Nairobi—A few days ago I had lunch with a longtime Kenyan friend. She’s one of the most solid people I know—not at all given to hyperbole or hysteria. So I listened hard when she told me she’s afraid that Kenya is sliding back into the kind of dictatorship that began in 1982, after an attempted coup. Then-President Daniel arap Moi responded with 10 years of ruthless suppression of dissent, followed by 10 more years of something less than real democracy, until he finally left office in 2002.
When I came back to Kenya a couple years after Moi’s departure, following an absence of more than 30 years, it was to a country that was reveling in freedom of speech. Vigorous public debates on television and outrageously opinionated columns in the daily press were the order of the day. I still remember, during the run-up to a vote on a new Constitution in 2005, witnessing a good-natured argument between two Kikuyu friends of mine with opposite positions on the issue; it made me think that even Kenya’s longstanding ethnic politics, which saw most Kenyans voting along tribal lines, were breaking down.
And dissent seemed to carry no danger: When then-President Mwai Kibaki’s side lost, the phlegmatic Kibaki took the stunning defeat in stride, reshuffled his cabinet, and moved on.
Before long, however, old ethnic enmities and old antidemocratic tendencies reasserted themselves. Raila Odinga, a Luo, challenged the reelection bid of Kibaki, a Kikuyu, in 2007, but was defeated in a highly suspect poll that was followed by an outburst of violence. Two more tries by Odinga, in 2013 and 2017, both against Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the country’s first president and now the incumbent president, and both involving flawed voting procedures, were similarly unsuccessful. In response to this latest defeat, Odinga, now 73, embittered, and with dwindling support, staged his own public swearing in as the “people’s president” on January 30, complete with an oath, a Bible, and an adoring crowd.
Kenyatta’s reaction was swift: Government officials shut down four television stations that had ignored a directive against live coverage of the event; they arrested several of Odinga’s supporters, including one who was held incommunicado for several days; and they withdrew the passports of a dozen key members of the opposition. While some of these actions have by now been reversed or softened, it’s already evident that they’ve had the desired effect of cowing the media and some of the more fainthearted of Odinga’s supporters. Moreover, the government has made it clear that this is the beginning, not the end, of its response.
There’s no question that Odinga’s January action was both foolish and foolhardy. Kenyatta is well-known for his hypersensitivity to criticism, as I know from personal experience. (While I was the public editor of one of the country’s dailies a few years ago, Kenyatta complained about me to the Media Council after I made some mild remarks about what I perceived as his overreaction to an article he didn’t like by one of the newspaper’s regular columnists.) A more confident president might well have ignored Odinga’s action or laughed it off. But instead, like Moi in 1982, Kenyatta seems to have taken it as a direct challenge to his power and embarked on a course of action that threatens all the hard-won democratic gains of the past 15 years.