Nairobi 'Saba Saba' rally reveals sharp ethnic, political divides

No violent rampages in Kenya as of late Monday though a bomb ripped through the town of Wajir, injuring many, hours after the political opposition called for more safety and security in a rally.

Sayyid Azim/AP
Supporters of the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy or Cord attend a rally at Uhuru Park in Nairobi Monday July 7, 2014. Thousands of government security agents in riot gear patrolled the streets of the Kenyan capital ahead of planned opposition rally. Fears of violence are rife over mounting tension between supporters of the opposition Cord and those who support government of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Some businesses in Nairobi have closed for fear of riots.

A highly emotive rally of more than 10,000 people in Nairobi today capped a month of antigovernment protests led by longtime opposition figure Raila Odinga, who is calling for a "national dialogue" with President Uhuru Kenyatta as ethnic tensions reach a fever pitch.

The two political leaders were also on different sides in post-election violence in 2007 that led to a charge of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court at The Hague. That violence killed more than 1,000 people. 

Kenya’s opposition today said it would pursue a national referendum to deal with deepening insecurity and economic woes that the Kenyatta government has struggled to solve. 

Police had tried to stop the opposition rallies, citing security concerns, and hundreds of police ringed Uhuru Park, the site of today's gathering, to keep order. Yet predictions of widespread violence rippling out of the rally proved incorrect as of late evening on Monday, with only small skirmishes between rock-throwers and police firing tear gas. 

Yet late Monday evening a bomb went off in the northeastern Kenyan town of Wajir, injuring numerous people.

Today's rally came days after dozens of men armed with machetes and guns killed more than 20 people on Kenya’s coast near Lamu, bringing the death toll there to more than 80 in a space of two weeks. Mr. Odinga and his allies proposed at the rally that Kenyan troops pull out of Somalia and for President Kenyatta’s top security chiefs to be fired after months of continued terrorist attacks, apparently committed by Al Shabab, a Somali extremist group. 

Those attacks have heightened ethnic tensions, with Kenyatta attributing them to Kenyan politicians targeting his ethnic kin, the Kikuyu. Kenyatta's targeting of political opponents for what appeared to be Al Shabab attacks was especially surprising since the government had for months pointed the finger at Al Shabab. Indeed, Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the Lamu killings.

The ethnic Kikuyu, who form the core of Kenyatta’s political base, rallied around him after he made the accusation. But the charge angered Odinga, who accused Kenyatta of politicizing a national tragedy.  Today he said the government’s deployment of so many police to Nairobi was an example of its misplaced security agenda.

“They don’t go to Lamu, they come here [to Uhuru Park],” he jeered in Swahili, to applause.

Yet the past month of opposition barnstorming has also stoked divisions. Fevered chants of “Uhuru Must Go,” even though elections do not take place until 2018, appeared to many Kenyatta supporters as calls for a violent uprising.

The rallies, and the attacks, come amid the highest ethnic tension in recent years in this country riven by tribal animosity over land rights and access to government jobs.

“It looks like war, it looks like they want to fight,” said one taxi driver who favors the president when asked his opinion of the rally.

Still, the rallies have been peaceful, though Odinga's CORD (Coalition for Reforms and Democracy) has a bad reputation for disorganization, including when inter-party squabbles turned into embarrassing skirmishes earlier this year. Many were concerned today’s rally would break out into ethnic violence.  In the past week, some families even fled their homes in the volatile Rift Valley just in case things spilled over the edge.

Kenyatta has rejected the newly called for national dialogue, saying the opposition should air its grievances in parliament. But Odinga said the “rogue parliament,” dominated by Jubilee, Kenyatta's group, is part of the problem.

Easing taxes gets the largest cheer

Though security is at the top of Odinga’s agenda, a call to abolish the tax on basic goods got the most cheers from the crowd at the rally.

“Many of those here are jobless,” said Joconia Oloo, a roadside carpenter from the Kibera slum who took off work to attend the rally.  “I want Kenya to be in such a way that those who are poor people can live in a situation that they can afford.”

Odinga’s choice to hold the rally on July 7, called Saba Saba or Seven Seven in Swahili, is symbolic.  On Saba Saba in 1990, pro-democracy protests kicked off to topple then-dictator Daniel Arap Moi, the political mentor of Kenyatta.  Those demonstrations, led in part by Odinga, were brutally put down, with more than 100 people shot dead by police.

Many of those at today’s rally were too young to remember the heady days of the 1990s, but said they see Kenyatta as rolling back hard-won rights including freedom of assembly.

Some referenced the Arab Spring of 2011 as a model for Kenya's frustrated opposition.

“Tahrir Square, that is what I want,” said accountant Charles Oduor after the rally, referring to the Cairo plaza that was at the heart of the Egyptian protests.

But Mr. Oduor conceded that he didn’t think such a dramatic change in leadership could happen in Kenya, where the president still enjoys support from large segments of the country.

“It’s going to be a hard five years [under Kenyatta],” he concluded.

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