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Last updated: July 7, 2014 7:32 pm
Kenya’s opposition went ahead with a large protest rally in the centre of Nairobi on Monday, as domestic tensions heightened in a country that has yet to recover from ethnic violence six years ago.
Raila Odinga, the opposition leader and former prime minister, convened the demonstration prompted by failed calls for “national dialogue” in protest at insecurity, corruption and Kenya’s rising cost of living.
Nairobi’s usually busy streets were empty as shops closed and many office workers stayed at home to avoid getting caught up in any violence.
Thousands of people congregated at the rally at the city’s Uhuru Park, which extended beyond a 5pm police deadline, to blow whistles, chant political slogans and wave branches as a sign of peace, watched by lines of security officers armed with batons, tear gas and Kalashnikovs.
Truckloads of armed police stood guard near entry routes and police at times fired tear gas to calm sections of the stone-throwing crowd.
Daniel Sande, 24, a butcher dressed in orange, Mr Odinga’s party colour, said: “Corruption has gone rampant . . . [and] instead of fighting terrorists the government is fighting politicians.”
The rally comes after more than 20 people were killed in violence over the weekend, the third such attack in as many weeks. While the massacres were, like the others, claimed by al-Qaeda-linked jihadis from the group al-Shabaab, the government has blamed domestic political networks.
A “Save Kenya” resolution issued during the rally called for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia, whose 2011 invasion prompted threats of reprisals from al-Shabaab, as well as demanding land reform, the disbandment of the election commission and a national referendum on “critical challenges facing our nation”.
One highly placed government supporter described the demands, which also included a consumer boycott of expensive goods, as “a turgid and indigestible mishmash . . . not worth disrupting people’s livelihoods for”.
Political tension has been rising ahead of the rally, with Mr Odinga, pictured left, describing it as his “Saba Saba” event (Swahili for “seven seven” after the July 7 date). This is a conscious echo of the first Saba Saba rally in 1990 that helped to end Kenya’s authoritarian regime under President Daniel arap Moi and usher in multi-party democracy.
The state, fearing a violent populist protest, had initially adopted a hardline attitude towards Mr Odinga’s renewed campaigning following a three-month absence from the country, banning political rallies and threatening to arrest political leaders.
While some close to the leadership have called for a state of emergency, influential Kenyan business leaders and western diplomats intervened behind the scenes to help sway the government to a more flexible position.
“The more we clamp down on [Mr Odinga] the more we give him a platform – letting him go ahead [with the rally] deflates his balloon and kills his agenda,” said a senior domestic figure.
The more we clamp down on [Mr Odinga] the more we give him a platform – letting him go ahead [with the rally] deflates his balloon and kills his agenda
- Senior Kenyan political figure
President Uhuru Kenyatta kept a busy diary on Monday, visiting a new terminal at the airport and holding meetings on resources for HIV/Aids programmes in a pointed effort to rise above the rally, about which he made no comment.
Mr Odinga, who blames electoral fraud for losing presidential polls in 2007 and 2013, is hailed by many including from outside his own Luo ethnicity.
“Raila is my brother – I love him,” said Anastasia Mutanu, a 54-year-old mother of eight from the Kamba ethnic group who travelled 180km to reach the rally even though her community leaders said they did not support it. “He is soft-hearted on the lower classes – life would be better under him,” she said.
Many Kenyans are wary of a repeat of ethnic violence that followed disputed elections in 2007, in which more than 1,100 people were killed and more than 600,000 displaced.
Mr Kenyatta, from the dominant Kikuyu group, has been indicted for alleged crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, accused of financing and marshalling ethnic kill squads during the violence. He denies the charges.
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