Is democracy in Kenya at risk?

Crackdown on press freedom and attacks on opposition figures have alarmed human rights groups

Uhuru Kenyatta
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is serving a second five-year term 
(Image credit: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

Once regarded as the most stable economic and democratic power in East Africa, Kenya is showing worrying signs of authoritarianism under President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Human rights groups accuse his government of using the political crisis stemming from last year’s controversial elections as an excuse to crack down on opposition groups, the press and the judiciary.

“Police killings committed seemingly with impunity, and threats and attacks on election officials and judges, suggest that Kenya may be veering off its democratic path,” Neha Wadekar writes for The Atlantic.

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Political stand-off

Kenyatta was sworn in for a second term in November following two disputed election polls. The original result was annulled by the country’s Supreme Court owing to voting irregularities, but a second poll saw Kenyatta win 98% of the vote after the main opposition leader, Raila Odinga, boycotted the election.

The nation’s highest court later rubber-stamped Kenyatta’s victory, sparking violent clashes between opposition supporters and security forces. Live ammunition was fired at demonstrators, killing at least 30 people, according to the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights.

Defying government warnings that he would be charged with treason, Odinga went ahead with a mock presidential inauguration in January and declared himself the “people’s president” of Kenya.

His oath “had no legal or practical significance, but the government has essentially suspended constitutional order in reaction to it”, reports the National Public Radio (NPR) website.

Crackdown on opposition

Dozens of opposition figures have been detained since the elections, among them Miguna Miguna, a vocal government critic who has been deported from the country twice this year. He claims he was beaten, drugged and deported to Dubai by Kenyan security forces this week.

“I woke up here in Dubai and I have nothing. I need the international community and everyone on this case,” Miguna said from his hospital bed, according to Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper.

The Kenyan Interior Ministry denies any crackdown on opposition opponents. The government is just “becoming more disciplined and focused on ensuring that discipline is followed”, spokesman Mwenda Njoka told Bloomberg last month.

Attacks on the press and judiciary

In January, the government shut down several television and radio stations that were planning to broadcast Odinga’s mock inauguration. President Kenyatta is also reported to have personally threatened news editors during a meeting at his residence in Nairobi ahead of the event.

Eight journalists working for the Nation Media Group, Kenya’s biggest media organisation, handed in their notice earlier this week, citing government meddling and diminished editorial independence.

The government has also taken aim at the judiciary, issuing direct threats and refusing to implement a number of court decisions, Human Rights Watch reports. After the Supreme Court annulled the first election, Kenyatta publicly called the judges “crooks” and vowed to “fix them”.

The president appears to following in the authoritarian footsteps of his father Jomo Kenyatta, says W.O. Maloba, a professor at the University of Delaware who has written biographies about Kenya’s first leader.

“My sense is that what is happening in the country should be seen as worrisome by all those people who believe in democracy and the rule of law,” Maloba told NPR.

Herman Manyora, a political analyst and linguistics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said Kenyans won’t easily relinquish their democracy.

“One thing they are not willing to let go is their fundamental rights and freedoms,” Manyora told Bloomberg. “We have been there and we know what it is like.”

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