Just as the start of the month was being ushered in, a man called Raila Odinga caused a storm in East Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation, by naming himself the new President of Kenya.
The problem? Kenya already has a President.
Circumventing the democratic process of any country, as Odinga has, is bound to elicit a powerful response and that is exactly what has happened.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s official president, took the significant step of banning the country’s largest broadcasters from broadcasting at all, in response to those very stations planning to air Odinga’s inauguration. The government’s decision to censor KTN, NTV and Citizen TV is unparalleled in its gravity.
This action drew heavy criticism from an array of commentators. Journalists themselves were particularly biting in their assessment. One Kenyan journalist urged the government to “respect the constitution” and bring an end to the “unprecedented intimidation of journalists”.
The censorship has since come to an end, signalled by Citizen TV coming back on the airways a few days ago. However, the fact that it happened in the first place, flying the face not only of a court order of the Kenyan Supreme Court, but also the freedom of speech that is a basic prerequisite to a healthy democracy, is an eerie lurch towards authoritarianism.
Yet the government’s reaction didn’t stop there. Miguna Miguna, the opposition lawyer who swore in Odinga, and who remains one of his most high-profile allies, was arrested in a dawn raid in Nairobi.
The original dispute pertains to the grievances that Odinga and his party, the National Super Alliance, had with the initial outcome of the last year’s general election, on the basis that they considered it to be fraudulent. The follow-up ballot was boycotted by Odinga and his supporters and thus they regard the final election result as illegitimate.
The government defended itself by proclaiming the episode as a security issue. The Interior Ministry described Odinga’s attempt to “subvert or overthrow” the government, claiming it “would have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent Kenyans”.
The situation in Kenya may mean it stands to reason to argue that African democracy is more fragile than its Western counterparts. This is on the apparent basis that any threats to a fragile democracy must be taken seriously, perhaps even eliciting what many may see as a heavy-handed approach. To the government’s credit, they had warned Odinga what he had planned was deemed criminal under Kenya’s anti-treason laws and that consequences would be coming his way.
The problem with heavy-handedness, however, is that it often isn’t an isolated occurrence. To shut down the country’s primary media-outlets is an affront to every ordinary Kenyan, whether they sympathise with Odinga or not. And it’s those ordinary Kenyans, as a national collective, who will at some point decide when enough is enough.