Nation Group, is now consulting. [email protected]; @TMshindi