Looking for a Handshake: Coercive Bargaining in Kenya’s Anti-Government Protests

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Over the last several weeks, Kenya has experienced the sudden appearance of major street protests throughout much of the country. On Friday, March 10, Raila Odinga, five-time presidential candidate and the leader of the country’s political opposition, Azimio la Umoja – the One Kenya Coalition, called for a “public holiday” and national demonstrations on Friday, March 20. According to Odinga, the country’s people have been struggling with a rapid increase in the cost of living he attributes to the removal of government subsidies for food, gas, and education as well as wide-ranging corruption. Moreover, he has alleged that the August 2022 election, which was narrowly won by Kenya’s current president, William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza alliance, was stolen through election fraud.

These allegations of fraud have run counter to the assessment of outside election observers, which determined that the election occurred “a peaceful environment overall, with fundamental democratic rights respected,” and the judgment of the Kenyan Supreme Court, which rejected all eight petitions of the election outcome filed by opposition actors, determining that they were based on “sensational information” and “fraudulent documents.”

On March 20, protests broke out in Nairobi’s Kibera neighborhood, Africa’s largest urban slum, with hundreds of demonstrators hurling bottles and stones at the police. The unrest spread into Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD), where Odinga had called on supporters to march on the State House, the president’s official office. The CBD experienced further clashes between the police and protesters and the looting of a number of businesses. Additionally, large demonstrations took place in Kisumi, where protesters stormed, vandalized, and looted the local headquarters of the president’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA).

In Nairobi, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. Over 200 protesters across the country were arrested, including four members of Parliament who were soon released, and one university student was shot and killed by police in Kisumu. After the demonstrations, Odinga called for a boycott of goods and services provided by Safaricom and KCB Bank, corporations he has alleged are connected to Kenya Kwanza politicians as well as Radio Africa Group’s Star Newspaper, which he has argued is biased and inaccurate. He also urged his supporters to demonstrate every Monday and Thursday until his demands were met, declaring that on Monday, March 27 “the “mother of all demonstrations” would take place in Nairobi.

After the March 20 protests, Kenya’s Inspector General of Police, Japhet Koome declared a ban on demonstrations for the following week, indicating that there would be a heavy police presence to ensure peace and all persons carrying any sort of “offensive weapon” would be arrested. All other Kenyans were encouraged to go about their business as usual. President Ruto also worked to reassure businesses and investors after disruptions associated with the earlier protests caused an estimated $15 million USD in business losses, noting that the government would work to restore the rule of law “by decisively combating impunity, lawlessness and disorder.”

On Sunday, March 26, Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki announced that the government would propose up to ten changes to the Public Order Act, including the demarcation of official public assembly zones, requirements that organizers secure consent from parties negatively impacted by demonstrations, limitations on the number of demonstrators and petitioners for a given assembly, and requirements that make organizers responsible for cleanup costs and damages to property associated with the demonstration.  

On Monday, March 27, the date of the first of Azimio’s planned weekly demonstrations or “Maandamano [protest] Mondays,” Nairobi’s CBD was remarkably quiet. The overwhelming majority of downtown businesses were shuttered and the streets were largely empty of vehicles. Large deployments of police in riot gear were stationed in front of government buildings, city parks, and major intersections, and large stretches of sidewalks were roped off in front of government buildings.

Throughout the CBD, many business owners and matatu buses complained of the lack of business and rumors swirled of Raila’s whereabouts and if and when the Azimio demonstrators would stream into downtown. By late morning, reports began to appear that protests and clashes with police were taking place in the urban slums of Mathare and Kawangware, and it was unclear if the demonstrators would push into the CBD and approach the State House. In Kibra, youths set tires on fire in the street, attacked the police with bottles and rocks, and looted businesses. A group of journalists were robbed by a knife-wielding gang taking advantage of the chaos. The police deployed teargas, and clashes continued on-and-off throughout the day.

