William Ruto's dilemma as protest pressure piles

The message from these 'defectors' has been similar - they support President Ruto's government and condemn the planned demonstrations by the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition party.

Raila has set Monday as the day for countrywide mass action, with a mega demonstration planned in Nairobi that could see Opposition supporters march to State House.

And while the president's party has insisted it is unbothered by the planned demos, events of the last few days, and weeks, show a man feeling the heat of the Opposition's plans and demands.

"What heat? That is hot air," UDA Secretary-General Cleophas Malala said yesterday on Monday's mass action. But President Ruto was realistic: "We must tell my good friend Raila Odinga enough is enough. You cannot continue to blackmail the country. We have no problem with you organising demonstrations but please it is your responsibility to work with the police to make sure that rest of citizens' lives are not disrupted.. their property is not destroyed, they can go to work and then you can go on with your demonstrations."

As soon the Opposition hinted at demonstrations, the president moved to weaken it further, wooing lawmakers from Raila's backyard into cooperating with his government. Observers read this as a move meant to keep the Opposition busy fighting internal fires, deflating their momentum.

But Azimio has kept the tempo up, even though it has sometimes come off as cautious. Upon expiry of the 14-day ultimatum to Ruto to respond to Opposition demands, many had thought the protests would begin immediately. Security officers were sure, and hence increased security around the president's Nairobi and Kisumu official residences.

On February 22, Raila issued demands to the president that he wanted to be addressed in 14 days. Besides seeking to have the cost of living reduced and a return of food and fuel subsidies, the Azimio leader wanted the electoral commission's servers opened and the recruitment of commissioners to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) stopped.

National Assembly Minority leader Opiyo Wandayi yesterday said Azimio's demands required that both parties come to the table.

"The issues we raised required some semblance of national consultations, such as the reconstitution of the IEBC. We demanded that all parties must be included in the process," the Ugunja lawmaker said.

Ruto, who has insisted he would not be pushed to a handshake with Raila, responded to the Opposition that the servers stayed open throughout the election period and that the Constitution did not require him to open servers. The president would also promise lower food and fuel prices in the coming months.

Four days to Monday's mass action, unga prices are yet to drop despite a promise by Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi in January of lower prices in February. Maize millers have warned that they could soon raise unga prices, all this amid claims of a global maize shortage by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, which has adverse implications on the price of the country's staple.

There is also the fuel cost, which has yet to go down. On Tuesday, the price of super petrol went up by two shillings to reach Sh179.30 per litre in Nairobi. Coupled with that is the looming rise in electricity costs as warned by Energy Cabinet Secretary Davis Chirchir last month.

On cost of living, nothing seems to be working for Ruto, who had said there would be no quick fixes. But the Opposition has used the subject to attack the president, who previously used the same card against his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila ahead of last year's polls.

Pressure is mounting on Ruto to deal with the opposition's demands wisely. There are those seeking dialogue between the president and Raila, including the clergy.

The clergy has seemed divided on the subject of the opposition's mass action. While a section condemns it as capable of destabilising the nation, there are those who have rallied behind the opposition.

"The demonstrations we are witnessing from Azimio are a way of protesting against what is happening and against the exclusivity that we are witnessing in this country where two communities tend to control everything," Bishop David Kodia, the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) Nyanza regional chairperson, said yesterday, demanding respect for divergent points of view.

"As things stand, I don't see anything that can stop mass action," Wandayi said. "Monday is a working day and Raila does not have a plan post-Monday," Malala said as he dismissed calls for dialogue. Ruto yesterday played down the planned demonstrations during a meeting with some politicians from Western Kenya, further denting chances of a truce.