Raising the stakes

nairobi azimio protests

Chaotic scenes along Tom Mboya street as rioters barricade and destroy road barriers during Azimio coalition leader Raila Odinga's anti-government demonstrations on March 20, 2023.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

From demands for electoral justice and the campaign against bad governance and the high cost of living, the protests called by opposition leader Raila Odinga may be raising the stakes to contemplate exploiting what his camp calls a revolutionary moment.

“This is not just about Azimio; this is a revolution,” Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka told The Weekly Review. “The people who came out onto the streets (during the protests last Monday) were not just Azimio followers, but all Kenyans.”

That is surprisingly tough talk from Kalonzo, a former Vice-President who over the years has earned a reputation for indecisiveness.

Now he seems very clear and resolute in his mind that the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition must go all the way with demonstrations and civil disobedience that will push the government of President William Ruto to the wall.

The justification he provides, beyond the initial demands for an accounting of the allegedly stolen 2022 presidential election and governance failures, is that President Ruto is bent on subverting the Constitution to bring back dictatorial rule.

He points out what he says is heavy-handed police action against peaceful demonstrations, insisting that last Monday it was the police, rather than protesters, who were responsible for most of the violence witnessed.

He added that ritual dismissal by police of Azimio notifications for public activities is in direct contravention of inalienable provisions in the Bill of Rights guaranteeing all Kenyans the rights to assemble, associate, march, picket and present petitions to public offices.

Kalonzo claimed that the government is already moving to suspend the Constitution through denial of basic freedoms, as well as a host of activities designed to dilute democracy by ensuring that oversight institutions, including Parliament, are neutered and beholden to the ruling party. This is being achieved, he says, by the ‘buying’ of opposition legislators, starting from the very beginning of the current Parliament, when Azimio was denied a majority and leadership of key watchdog committees through defections.

Raila was sufficiently emboldened in the midst of the Monday, March 20, demonstrations to declare that the protests would be held every week. The following day he upped the ante by announcing an increase in the frequency of protests marches to twice a week, every Monday and Thursday.

It was clear by that time that Raila’s camp was elated at the apparent success of the first in a series of protests aimed at forcing the government to accede to demands for electoral justice and solutions to the rising cost of living.

Raila did have reason to see the Monday protests as a victory. Although he did not make good on the outrageous threat to storm State House, a triumphant procession through the streets of Nairobi’s most populous areas, braving police tear gas and water cannons, served as proof that he still retains the clout to organise mass action and attract ecstatic crowds.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga

Opposition leader Raila Odinga addresses his supporters in Eastleigh, Nairobi, on March 20, 2023., the official start of his series of protests against President William Ruto's administration.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

The lesson was that despite President Ruto’s successful efforts to woo opposition figures into his Kenya Kwanza alliance camp, Raila is not weakened and isolated as might have been presumed.

The protests, largely confined to the capital city of Nairobi and the lakeside city of Kisumu, were hardly national in scope as advertised. Neither were they widespread, large-scale or vigorous enough to even remotely threaten a fall of government.

But the very fact of a sizeable turnout defying government warnings that the protests were illegal was justification enough that the veteran opposition leader is on to something.

He is tapping into growing disillusionment over the six-month-old government’s inability to meet the extravagant campaign promises of quick fixes to the country’s economic travails.

He is also astutely exploiting government missteps around broken promises to achieve swift reductions in the cost of food and fuel. The opposition is also banking on indications that the so-called ‘Hustler Nation’, which voted for Ruto in big numbers expecting instant dividends from the Bottom-Up economic model, is growing disenchanted and disillusioned over the unfulfilled pledges.

The Kenya Kwanza administration is also shooting itself in the foot with a series of misguided pronouncements and policy decisions that seem to illustrate its closed cronyism nature favouring only a select few, and the hypocrisy around calls for austerity and belt-tightening while a spending spree benefits a tiny elite.

Gaffes range from Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua’s controversial pronouncements, such as likening Kenya to a private company in which only shareholders stand to reap dividends, to appointments to public office heavily skewed in favour of loyal politicians, and on to appointment of a bloated cast of 50 Cabinet Administrative Secretaries.

There have also been perceptions that many policy decisions, including deals on direct petroleum imports and duty-free maize and rice imports, while geared towards lowering consumer prices, are being done in complete disregard of established procurement systems.

Latest was the Cabinet’s approval of a controversial law intended to do away with public oversight, through Parliament, of sale of state corporations.

“They are preparing the country for plunder,” charges Kalonzo.

azimio protests

Kenyan demonstrators gather at the invitation of the opposition Azimio coalition to protest, justifying coalition leader Raila Odinga's objection to the election results and the cost of living in Nairobi, Kenya on March 20, 2023. 

Photo credit: Gerald Anderson | Anadolu Agency | AFP

The grey area here is that the cost of living, Kenya Kwanza’s failure to meet election promises or even suspicion that grand corruption is on the comeback are governance issues quite removed from the original quest for electoral justice.

The latest round of post-poll agitation was centered around claims that an Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission whistleblower had provided a treasure trove of evidence that Odinga was the actual winner of the 2022 presidential poll despite then elections boss Wafula Chebukati declaring Ruto the victor.

Odinga lost a Supreme Court petition challenging Ruto’s victory, but claimed that the new evidence, though time-barred, would show he was the winner.

The problem was that he did not have any real evidence, just a set of numbers at variance with the official vote count, which he claimed would be proven correct once the IEBC election data servers were opened to show the actual results transmitted from the polling stations before the vote count was allegedly altered at the Bomas of Kenya National Tallying Centre.

The whistleblower numbers by themselves could not stand scrutiny, but the IEBC’s refusal to ‘open the servers’, just like it refused before the Supreme Court, has played powerfully into Odinga’s hands.

Even in the event that the servers were opened and Odinga was proved the actual winner of the elections, it is unclear what scenario would unfold beyond him winning in the court of public opinion.

The Supreme Court decision on the election petition was final and cannot be appealed or re-opened. Even in the unlikely event that Ruto was persuaded to resign, Odinga would still not become president as he is not in the line of succession. Deputy President Gachagua would take over, and if both in the Kenya Kwanza presidency pair quit, next in line would be National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetangula.

Kalonzo still insists that, in addition to an ever-growing list of governance failures, the quest for electoral justice remains key to the Azimio protests. To that is added demands for a halt to recruitment of a new slate of electoral commissioners he says will create a compliant, Ruto-friendly electoral management body. Azimio is also demanding that the sacking of the ‘Cherera Four’, the IEBC majority who disowned the results announced by Chebukati, be reversed.

He insists, however, that the Azimio demands for electoral justice are not just about Raila’s allegedly stolen election, but about entrenching constitutionalism and the rule of law which, he warns, is endangered under the present government.

He also dismisses claims by Ruto supporters that Raila is just angling for negotiations that would earn him a place at the table as he supposedly did on losing elections in 1997, 2007 and 2017.

“Nobody wants to be part of government by ‘handshake’,” he asserts, saying that those making such allegations just don’t understand the motivation and what is at stake.

What is unclear, however, is how the end game will play out. The very word ‘revolution’ conjures up images of a violent or at least forceful ejection of the incumbent regime.

Ruto controls the government security agencies and would have virtual monopoly of violence if push came to shove.

While there has so far been little sign of a settlement, both Ruto and Raila have hinted that they could be amenable to softening of positions.

A day ahead of the first demos last Sunday, Ruto declared that he was open to dialogue, but not under blackmail and threats. The previous day, Raila had walked back on threats to lead a mass invasion of State House, saying he would be content with the opportunity for him and a few leaders to present a memorandum.

While hardliners on both sides will want to hang tough, calls from influential quarters – including religious leaders and business lobbies – for Ruto and Raila to meet are picking up.

The Weekly Review understands that there has already been some shuttle diplomacy, with emissaries engaging both sides, but so far there has been little progress as no one wants to cede ground.