Later in the day, news broke of extralegal violence specifically targeting the property of leading opposition and pro-government officials. A large group of unidentified men stormed onto a large estate at Kamakis on the northern outskirts of Nairobi owned by former President Uhuru Kenyatta, an Odinga ally, looting the property and stealing and slaughtering farm animals. The property appeared to be left largely undefended by government security forces, and the only guards present did not intervene to stop the raiders. Similarly, a gas cylinder manufacturing and distribution company connected to Raila Odinga, East Africa Spectre Limited, was attacked by unidentified youth, who smashed windows and attacked the property before fleeing the scene. Only days earlier,  Cleophas Malala, the general secretary of President Ruto’s UDA, had threatened to bring pro-government demonstrations to Odinga’s home in Nairobi’s Karen neighborhood.

The unrest over the last several weeks appears to represent a form of coercive bargaining between Raila Odinga, and the Ruto-led Kenya Kwanza government. For Odinga, despite the endorsement of his former rival, the exiting president, Uruhu Kenyatta, he was defeated by Ruto in a very competitive August 2022 national election. The contest also produced narrow majorities for the Kenya Kwanza coalition in the National Assembly and Senate. After attempting to overturn the results of the election through ultimately unsuccessful legal actions claiming election in early September, Odinga and his core supporters were largely locked out of the formal decision-making process.

As a consequence, after several months of relative quiet, Odinga shifted his efforts to the streets, mobilizing mass demonstrations focused on electoral justice and the rising cost of living. These proved successful in creating social and economic disruptions designed to pressure the government into granting concessions and elicited calls from the African Union and Western powers for restraint and dialogue. And while Odinga has repeatedly insisted he is calling for peaceful, legal demonstrations, protests have regularly been marred by violence, including rock-throwing, vandalism, and the looting of property. He has insisted this is “defensive” rather than “offensive” violence instigated by heavy-handed police tactics and police efforts to block off residents in their homes and neighborhoods.

According to a business owner in the Nairobi CBD, violence and looting are largely crimes of opportunity, where unemployed youths have seized the opportunity provided by chaotic protests to loot businesses while the police are concerned with managing the demonstrations. Additionally, with the emergence of attacks on the property of leading politicians, namely Kenyatta and Odinga, and allegations of an assassination attempt on Odinga during a demonstration, the risks of escalation continued to grow. 

The protests continued on a weekly basis as scheduled. Odinga’s likely intention was the securing of another “handshake” agreement with the government that replicated his deal with then-President Uruhu Kenyatta in 2018. In exchange for ending the protests, which continued to disrupt an economy already struggling with high inflation, high unemployment, and rising costs of living, Odinga demanded some form of power-sharing and a reconstitution of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which oversees Kenyan elections, which Odinga believes is rigged in favor of the ruling Kenya Kwanza alliance.

On Sunday, April 2, in his state of the nation speech, Ruto condemned acts of “grave acts of lawlessness, widespread violence, and invasion of private property by persons taking advantage of [the opposition protests]” that had resulted in three deaths and over 400 injuries and called on Azimio to call off the weekly demonstrations. He recommended a “bi-partisan engagement in Parliament on the reconstitution of the IEBC panel within the parameters of the law and the constitution.” In response to Ruto’s gesture, Odinga called for the suspension of demonstrations scheduled for the week on Monday and Thursday and agreed to sit down with the government to negotiate the reform of the IEBC and the restoration of subsidies on fuel, electricity and maize. Odinga, however, warned that if there was “no meaningful response or engagement from Ruto,” the protests would resume the following week.

With Odinga having maximized his leverage through continual street demonstrations but also facing the prospect that protests might spiral out of control or lose public support, the situation is currently set for Ruto and Odinga to sit down and organize yet another post-election ‘handshake’ agreement following the precedent of many recent Kenyan election cycles. 

Steve Hess is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, USA. He has researched Sino-African relations for over a decade and is the co-author, with Richard Aidoo, of the book, Charting the Roots of Anti-Chinese Populism in Africa (2015).

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