Living in Kenya these days often feels like an alternate reality far removed from the year and such alien concepts as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and democratic freedoms. First, the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA, not to be confused with the space agency) carried out a mock swearing-in of its leader, Raila Odinga, as “the people’s president,” despite protests from the government, foreign envoys and some opinion leaders in the country.
The overreaction from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s embattled administration was swift and relentless, starting with a week-long illegal shutdown of four television stations, including the three largest independent TV stations, NTV, KTN News and Citizen TV, which collectively control 70 percent of total viewership. Two were partially reopened seven days later, but market leader Citizen TV remains inexplicably closed, in direct contravention of several laws and court orders.
Next, the state went after two prominent politicians who stood next to Odinga as he took the oath before an ecstatic crowd in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The lawmaker T.J. Kajwang was arrested, kept hidden for a few days, then charged with being party to a treasonable offence using a colonial oath law the British used against the Mau Mau independence fighters in the 1950s. Miguna Miguna, a dual Kenyan-Canadian citizen who also flanked the former prime minister was detained for four days despite five valid court orders ordering his release before being “deported” late at night. A Kenyan “citizen by birth does not lose citizenship by acquiring the citizenship of another country,” but Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i signed Miguna’s deportation papers anyway, setting the stage for a legal battle. He also suspended passports of 14 opposition leaders closely associated with Odinga in an unprecedented attempt to limit their movement out of the country.
In the space of just one week, a Kenyan government that proclaims itself a rule-of-law government has repeatedly defied nearly a dozen court orders in an alarming descent toward authoritarianism. When the Kenyan Supreme Court annulled Kenyatta’s reelection in a landmark ruling last year, he promised to “revisit” the judiciary and called the chief justice and his judges “crooks.” “There is a problem, and we must fix it. Going forward we must fix it,” he said shortly after the court’s judgment that a new election would have to be held within 60 days. A few days later, the vice chair of the president’s party, who is widely believed to be a close ally of Kenyatta, openly advocated for a benevolent dictatorship on national television. “What this country needs now is a benevolent dictator. People have been too soft so that things have gone rogue,” David Murathe told KTN News. “You find places like Rwanda are very stable, Uganda is very stable,” he said, quoting two East African nations with notoriously limited space for dissent.
The shameless disregard for the court process, switching off private media outlets, and intimidation of opposition politicians and journalists all build on the intolerance for criticism that characterized Kenyatta’s first term. It began with the vilification of civil society as an “evil society” by senior aides to the president and surrogates on broadcast talk shows until “activist”’ all but became a slur in Kenya. Even as the government borrowed more and more from the West and took in billions of dollars in aid, it accused human rights groups and opposition leaders of being agents of imperialism hellbent on reestablishing colonialism. This is the same administration that is now using colonial laws that Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of a newly independent Kenya, conveniently left in place to cement his own rule. It feels like we’re back to the dark era of Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya with an iron fist for 24 years and is also the political mentor of the current president.
The current President Kenyatta, whose first name, Uhuru, ironically means ‘freedom’ in Swahili, has borrowed from the Moi playbook of repression and perfected it to devastating effect. What was once a vibrant media, a beacon of freedom and independence in Africa, has been threatened into submission to protect business interests. What was once just despotism-lite will turn into a full-blown dictatorship if this government continues on the downward spiral the progressive 2010 constitution was supposed to guard against.
The writing is now firmly on the wall: Kenyatta intention is to become another African strongman if he stands aside and lets his rogue government systematically crack down on the liberties so many Kenyans sacrificed so much to earn. When peaceful protesters are violently dispersed or demonstrations outlawed entirely as has happened in the past, when journalists are too scared to keep the people in power accountable, and the opposition is harassed and the rights of ordinary citizens infringed upon, what is that if not autocracy? All Kenyans — and the international community — must say no before the country becomes just another banana republic.
Larry Madowo is a Kenyan broadcast journalist and writer. He tweets at @LarryMadowo