NAIROBI — The most widely watched television stations in Kenya are
shuttered, and the government has defied a court order to return them
to the air. Opposition politicians are under arrest, and journalists
have also been threatened with jail. And the government has officially
designated some of its opponents “an organized criminal group.”
“This is a new crisis for democracy,” said Willy Mutunga, a former
chief justice of the Kenyan Supreme Court, who left the bench in 2016.
“Defying a court order is subverting the rule of law.”
The events in Kenya over the past week are a stunning about-face in a
country praised mere months ago as a shining example of democracy, when
the Supreme Court overturned a presidential election, and the winner,
President Uhuru Kenyatta, agreed to abide by the ruling. That case was
hailed as a powerful display of judicial independence and a win for the
rule of law.
But now many Kenyans fear their country is sliding away from democracy.
The coming days, they say, may be critical in determining what
direction the country will take.
“Kenya hasn’t seen anything like this before — this is unheard-of,”
said Ahmednasir Abdullahi, who represented Mr. Kenyatta before the
Supreme Court last year in several election cases. “When there is a
court order you don’t obey, you look like a rogue state.”
In Kenya, some are now likening Mr. Kenyatta to Daniel Arap Moi, the
authoritarian president who ruled the country for 24 years, before
finally leaving office in 2002. Mr. Moi outlawed political parties,
banned many foreign and local newspapers and magazines, and detained
and tortured those designated as political opponents, including writers
But shutting down broadcast stations “never happened, even under Moi,”
said George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights
Commission, a nongovernmental group that is a leading human-rights
authority in the country.
The current tensions have their roots in last year’s presidential
election, when Raila Odinga, Mr. Kenyatta’s longtime political rival,
challenged his loss to the president. The Supreme Court ordered a new
election, but Mr. Odinga withdrew before the second vote, saying the
process remained unfair.
When Mr. Odinga’s supporters boycotted the polls, they handed Mr.
Kenyatta an easy victory. Mr. Odinga refused to concede defeat and
threatened to take a parallel “oath” as “the people’s president.”
The government said it would regard the action as treason, and Western
diplomats pleaded with Mr. Odinga to cancel the ceremony. But he pushed
forward with the “oath,” and the United States government, in a formal
statement, stopped just short of denouncing the move as
Mr. Kenyatta summoned media owners last week and warned them not to
cover the Odinga event at Uhuru Park, in downtown Nairobi. But on
Tuesday morning, Kenya’s biggest stations broadcast live from the park
before Mr. Odinga’s arrival.
Government officials then disconnected them.