As he has long said he would do, Raila Odinga had himself sworn in as the “people’s president” at noon on January 30 in the presence of thousands of supporters in Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi. With only limited success, the Kenyatta government tried to block media coverage rather than using the police to prevent the event. The attorney general and other lawyers of the Uhuru Kenyatta government said the inauguration amounted to treason. Odinga’s oath, according to western media, was “I, Raila Omolo Odinga, do swear that I will protect the nation as people’s president, so help me God.” Media described the crowd as numbering perhaps two thousand and ecstatic. Odinga and his umbrella political movement, the National Super Alliance (NASA) has never accepted the legitimacy of the August and October elections, nor the subsequent court decisions that resulted in the second term presidency of Uhuru Kenyatta.
Ethnic divisions in Kenya have long played a major role in shaping politics. Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta, who was the leader of the liberation struggle against the British, is seen as the face of the wealthy, big businesses, and the Kikuyu tribe. As with the effort to blackout the January 30 “inauguration,” Kenyatta’s critics see him as increasingly resorting to authoritarian means to consolidate his power. Odinga, nearly as wealthy as Kenyatta, appeals chiefly to the poor in the Nairobi slums, the Luo ethnic group, and others who regard themselves as marginalized. The disputed elections mark a point at which Kenya is more divided than at any time since the disastrous elections of 2007 in which disputed elections morphed into ethnic conflict that left thousands dead. In December, reflecting the fragility of the country, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for Africa asked Odinga not to proceed with his “inauguration,” and called on him and Kenyatta to enter into negotiations. Thus far, this has not happened and responsibility for the impasse appears to be shared by both leaders.
The Odinga “inauguration” has certainly led to further polarization, as has the Kenyatta government’s attempt at a media blackout. The concern must be that miscalculation by either leader could ignite what is likely a powder keg. Kenyatta must do all he can to ensure restraint by the police force. For his part, Odinga must implore his supporters to avoid violence.