The Kenyan government cut transmission of the country’s three largest private television stations yesterday as they prepared to show the mock presidential inauguration of the opposition leader.
Raila Odinga defied the threat of hanging on Tuesday as he declared himself president of the divided country and took a parallel vote of office.
Mr Odinga was sworn in as “the people’s president” at an unsanctioned ceremony in the capital Nairobi that risks deepening tensions in a political crisis that has already claimed scores of lives.
His defiance infuriated the government of Uhuru Kenyatta, who formally began a second term in office two months ago after twice being declared the winner of controversial presidential elections last year.
In an unusual move that prompted accusations of a state assault on press freedom, the government’s media regulator cut the transmission of Kenya’s three largest private television stations as they reported on the build-up to the mock inauguration.
The blackout came days after senior media managers were summoned to a meeting with Mr Kenyatta during which, according to the chairman of Kenya’s editors’ guild, he threatened to close down television stations that carried live footage of the ceremony.
But the blackout failed to stop tens of thousands attending and many more from watching it live online. Unlike Mr Kenyatta’s inauguration in November, which was accompanied by deadly clashes between police and opposition supporters, Tuesday’s event passed off without violence after the security forces chose not to intervene, aside from a single tear gas canister on the edge of the crowd.
According to the opposition, more than 300 people have been killed by the police since Kenya’s political crisis began in August. A government-appointed watchdog put the figure at 92.
Although bloodshed was avoided on Tuesday, the fact that a rival swearing in — a first for Kenya — took place at all highlights the stark divisions facing the country as well as Mr Kenyatta’s own difficulties in asserting his legitimacy as president of all Kenyans.
Mr Kenyatta’s victory in an August presidential election was overturned by Kenya’s supreme court, which cited “illegalities and irregularities” in the count.
He won the re-run with 98 per cent of the vote, but only after an opposition boycott.
Hopes for a return to stability depend on how the government now responds to the swearing in.
Kenya’s attorney general had given warning that Mr Odinga could be charged with treason, a capital offence, if he took a presidential oath, a move that would almost certainly trigger a violent backlash from his supporters.
Such threats have only seemed to goad Mr Odinga, who previously served eight years as a political prisoner in the 1980s, and has again, at times, appeared to court martyrdom.
“If it will cost me my life or send me to jail for life, I am ready to do it,” he said two days before the ceremony — although, by declaring himself “people’s president” rather than “president of the republic”, he may be laying down a semantic defence in a treason trial.
Support for Mr Odinga remains fanatical in his strongholds, as could be seen by the frenzied crowd that greeted his arrival in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park on Tuesday.
Yet it remains far from clear how his new self-declared title will help deliver his ambition on becoming Kenya’s real president, something he has now failed to achieve in four elections.
At least five other disgruntled African opposition leaders have also sworn themselves in as parallel presidents, only to end up in prison or consigned to irrelevance.
Mr Odinga’s ambitions also appeared to be dealt a blow after his running mate, Kalonzo Musyoka, failed to appear at the ceremony, where he was meant to have been sworn in as the “people’s vice-president”.
The absence has yet to be explained, but it left Mr Odinga looking more isolated and perhaps more vulnerable than he has been in many years.
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