Nairobi a hotbed of protests, but will Raila's mass action succeed?

Anti-riot police dispersing university students during Saba Saba in Nairobi in July 1997. [File, Standard]

Since the start of the agitation for multi-party democracy in Kenya in the early 90s, Nairobi has remained a strong base for protests, the city being the nerve centre for socio-economic activities, not just for the country but for the region as well.

In essence, when Nairobi sneezes, the whole East Africa catches a cold. For Kenya, over 60 per cent of the country's GDP is generated in the capital, and organisers of protests know that crippling the city is crippling the country.

That is why the government, the business community, and Kenyans at large, are on the edge ahead of tomorrow's planned protests by Azimio leader Raila Odinga.

Raila, who has been going around the country with his brigade that includes Narc Kenya leader Martha Karua and Wiper's Kalonzo Musyoka, said the protests are meant to push President William Ruto to bring down the cost of living.

He has accused the current administration of failing to fulfil the promises it made to Kenyans ahead of last year's elections. which included lowering the cost of basic commodities.

Raila has insisted that the protests will be held in Nairobi. He said he will also lead a march to the State House.

However, there are fears that the demonstrations will create an opportunity for goons to loot businesses, hence, efforts to block entry of the protesters into the Central Business District (CBD). This is because of the ripple effects upheavals in the capital would have on the rest of the country, and the East African region at large.

In the past, some of the protests have turned violent, leading to the loss of property and even life.

And Uhuru Park grounds, at the centre of the city, has been the favourite venue for such political meetings. Other popular venues are Kamukunji grounds in Eastlands, Jacaranda grounds in Embakasi and Kibera's Kamukunji grounds, located behind Olympic Primary school.

Even though Uhuru park has been sealed for renovation, the recreational ground holds unforgettable historic events among many Kenyans.

This is where the 2010 Constitution was promulgated on August 27, 2010, by President Mwai Kibaki at an open ceremony attended by thousands of Kenyans.

It is also at Uhuru Park that environmental crusader Prof Wangari Maathai led a protest against the government to save the facility, as well as Karura forest, towards the end of February 1992.

Maathai, who had just been released from police custody, later joined mothers and relatives of political prisoners on a hunger strike at the park to push for their release.

Kamukunji grounds has gained fame since it hosted the first Saba Saba rally in July 1990 when many Kenyans stepped out to demand for a return to multiparty democracy.

Jacaranda grounds has also been getting attention ahead of elections and even after.

In 2017, some city residents who were planning to converge at the venue to protest over presidential results announced by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, later overturned by the Supreme Court, were shocked when they were met with a strange and nauseating stench. This happened during former governor Mike Sonko's administration. Unknown people dumped human waste all over the ground on the eve of the meeting.

Kibera's Kamukunji grounds has also been hosting major political rallies. The facility, in Kibra constituency, is synonymous with political declarations by Raila.

And this week, the city is staring at another demo planned by Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition leaders who are appealing to their supporters to turn up in large numbers.

Past similar protests always turned ugly with scenes of destroyed property, bloodshed and even deaths. The capital city remains the epicentre of social, economic and political protests.

Mark Bichachi, a political analyst, says the essence of demos is to get the attention of the powers that be, and in this case, the seat of power is in Nairobi.

"In Kenya, when you want to get the attention of the President, you have to demonstrate in Nairobi's CBD, which is close to State House; the seat of power," avers Bichachi.

The impact is further felt, opines the analyst, by the fact that Nairobi is the business hub that when disrupted, the economy is affected negatively.

"Unlike in Tanzania where the capital city is Dodoma while Dar es Salaam is the commercial city, in Kenya, money and capital are in the same location," observes Bichachi.

In July 1990, the county witnessed a momentous political development that not only shaped the present political scene but also laid the foundation for the 2010 Constitution.

The significant epoch saw thousands pour into the streets to demand the re-introduction of multi-party democracy.

Nairobi played host to the demos that culminated in arrests on July 4 of former cabinet ministers Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, and then political activist Raila Odinga.

The arrest of the trio was to pre-empt a planned Saba Saba rally at Kamkunji grounds on July 7, 1990.

Police ruthlessly crushed the protests with scores of civilians killed or maimed. Since then, Saba Saba Day has been commemorated to date.

