Kenya’s interior minister said Wednesday that opposition leader Raila Odinga’s mock inauguration as “people’s president” was an effort to overthrow the government, with media outlets shut down for their complicity in the event.
Odinga, 73, held a swearing-in ceremony in Nairobi on Tuesday with the event attended by thousands of supporters in another challenge to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s re-election last year following two votes that the opposition claims were rigged.
The lawyer and MP who swore Odinga in — TJ Kajwang — was arrested on Wednesday afternoon and was being investigated for his role in the ceremony, according to a senior police officer speaking on condition of anonymity.
After initially vowing to block the gathering, police kept their distance, but a furore broke out after the Communication Authority shut down three of the country’s main private television channels who were covering the ceremony.
“What was witnessed at Uhuru Park was a well-choreographed attempt to subvert or overthrow the legally-constituted government of the Republic of Kenya,” Interior Minister Fred Matiangi said in a statement.
“Some elements in the media fraternity participated in furtherance of this illegal act,” he charged, adding that “their complicity would have led to thousands of deaths of innocent Kenyans…”
Matiangi said the authorities had information that “criminal elements operating under the banner” of the National Super Alliance (NASA) opposition coalition had planned to “shed blood” at the event and “blame it on the police”.
That was why police had withdrawn from the venue, he said.
“We have commenced wide-scale investigations targeting individuals and organisations who include but not limited to media houses,” he said, indicating that the outlets — among them NTV, Citizen TV and KTN — would remain shut until the probe was finished.
The shutdown came after media organisations were summoned to State House last week for a meeting.
- ‘Intimidation’ of media –
During the meeting, Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto and other senior officials warned editors against live coverage of the ceremony and threatened to revoke their licenses if they failed to comply, according to Linus Kaikai, chairman of the Kenya Editors’ Guild.
In a statement, Kaikai said he was “gravely alarmed” by Friday’s meeting which took place in “an atmosphere of intimidation”.
Rights groups on Wednesday criticised the government’s move to block live coverage of the inauguration.
“Kenyan authorities have restricted media coverage at a critical moment, and violated the public’s right to information about important events,” said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
HRW said the shutdown “underlines a trend since 2013, when Kenyatta took office for the first time” of intimidation, harassment and threats aimed at the media.
For some, it brought back memories of years of dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s when heavy-handed government censorship was common.
“Kenya is on a very slippery trajectory in regard to human rights, and president Kenyatta urgently needs to reverse this trend,” Namwaya said.
- ‘Anarchy and mayhem’ –
Matiangi said Odinga’s swearing-in itself was also under investigation and that “appropriate legal action” would be taken.
Authorities had repeatedly warned that such an inauguration would be treasonous and that Odinga could face arrest.
However, as the wording of the oath was different to that in the constitution, the consequences of Odinga’s act of political theatre remain unclear.
Odinga has refused to accept Kenyatta’s re-election, which came after last year’s deeply-divisive election season in which rights activists say at least 92 people were killed.
First was an election on August 8 that was won by Kenyatta then annulled in a historic decision by the Supreme Court, which ordered a re-run on October 26.
Claiming the poll would not be fair, Odinga boycotted the second vote and Kenyatta won with 98 percent.
Since boycotting the re-run poll, citing a lack of reform at the election commission, NASA’s strategy has been to challenge Kenyatta’s legitimacy by seeking to establish parallel government structures.
Opposition politicians have convened so-called “people’s assemblies” in some counties and the inauguration of Odinga as “people’s president” is seen as the culmination of this process.
Matiangi on Tuesday denounced the opposition’s National Resistance Movement wing, tasked with implementing a threatened programme of boycotts and civil disobedience, as an “organised criminal group”.
“It is a group of individuals who are bent on causing anarchy and mayhem,” he added on Wednesday.
“We will not accept subversion and criminal acts disguised as political activities. This will not be tolerated.”