The political rallies season is back! For some, prematurely so.
Six months after the last general election and the subsequent swearing-in of President William Ruto, many would have thought that the political temperatures in Kenya would scale at low-to-lukewarm degrees for a protracted period. Normalcy seemed to have regained. This was until Ruto’s main challenger in the polls, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his Azimio La Umoja One Kenya Coalition – Kenya’s opposition in Parliament and beyond – sprang back into the scene, to disrupt the unprecedented political winter.
The lull in political activity during the last few months was unexpected because Kenyans are used to a hotly contested political field, from one election to the next, to the extent that clichés like “Kenya is always on campaign mode” and “there’s never a dull moment in Kenyan politics”, like in a soap opera, have become accustomed to Kenya’s political nomenclature.
This has become the default setting so much so that when Odinga and his Azimio coalition recently embarked on holding massive countrywide political rallies, the news was greeted with affection, disdain and indifference. Most of those who welcomed the news obviously come from Odinga’s and Azimio’s bend of politics. Still reeling from last year’s defeat at the presidential poll, with wounds yet to fully heal, there are those in Odinga’s sphere of influence who still believe that, akin to Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, electoral victory was stolen from them. They have been in wonderment as to how Odinga and Azimio did little if anything to sustain resistance after the Supreme Court of Kenya (SCOK) – unjustly to them – confirmed Ruto’s victory.
In a similar fashion to what Odinga’s previous coalition the National Super Alliance (NASA) achieved after the presidential elections in 2017, especially after the swearing-in of President Uhuru Kenyatta, some of Azimio’s supporters imagined that similar tactics (economic boycotts, threats of secession, swearing in of Odinga as The People’s President), employed without delay, would have paid similar dividends to NASA’s – in the least, engineer the now proverbial ‘handshake’ (agreement between William Ruto and Raila Odinga).
A tad bit late for such ultra-supporters, the rallies help in debunking the myth of political fatalism and unwelcomed inertia. There are also those who welcome the rallies for the reason that Odinga and Azimio have set to use them to address prevailing economic hardships accosting them, such as the ever-rising cost of living. Frustrated that the prices of staple foodstuffs like maize flour have not come down, as was promised during the campaigns, and again in January this year when Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture Mithika Linturi announced that prices would come down this February – which has not happened – such Kenyans want something done swiftly. The rallies seem like their only hope.
Another cohort of supporters exists – those who apolitically think and feel that ethically and by reason of the Constitution, Raila Odinga and Azimio have every right to hold the rallies. They are beholden to the Bill of Rights entrenched in Chapter 4 of the Constitution, which further to protecting the freedoms of association and movement, and specifically safeguards political rights and the right to “Assembly, demonstration, picketing and petition” (Article 37). These Kenyans, which I associate with, see the recent goings on as a mark of Kenya’s constitutional development, political tolerance and maturity. Despite misgivings from a section of its prominent supporters (Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro and former Kisii’s Governor James Ongwae) the government has commendably not tried to stop or prevent any of the rallies from taking off.
This is not a small feat considering the neighbourhood. Down south in Tanzania, a six years ban on political rallies set by the late President John Magufuli was only lifted by his successor, President Samia Suluhu Hassan in early January 2023. Further south in Zimbabwe, the government has barred the Coalition for Citizens Change (CCC) , currently the most formidable opposition formation, from holding rallies; four during the last month. As reported in allAfrica.com, “The CCC has not been allowed to hold rallies since last year’s campaign period, ahead of March by-elections.” In Uganda, the story gets even worse and needs no belaboring. It is hoped that the current Kenyan situation, where the opposition can hold massive rallies to castigate the government, without persecution by the same government, prevails and becomes the norm.
Whether the rallies are prudent and effective is another question, hence those opposed to them, their scorn coming in two strands. One is obviously political. There are those affiliated to Kenya Kwanza’s scope of political interests, who desire a conducive environment for President Ruto’s government to actualise “The Plan” (the title of KK’s manifesto) unhindered. To them, and in alliance with the late Dr Magufuli, political rallies should only be tolerated during elections. After that, they are an unwanted and distractive bother.
Additionally, there are some who are afraid of the mobilisation capacity of political rallies. Who would not when it is Raila Odinga behind them? In Kenya, mass action is synonymous with the opposition which in turn is at first instance associated with the former Prime Minister, who has since the early ‘90s, together with others, successfully used the facility to score major political goals. Notable achievements include the reintroduction of multi-party politics; the toppling of President Daniel Arap Moi’s KANU; the rejection of the Wako Draft; the formation of the Nusu Mkate government; the sending home of the Isaack Hassan-led Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission team; and the more recent rapprochement with Uhuru Kenyatta – all these have been attained majorly through mass action, writ large, Raila Odinga led demonstrations and massive political rallies. That is why Odinga sends shivers down many spines, whenever he announces plans for rallies or mass action.
Away from those politically inspired – akin to but opposite those who favour the rallies because of socio-economic motivations – there are those who are opposed because of the perception, real and imagined, that rallies negatively disrupt commercial activities, especially in Nairobi. Out of experience, they know that heightened political activities shoo away investors and tourists, hence shrinking the markets and incomes. To them, political rallies translate to empty plates. They feel that a sustained period of ‘normalcy’ is needed for businesses to recover from the prolonged depression occasioned by the Covid 19 pandemic and elections.
But then again, is this not the very essence of mass action – mobilising attention around an issue by all means necessary? When business activities are affected, and the shilling cannot circulate, pressure to act is directed towards the government. Connected to this, the United Kingdom government has in the recent past proposed changes to the country’s public order laws aimed at cracking down protests that are deemed to cause “serious disruption”. In the government’s website, Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister was quoted saying “The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute. A balance must be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights of the hard-working majority to go about their day-to-day business.”
So it remains to be seen which direction Azimio’s public rallies shall take Kenya. Inasmuch as the ethics may sway for them by reason of the Katiba, it is the issue of prudence that is in question. For Odinga and Azimio, beyond protesting about the outcome of the presidential elections in a bid to delegitimize William Ruto’s victory and administration, there is the low hanging fruit of the poor state of the economy, which would be remiss for any politician or political formation in opposition, not to exploit.
Further, political rallies and other mass action tactics may currently be the best option, considering that Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza has already established tyrannical control of Parliament and other state organs. To Azimio, the iron must be struck hard, while it is hot. And as previously observed, rallies in Kenya and elsewhere, if well organised, deliver the optics and acoustics that attract the eyeballs and eardrums of the masses and media. In other words, they work. This leads to the intriguing question about those who find time to attend the rallies during weekdays and working hours. Do they leave their jobs to go attend the rallies because they support the cause or as Fred Green advised, want to interact with “ideas they do not agree with?” The unfortunate situation is that for many jobless youth, the rallies are their jobs and if this remains the case, political rallies shall inevitably grow into an industry. While the organisers of the current rallies need to go beyond the razzmatazz and pronounce viable alternatives to those of the government, the government must also take heed of the Kiswahili proverb that cautions against delay – ngoja ngoja huumiza matumbo.