The following year, in December 1991, Parliament repealed section 2 (A) of the Constitution ushering in multiparty politics. This section of the law made Kenya a de jure one-party State, under Kanu.

On July 7, 1997, there were widespread demonstrations that started in Nairobi. This was after the civil society and opposition political parties called rallies to pressure the government of President Daniel Arap Moi into making constitutional reforms.

The rallies turned ugly when protestors became rowdy by attacking motorists, burning tyres and looting shops.

The chaos was triggered by the actions of anti-riot police who stormed All Saints Cathedral where some opposition MPs had gone for prayers.

Human Rights Watch reported that several people, including students from The University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University, were injured.

Following a wave of international condemnation, President Moi met with religious leaders on July 15, 1997, and promised to allow political reforms, through the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG).

The 2007-2008 post-election violence (PEV) was one of the worst political crises in Kenya's history. This is after ODM supporters protested the declaration of Mwai Kibaki, of the Party of National Unity (PNU), as the winner of the election. Raila, the ODM presidential flag bearer, claimed Kibaki had stolen his victory.

Although mass protests were witnessed in Eldoret, Kericho, Kisumu, Nakuru and Mombasa, Nairobi was the hardest hit with demonstrators taking to the streets, destroying and looting property.

By the time military and police quelled the ensuing skirmishes, 1,133 people had been killed, and more than 600,000 others were displaced from their homes. Close to 117,216 private properties and 491 government-owned properties, including offices, vehicles, health centres and schools, according to the August 11, 2009 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, were also affected.

Following a series of peace talks initiated by international mediators, President Kibaki and Raila, on February 28, 2008, signed a power-sharing deal that saw the ODM leader become Prime Minister, and was allowed to co-opt some of his key lieutenants into what would be termed the government of national unity.

The election violence circle played out ten years later before President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila reached a truce culminating in the so-called Handshake on March 9, 2018. This followed political violence the previous year over the disputed presidential election.

The Handshake brought to an end the political turmoil that had been witnessed in Raila's strongholds. Raila had contested on National Super Alliance (NASA) ticket against Uhuru who vied on the Jubilee party ticket.

Uhuru was declared the winner but his victory was overturned by the Supreme Court over irregularities. The apex court ordered a repeat election which was boycotted by NASA, with its leader Raila insisting on irreducible minimum on electoral reforms.

Jubilee ignored NASA's demands and proceeded with the repeat elections, sparking a wave of violence in Raila's political bases, including Nairobi.

Five years later, tension has once again gripped the capital city as Azimio leaders remain adamant that their supporters will pour into Nairobi streets to demand for lowering of cost of living, opening of Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) servers, and stopping of recruitment of commissioners to the electoral body.

Raila insists President Ruto, whom he competed against in the August 9, 2022 elections, did not win the presidency.

The Azimio leader has declared Monday 'a public holiday' for mass protests with Nairobi being the focal point.

Dr Fredrick Otieno, an expert in security, peace and conflict, thinks the protests will have no impact due to lack of a unifying issue that drives people into a common cause against the authority.

According to the former police officer and member of Professional Criminologists Association of Kenya (PCAK), the country being largely heterogeneous than homogeneous, it is normally a herculean task to convince everyone into mass action.

"If the agenda is to press for lowering of cost of living, certainly there are those who despite feeling the economic pinch, will not be persuaded to protest due to loyalty to their leaders or tribesmen in power," said Otieno.

Secondly, there are no specific meeting points where protestors will first assemble to chart the next course of action, says the security expert who feels Azimio's scattergun strategy where supporters just loiter around, might be a detriment.

"By Sunday, all venues or grounds where crowds can gather will be sealed off by security officials. Without a place where protestors can assemble or gather, police will have easy time disrupting demonstrations by restricting movement of pedestrians and motorists," said Otieno.

Macharia Munene, professor of history and international relations, is of the opinion that the demos will achieve nothing much other than causing disruptions. He believes Raila is using the protests to negotiate his way into the government.

"However, you can't ignore them (protests) because they influence decision making. Depending on how President Ruto handles the situation, there is nothing extra-ordinary that will come out of them," said Prof Macharia.

According to the university lecturer, should Dr Ruto manage to tame Raila, then the Head of State will emerge as a political prodigy.

"Alternatively, the government might decide to allow the opposition to protest until they get tired and give up. If that works, then Ruto will be a political genius," said Macharia.

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