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“People are willing to die”: Kenya's opposition pushes election boycott

by Julia Steers
Aug 14 2017, 2:59pm

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga was greeted in the city’s Kibera slum Sunday afternoon with roars of “Baba” (Papa) and “No Raila, No Peace,” after a weekend of violent street demonstrations that left at least 24 dead and 100 more injured. Surrounded by thousands of supporters, Odinga called on his base to await further marching orders in their boycott against what his campaign calls “sham presidential results.”

The embattled four-time presidential candidate doubled down on his party’s claims of election fraud and struck out at newly re-elected President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, further stoking fears that the violence that engulfed Nairobi’s largest slums over the weekend will spread beyond Odinga strongholds.

“People are willing to die” in the demonstrations, said Morris Onyango, 43, in Kibera. “We believe the tallying was rigged.”

The fight against the so-called stolen election, held on Aug. 8, turned bloody on Saturday as protesters and looters faced blasts of tear gas and live rounds as police cordoned off both slums. Odinga declared Monday a day of mourning to honor those who died on Saturday.

“It is our democratic right to elect our leaders, and it has been stolen away from us.”

Odinga’s camp claims that over 100 people have been killed in the government’s postelection violence crackdown, but the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights puts the official death toll at 24, with at least 100 more suffering “severe injuries,” according to Kenya’s Red Cross.

Residents in Kibera and Mathare say the swift and at times brutal police response has only emboldened demonstrators, in a community where many already resent the government for being ineffective in lowering their cost of living and combating unemployment.

“It is our democratic right to elect our leaders, and it has been stolen away from us,” Gerald Owuor said. “And now people are angry from the number of deaths from police shooting and killing and using live bullets.”

Senator James Orengo, a major backer of Odinga’s campaign, accused Kenyatta’s government of issuing a “’shoot to kill’ order” and asked his followers to join mass, “peaceful” action against the government.

“The police are the government. Who else is sending them?” Owuor, a Kibera resident, said. “They were determined to shoot and kill.”

Odinga left one stronghold for another, traveling to Nairobi’s Mathare slum, where he visited a family of a 9-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet on Sunday. Both slums are opposition strongholds but were also sites of widespread post-election violence in 2007 when Odinga lost an election under suspect circumstances and the country slid into ethnic violence that killed over 1,100 and displaced half a million Kenyans.

Outside of Nairobi’s slums and the western city of Kisumu, life had largely returned to normal on Sunday. But shortly after Odinga’s visits, impromptu demonstrations formed again and a heavy police presence moved in to both slums overnight in an effort to prevent further violence.

In Nairobi’s Mathare slum — and to a lesser extent in Kibera — shops and homes of Kikuyu business owners were torched and looted on Saturday and Sunday night. Odinga is a member of the Luo tribe, which has long felt excluded from power and ignored by the ruling party. Kenyatta is the son of Kenya’s first president and a member of the Kikuyu tribe. Three of four presidents since Kenya’s independence from Britain have been Kikuyus, and though this political season moved away from drawing divisions along tribal lines, it’s a factor often present in the background.

“It’s not all about Odinga. Kenyans are fed up.”

The slip into ethnically driven violence in Mathare on Sunday is cause for serious concern in the context of Kenya’s history. Monday morning, residents of Mathare and Kibera said they’d experienced power cuts overnight and heard police shooting — into the air, residents said — throughout the night in order to disperse groups of young men.

Odinga’s marching orders on Sunday stoked worry within the international community that the opposition might be trying to stir up unrest to serve their own political aims. On Sunday morning, several young men told VICE News that opposition representatives were paying young people to demonstrate in the streets.

Deliberately stoking fear about a return to the postelection violence of 2007 could be a tactic to negotiate a conciliatory role within the current government, diplomatic sources close to the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity told VICE News.

It’s a move that the international community is unlikely to accept. International monitors on the ground backed the election as free and fair, and the U.S. and U.K. issued statements of firm support of the results from the independent electoral commission, declaring Kenyatta as the winner of the presidential race and — along with the U.N. — urging Odinga to take his claims to court instead of the streets.

Still, for many people committed to demonstrating in the areas of unrest, their feelings of disenfranchisement transcend support for Odinga.

“It’s not all about Odinga. Kenyans are fed up,” said Emmanuel, 21, who withheld his last name out of concerns for his safety.

“It’s about the economy and injustices. It trickles down to tribal inequality,” he said, echoing a view often perpetuated by politicians and voters who still largely vote along tribal lines.

“Only the brave will stand up and talk to the government about it,” Emmanuel added. “But when you talk about it, I don’t think you will live to see another day.”

Julia Steers is an East Africa-based reporter and producer covering politics and human rights. She is a regular contributor to VICE News.

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