Just over a month ago, Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga returned from what he described as a three-month sabbatical with a call for a national dialogue. He announced a series of countrywide political rallies culminating on the historic Saba Saba (or 7/7 for July 7), the anniversary of a banned 1990 rally, a highlight of the push for what came to be known as “the Second Liberation”.
It is a hugely significant date. During the fight against the Moi dictatorship, Saba Saba came to be a symbol of defiance, a reminder of the time when Kenyans faced up to and overcame their fear of the regime. Today, however, it is proving to be the exact opposite. Raila’s return has rallied both friend and foe in a way perhaps only he can. In his absence, Kenyan politics sometimes seemed all at sea, the opposition completely rudderless as waves of scandal threatened to beach the Jubilee government itself. But now, the opposition have their champion and the elite its bogeyman.
The scare-mongering has since begun in earnest. The country was already on edge following the many unresolved terror attacks – mostly blamed on the Somali insurgent group, al-Shabab. Intemperate politicians on both sides have been fanning the flames of tribal hate, and social media has filled with the same kind of vitriol seen before and after last year’s general election. The government has done little to calm the fears. Quite the opposite. Despite token attempts at investigating and prosecuting hate speech, the Uhuru administration has largely regarded the situation as a political opportunity and engaged in more than a little scare-mongering of its own.
Fear in overdrive
Both deliberately and by dint of its incompetence, it has driven the fear into overdrive. When gunmen stormed the coastal town of Mpeketoni and slaughtered nearly 60 people, the ineptitude of the security services was only overshadowed by the cynical attempt by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his henchmen to politicise the tragedy and blame it on the opposition. In an ill-advised statement to the nation, the president got into an unseemly blame game with the Shabaab who claimed responsibility for the attack.The government, however, had other ideas, preferring to point the finger at nebulous “local political networks”, and to paint it as motivated by the kind of ethnic disharmony it claimed the opposition was causing with their meetings.
Just as in the run up to the March 2013 election, Kenyans are being scared into silence; into not asking uncomfortable questions; into turning a blind eye to government malfeasance and into acquiescing in the derogation of the fundamental freedoms.
With Saba Saba now upon us, the media is inundated by appeals to peace and stability. Business and religious leaders as well as foreign ambassadors have issued calls for politicians not to “raise political temperatures” – shorthand for Raila to call off the rallies. A national day of prayer has been scheduled at the president’s request. A bunch of folks calling themselves Kikuyu elders, have carried out supposed traditional cleansing ceremonies at Uhuru Park, the venue of the rally, and expressed dark forebodings of the coming chaos and bloodshed.
We have been here before. Just as in the run up to the March 2013 election, Kenyans are being scared into silence; into not asking uncomfortable questions; into turning a blind eye to government malfeasance and into acquiescing in the derogation of the fundamental freedoms.
That derogation has already begun with a High Court judge reportedly issuing orders barring Raila and his fellow CORD leaders from calling for mass action, despite the clear constitutional protections for “the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions to public authorities”.
The court apparently declared CORD leaders would be held personally liable for any damage caused during the rally, a ruling which would set a chilling precedent for any organisers of public protests or demonstrations. It is not unheard of for such to be infiltrated by thugs and troublemakers who may be hired by the authorities themselves to discredit the protestors.
The fact is neither the government nor the opposition has shown any interest in addressing the root causes of failures of the last 15 months. Neither has demonstrated any willingness to examine the historic and systemic issues behind the authorities’ inability to protect the people, to confront the spectre of grand corruption, the rising cost of living, the crisis in education. They have shown little interest in the lessons contained in the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.
Like they have done over the past 50 years, our ruling elite is rather determined to hype ethnic differences as a cover for its thieving ways. It is creating tribal animosity and fear to circumvent real and meaningful discussion over the causes of our penury, over the real reasons for our insecurity and why it is that the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed rights by even a section of Kenyans generates such terror.
They do not want us confronting our fear and realising that it has been wielded as a weapon against us by the people in State House, in Orange House, in the fancy mansions governors are building across the country on the backs of their subjects, in Parliament and County Assemblies, and in the gleaming towers of big business.
They do not want us to see the systems of oppression of privilege and oppression that have been maintained since colonial times, to understand how these constantly work to extract dignity, rights and resources from the majority and bestow them upon a minority at the top.
Why would something as mundane in a democracy as an opposition political rally cause such uproar and fear? The problem is not with the rally, but with the shaky democracy. The terror reveals the hollowness of Kenya’s democratic transformation.
The truth is the shenanigans and fear-mongering surrounding the Saba Saba rally have nothing to do with improving the welfare of Kenyans. On the contrary, they are about distracting us from the farmhouse window and from seeing that the Liberation has been stolen.
Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.