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Kenya’s government just let the opposition candidate swear himself in as a ‘parallel’ president

Supporters of the Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga celebrate as Odinga held a symbolic “swearing in” ceremony in Nairobi despite losing the 2017 presidential election. (Daniel Irungu/European Pressphoto Agency)

In Nairobi on Tuesday, 2017 Kenyan presidential candidate Raila Odinga swore himself in as the “people’s president” in front of a crowd of thousands of his supporters, but noticeably without the support of his opposition political coalition. Odinga’s ceremonial move to establish a parallel “people’s” government was the latest twist following months of electoral uncertainty and a repeat election in October, which the opposition boycotted.

Until shortly before the swearing-in ceremony, the police had vowed to arrest anyone who attempted to enter the park where the ceremony would be held. That didn’t happen. Instead, the police allowed the ceremony to go ahead peacefully, watching from a distance on horseback. Before Odinga’s ceremony, Kenya’s attorney general had called any attempt to swear a person in as an unofficial president a crime of high treason, punishable by death. But no one arrested Odinga when he took his oath.

The restraint by the police suggests a milestone for the country’s young democracy and its respect for freedom of association. It is a shift from previous police crackdowns on dissent, especially during elections. Human rights organizations documented as many as 67 people killed, most by the police, in the aftermath of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reelection in August. It is in stark contrast to 2007 and 2008, when nearly 1,100 people died in post-election fighting following contested elections. But it should not obscure the long history of state and police abuses, or the flaws in the electoral process.

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The government exposed fragility within Kenya’s opposition

The government restrained media on Tuesday, blocking the free-to-air signal of three major TV stations (although the channels could still be viewed online and on pay-to-view broadcasts) and temporarily disrupting service of one of the three. The organizations continued to report online in a sign of defiance from the Fourth Estate, helping one another in the process. One journalist appeared on a rival TV channel, for instance, reporting live from the ceremony. The shutdown also drew a sharp critique from the population and civil society groups, who called these actions illegal.

Keeping the police at bay was a shrewd political move from Kenyatta’s government. By allowing the ceremony to go ahead, he inadvertently exposed the opposition’s internal weaknesses. The opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition, made up of multiple ethnicities, collapsed on its own when Odinga’s deputy presidential candidate failed to attend the swearing-in ceremony despite being included in advertising for it on Twitter a day earlier.

Odinga, a constant feature of the Kenyan opposition for decades, is now isolated. The opposition appears to have no clear leader and no clear plan. In respecting the freedom of association of the supporters to informally swear in a second president and support their leader, Kenyatta has taken steps to diffuse some of the intense political tension and increase his legitimacy, following an election season mired in controversy and allegations of fraud.

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The police have a long history of abuses

This increased legitimacy, and the government’s commitment to preserving Kenya’s core democratic institutions, is nonetheless fragile. In the hours following the swearing-in ceremony, the interior minister designated Odinga’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) an organized criminal organization. And police restraint for one day cannot overshadow systemic abuses and failures to respect human rights.

Many of the abuses by Kenya’s security forces target already marginalized groups in Kenya. In the northeast and coastal regions, which are significantly under-resourced and underrepresented, police have frequently killed with impunity, especially during counterterrorism operations. A national nongovernmental organization, Haki Africa, documented the deaths of 81 coastal Muslims at the hands of security forces. Other NGOs alleged similar abuses.

After Kenya’s new constitution in 2010 created a devolved governance structure, there was significant hope that the northeastern regions could be better funded and supported. But this has failed to materialize. In the northeast, clans are fighting for resources among themselves, and terrorist group al-Shabab is exploiting the vacuum to gain power. In this context, the police have cracked down on Muslim communities and ethnic Somali populations in the coastal regions and in Nairobi, further intensifying the fear and suspicion of these groups.

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The police have also carried out violent attacks against the country’s poorest and most vulnerable. In the aftermath of the August election, much of police crackdown took place in the major slums of Nairobi. Among those killed were a 6-month-old infant and a minor. Many of those targeted were ethnic Luos, members of Odinga’s tribe. Despite being a major Kenyan ethnic group, Luos have, for most of the country’s history, been in political opposition. On social media following the initial and rerun elections, the hashtag #LuoLivesMatter circulated widely as a protest of police brutality.

More broadly, the country remains sharply divided along ethnic lines, with little progress in reconciling the post-election violence of 2007 and 2008. Cases before the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try those allegedly most responsible for the violence — including Kenyatta and his deputy president, William Ruto — all collapsed. No serious national investigatory mechanisms were set up, leaving little chance for victims and survivors to access justice, or for community-level reconciliation.

The government’s conduct Tuesday may help repair the reputation of Kenya’s police forces and restore some faith in the country’s democratic institutions. But this progress is precarious. Without a serious commitment to police oversight and security reforms in other sectors of the country, Kenyatta risks further dividing the country in the long term, while alienating parts of the population who already feel marginalized and targeted.

Anjli Parrin (@AnjliParrin) is a Kenyan Legal Fellow at both the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, working on their project investigating war crimes.

 Rahma Hussein (@rhussein_) is a Legal Fellow at Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute’s Project on Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights.