Tensions Rise in Kenya as Opposition Rejects Ban on Protests

  • At least five people killed in weekly protests since April
  • Opposition demanding resignation of electoral officials

Kenya’s main opposition party rejected a government ban on political protests and said it will intensify rallies calling for changes to the East African nation’s electoral body.

Interior Secretary Joseph Nkaissery on Tuesday outlawed demonstrations in the country after a least five people died in weekly rallies by supporters of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy that began in April. He threatened to crack down on protesters until differences between the opposition and the government over the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission are resolved through negotiations.

The ban “doesn’t change anything,” Dennis Onyango, a spokesman for CORD, said by phone from the capital, Nairobi, on Wednesday. “The courts have cleared us to hold demonstrations.” The protests will be held on Mondays and Thursdays, he said.

With presidential elections scheduled for August 2017, the clashes between protesters and police have evoked memories of the political and ethnic conflict that erupted in Kenya after a disputed vote in 2007 and claimed at least 1,100 lives. The country is the world’s biggest black-tea exporter and ranks as sub-Saharan Africa’s fifth-largest economy.

The 71-year-old former prime minister, Raila Odinga, who heads CORD, poses the biggest political challenge to President Uhuru Kenyatta, 54, in next year’s ballot. Odinga disputed his loss in the last presidential vote in 2013. CORD wants top electoral officials to resign over alleged corruption and bias toward Kenyatta.

The ban on protests contravenes Kenya’s constitution, which was rewritten in 2010 to allow greater freedoms, Gitobu Imanyara, a lawyer, said by phone from Nairobi, calling the decision “nonsensical.”

“What the government is doing is pushing the country to the brink,” Imanyara said.

Kenya’s constitution says “every person has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, and to present petitions to public authorities.”

‘Emergency’ Declared

CORD said Wednesday the ban is effectively a declaration of a state of emergency, which the party plans to challenge in the country’s Supreme Court.

Eighteen civilians and 32 police officers were injured in protests across the country on Monday, Nkaissery said at Tuesday’s media briefing. He was flanked by Attorney-General Githu Muigai and Inspector-General of Police Joseph Boinnet.

“It is extremely dangerous for anybody to challenge the government’s decision,” he said. “The consequences are grave.”

CORD withdrew its members from a parliamentary committee on electoral reforms on Tuesday, saying it preferred instead talks at the “highest level.” Kenyatta’s government hasn’t agreed to hold discussions on reforming the electoral commission ahead of next year’s vote.

Tourists Frightened

Ongoing political turmoil threatens to derail Kenya’s economy, one of a handful in sub-Saharan Africa that’s booming as it benefits from low oil prices, a stable exchange rate and slowing inflation. Dennis Awori, chairman of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, a business lobby group, warned last month that the protests were damaging the country’s image and scaring tourists away.

CORD may be using the protests to to distract from party disunity and to galvanize its support base ahead of the elections, Ahmed Salim, a senior associate at Teneo Intelligence in Dubai, said in a research note. There have been questions over whether Odinga should be the party’s candidate in the vote, and it’s faced declining voter-registration numbers and turnouts in its strongholds, he said.

“Overall, the developments do not bode well for the outlook of next year’s election,” he said. “Unless both sides of the political divide are able to show some restraint and reach compromises, fears about a possible repeat of the deadly aftermath of the 2007-08 elections will remain at the forefront of public and investor concerns.”

The International Monetary Fund expects Kenya’s economy to expand 6 percent this year and 6.1 percent in 2017, which would make it one of sub-Saharan Africa’s top five performers. The economy, East Africa’s largest, grew 5.6 percent last year, as an expansion of agriculture, manufacturing and construction offset a slowdown in tourism.

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