NAIROBI, Kenya — In the early-morning hours of Feb. 2, Kenyan lawyer Miguna Miguna awoke to the sound of a loud explosion that shook the quiet Nairobi neighborhood where he lived. Moments later, a group of armed police officers burst into his home.
He had reason to expect a visit from the police — he’d officiated opposition figure Raila Amolo Odinga’s swearing in three days earlier, when the rabble-rousing leader of Kenya’s NASA coalition inaugurated himself the “people’s president of the Republic of Kenya,” in a mock ceremony meant to undermine the legitimacy of recently re-elected president Uhuru Kenyatta.
“I'd been expecting two things,” Miguna told VICE News. “Basically, the government to use legal or illegal means to try to kill me or try to arrest me.”
Miguna is one of three opposition figures arrested in recent weeks under a wide-ranging crackdown that’s seen Kenyatta’s government go to extraordinary measures — blacking out the media for a full week, threatening journalists, detaining opposition leaders without charge, and defying multiple court orders — to suppress a growing opposition movement and regain control of a divided nation.
For many Kenyans, the last few weeks are just the latest indication that the country's young democracy is collapsing before their eyes, and giving way to a new strain of authoritarianism.
“What are laws for? [When] the government does not respect the court orders?" said Robert, a 28-year-old NASA supporter from Nairobi, who declined to give his last name for fear of government retribution. "It tells you that we live in a state of authoritarianism."
Fear for the future of Kenya’s democracy has spread beyond the country's borders. The U.S. government said it was “deeply concerned” about the attacks on the media, and the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner criticized Kenyatta's defiance of the country's high court.
The government’s latest crackdown is tied to last August’s controversial presidential election, when Odinga challenged Kenyatta’s victory in the Supreme Court over voting irregularities. In what was widely hailed as a landmark decision for judicial independence in Kenya, the court overturned the election results, and ordered a new election to be held within 60 days.
But in the weeks that followed, the Jubilee administration cracked down on civil society organizations, publicly criticized and undermined Kenya’s judicial system, and allowed police killings with impunity.
Odinga withdrew from the race, citing the government’s failure to ensure a fair and credible vote, and called for a nationwide boycott of the rescheduled election. Kenyatta was declared the winner for the second time on October 30 in an election whose legitimacy was tarnished by widespread violence and low turnout.
A peaceful rally or a coup?
Since then, the boycott has transformed into a resistance movement, crystallizing on Jan. 30, when thousands of Kenyans swarmed into Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi to witness Odinga crown himself the “people’s president.”
Many of those gathered in Uhuru Park that day were members of Kenya’s smaller and less-influential tribes who've long felt disillusioned and disenfranchised by the government. Armed with bottles of home-brewed liquor and joints in their hands, they were prepared to wait for hours for the opposition leader who promised them change.
But nearby, in Nairobi’s State House, the Jubiliee government was far less patient: They viewed Odinga’s stunt as an attempted coup.
“What they’re trying to do is create a situation of incitement,” said Jubilee spokesman Mwenda Njoka. “If everything went according to their plans, it would be almost leading to a coup, taking over government by illegal means.”
On the morning of the mock swearing-in, the government pulled four of Kenya’s biggest television stations off the air, claiming that their decision to broadcast the event posed a threat to national security. But few Kenyans believed the government’s official explanation.
“I think this is deliberate and I think it's a fair degree of overreach from the state authorities to try and threaten the media or, at the very minimum, make the media start self-censoring,” said journalist David Aduda. “It doesn't bode well for freedom of the press.”
Kenyatta’s supporters are more sympathetic to the government's position. “As much as you want to blame the government for not obeying the Constitution, [the opposition] are looking for new ways of pushing the government further into a corner. The only option when you're in a corner is to fight back,” said Peter Ndegwa, a taxi driver in Nairobi.
But even they're worried by the government’s recent crack down. “It’s a step in the wrong direction," said Ndegwa. "If you ask me Uhuru has a lot of power, he doesn't have to show it.”
The following day, police surrounded the headquarters of one of the networks, Nation Media, with orders to arrest three of its journalists. The reporters slept in their offices overnight to avoid being detained. For nearly a week, the Kenyan government ignored multiple court orders ordering the restoration of the television stations.
The crackdown spread beyond media. Police detained several high-profile opposition members, including Miguna, and suspended the passports of 14 others.
Despite the government’s recent actions, Aduda is confident that Kenyans will fight against the tide of authoritarianism the same way they did during the time of Daniel Moi, the dictator who ruled over Kenya for 24 years before stepping down in 2002.
“I can guarantee the current administration that the only constant is that if they do not change, they'll see people on the streets. Predictably it will be ruthless, but for how long?” he said. “Under Moi, people were being detained — detention without trial. But Kenyans survived it.”
Nic Cheeseman, professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham, said that the current struggles follow a pattern.
“On the one hand, you could say this is an outlier and Kenya is moving away from democracy. On the other hand, you could say this reflects a pattern of behavior of the Kenyan government going back 20 years,” Cheeseman said.
The more pressing worry, said Cheeseman, is that the current political climate could lead to renewed violence in the country. Kenya has a history of divisive and violent politics. In 2008, tensions between rival tribes resulted in post-election violence that left over 1,200 dead and 500,000 displaced. And though last August’s presidential election started peacefully, it soon devolved into widespread violence, though not on the scale of 2008.
“The one thing we know tends to happen in Kenya when we have high levels of instability and uncertainty, is we have high levels of repression,” Cheeseman said. “That will increase political uncertainty and those in power may respond to that with coercion and that might tilt us into that more authoritarian position.”
“Democracy is effectively dead right now in Kenya”
After his arrest, Miguna claimed, the police drove him around for hours, refusing to name the charges against him or allow him to call his lawyers. The lawyer says he was shuttled from jail to jail, kept in poor conditions, and denied his constitutional rights. Miguna was kept incognito for nearly a week, as the nation took to debating on Twitter about where he was and whether he was alive or dead.
The Kenyan government confirmed to VICE News that Miguna had been arrested and detained, but they declined to provide further details.
As the week went on, the government faced increasing pressure from the courts and the public to produce Miguna and either charge or release him. On the night of Feb. 6, Miguna was driven to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and placed on a flight to Canada, where he also has citizenship. The Kenyan government says Miguna renounced his citizenship years ago, and failed to take the necessary actions to reapply. Miguna emphatically refutes the government's story, and says he’ll continue fighting for his rights.
But he worries for the future of his country. “Democracy is effectively dead right now in Kenya,” said Miguna. “These are systematic, deliberate, draconian measures to flagrantly violate critics' constitutional rights without any legal excuse.”
Neha Wadekar is a multimedia journalist based in Nairobi and reporting across Africa.
Cover image: A man wears a mask among fellow supporters as Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga (not pictured) takes a symbolic presidential oath of office in Nairobi, Kenya January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner