Kenya's Protests: A Moment of Truth?

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Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Getty

A supporter of Kenya's Opposition leader Raila Odinga taunts a Kenyan policeman during a demonstration in the street of Kisumu, Kenya, January 16, 2008.

Protesters clashed with police on the second day of what Kenya's opposition leaders had billed as three days of mass action over Kenya's flawed election. The turnout across the country, however, was limited to poor areas and far below what the organizers sought. Opposition leader Raila Odinga, who claims he was robbed of the country's presidency in a December 27 vote, said that at least seven people had been killed on Thursday in the western city of Kisumu, a stronghold of his that has seen some of the worst of the post-election violence. Another two were reported killed in the giant Nairobi slum of Mathare.

During a news conference in which he showed television footage of a policeman shooting two protesters, who were later said to have died, Odinga called President Mwai Kibaki's government "a fanatical, crazed group of people who, in their lust for power at any cost, have taken leave of their senses." Odinga said, "The government and the police have turned this country into killing fields of the innocent."

While Odinga displayed evidence of police abuses, it was unclear how many of the people who voted for him were willing to join in his cause. Despite the violence in Nairobi's slums and in Kisumu, a town dominated by Odinga's Luo tribe in the western part of Kenya, most of the workers in the capital carried on with their lives. Across the country, people seemed weary of a crisis that has now lasted for more than two weeks without face-to-face negotiations between Kibaki and Odinga. In Kibera, a group of women shouted down a man who approached reporters and told them that Kenya would only see peace once Odinga was named President. That reaction may be a bad sign for Odinga because Kibera is a key stronghold for him and the constituency that elected him to parliament.

When he announced the three days of protests, Odinga called on supporters to meet him for a mass rally in Nairobi's Uhuru — or Freedom — Park. On Wednesday, Odinga's chief advisers, known as "The Pentagon," got as far as a few of Nairobi's finer hotels before police with truncheons and shields barred their way to the park. Eventually, they gave up and went home. The main police targets just across from the park were journalists, who were repeatedly tear-gassed and charged by police on horseback.

Government officials have pointed to the low turnout for the days of protest as signs that support for Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement is waning. They have justified their ban on public rallies by claiming that ODM supporters are raping women in Kibera, and that the group's leaders are simply fomenting violence. "They are just waking up at 10 o'clock, eating eggs and sausages, giving interviews and planning how to disrupt people's lives," government spokesman Alfred Mutua told reporters.

Like Odinga, Mutua insists that the government is open to dialogue, and the world will see how far both sides are willing to commit when former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrives in the coming days. Annan had originally planned to arrive on Tuesday night, but postponed his trip when he fell ill with the flu.

While many Kenyans clearly do want to get on with their lives, there are signs that suggest the police are also using firepower to intimidate and harass Odinga's supporters. Odinga, after all, got 4.35 million votes in the election, and one mystery has been that so few of those who cast ballots for him have heeded his call for action. On Thursday, the police allowed only women to leave the Kibera slum, and any man who came too close was threatened with four-foot-long wooden sticks. Many were beaten.

"We are fighting for justice in Kenya," said Roland Peterson, who wore a bright white woolen hat embroidered with a New York Yankees logo, dancing around a flaming barricade in the Kibera slum. "It was peaceful but now they are killing our people, we can't maintain peace while they are killing our people. We ought to fight."

In a clear sign of international displeasure, the United States has said that it will not allow "business as usual" in the East African nation, and several countries including the U.S. have threatened to suspend development aid if Kenya does not address the political crisis. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack criticized both sides for the violence that has killed more than 600 people. "Both sides bear responsibility for the fact that there is still violence. That violence springs from the fact that there are clashes because of the political deadlock," McCormack told reporters. "More than anything else they need to come together for the Kenyan people and for Kenya's future."

Perhaps the most discouraging sign for the protesters came from Odinga himself. On Wednesday, he had scolded reporters when asked if he would risk arrest and march on the park, telling them that he was not afraid and reminding them he had spent nine years in the jails of autocratic President Daniel arap Moi. Yet on Thursday, the man with a reputation as a fiery, charismatic populist struck a sour note when he told reporters that his advisers had warned him that it was too dangerous to try to march, even though central Nairobi had been quiet. Asked how he felt not being able to join his supporters, Odinga replied: "I feel great."