Looming Concerns for Democracy in Kenya

Historians recognize that democracy is always fragile. And when the rule of law, a balance of powers, freedom of the press, and a respect for constitutional norms become established in a young nation, the nation’s people sometimes put their trust in these institutions and avert their attention, with troubling results. Right now in Kenya, these pillars of democracy appear to be under threat, and the world is observing the reaction of the Kenyan people.

In 2017, Raila Odinga ran against the current president Uhuru Kenyatta, lost, and challenged the vote in the nation’s Supreme Court. The Court ordered a new election in a decision hailed by international observers as a triumph for Democracy and the rule of law. But before the second vote could be cast, Odinga withdrew from the election on the grounds that the contest was unfairly balanced in favor of Kenyatta.

Odinga’s supporters boycotted the polls, handing the win to his rival, but Odinga has since refused to concede defeat and last week he announced a determination to take an alternative oath as the “people’s president” in a Nairobi park.

Though US and European diplomats urged Odinga to cancel the ceremony, he proceeded with the event last Tuesday, and as crowds gathered in the park, Kenyan media stations defied the warnings of the Kenyatta government and broadcast the event live.

The government disconnected the TV stations and a looming media crackdown appears to lending legitimacy to what might otherwise have been dismissed by the global community as a theatrical stunt on the part of Odinga and his supporters.

Kenyatta has a history of dismissing and undermining the free press. But a television blackout is considered an extreme action in an escalation of tension between authoritarian officials and an otherwise thriving democracy, and this is especially true in Kenya, where most (about 70 percent) of citizens rely on broadcast stations rather than the internet for their media access.

The journalists behind the broadcast have been threatened with arrest, but so far have not faced changes for any crimes. Meanwhile, a court order has been issued to the government to restore broadcasting immediately, and the order has not yet been followed. We’re watching these rapidly unfolding events very closely. To catch up, click here, here and here.