With one simple gesture, President Uhuru Kenyatta managed to defuse the tension and anxiety that hed been building up in Kenya.
Anyone watching the friendly encounter on Tuesday between President Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga during the State House luncheon for visiting South Korean President Park Geun-hye would have been quite puzzled considering the ugly exchanges just a short while earlier.
A few hours before President Kenyatta’s surprise invitation for Mr Odinga and his Cord coalition partner Moses Wetangula to attend the State House reception, his government had accused the opposition chiefs of plotting treasonous activities and threatened to arrest them for the most serious offense in the Penal Code that carries the mandatory death penalty.
Matters seemed to be coming to a boil when the opposition called a public rally in Nairobi to press its campaign for removal of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, a gathering that would take place concurrently with the President presiding over Madaraka Day festivities in the Rift Valley town of Nakuru.
Politicians loyal to the governing Jubilee alliance were furious, accusing Mr Odinga trying to undermine the President by holding a parallel event to one of the hallowed national days.
The Kenya Police and the Office of the President responded in similar fashion. The police banned the Odinga rally on security grounds, and also argued that the venue, Uhuru Park, had already been reserved for a religious crusade.
Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery threatened to unleash force on any opposition gathering, accusing Mr Odinga of trying to usurp President Kenyatta’s powers.
Official government spokesman Eric Kiraithe then put the icing the cake with a remarkable statement that reprised the language and tonne of the one-party dictatorship of the early 1990s, accusing the opposition of treason and plotting with Kenya’s enemies:
“Investigations into recent political activity have yielded intelligence to the effect that there are individuals within the country who are working with two neighbouring countries to subvert the Government and create conditions of instability, insecurity, lawlessness and strife”, proclaimed Mr Kiraite, “The Government considers these contemptible undertakings to be a betrayal of Kenya and Kenyans. These are acts of treason. Any person who collaborates with an enemy of Kenya is also an enemy of Kenya and will be met with the swift, full and unmitigated wrath of the law. In due course the Government will be revealing the results of our investigations, and unmasking these despicable traitors”.
The alleged coup plot and threats to arrest the opposition chiefs was not just the product of an imaginative government spokesman, but had been discussed at the highest levels of the National Security Advisory Committee chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Chief of Staff Joseph Kinyua. It includes Interior Secretary Nkaissery, Defense Secretary Raychelle Omamo, Chief of Defense Forces Samson Mwathathe, Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinett, and Attorney-General Githu Muigai.
Despite the threats, Mr Odinga insisted that his rally would, go ahead, raising the spectre of an escalation of the violence that had already rocked the weekly Cord protests.
Cord, however, also took the precaution of going to the High Court and obtaining an Order setting aside the police ban on the rally.
But still the intemperate government response rekindled memories of the tactics and language employed by the government during the early days of agitation against the one-party dictatorship.
Flashback 1990: On New Year’s Day in 1990, Rev Timothy Njoya of Presbyterean Church of East Africa delivered a fiery sermon at Nairobi’s St Andrew’s Church, in which he challenged the Kenya leadership to give serious thought for a return to multi-partyism in line with the wave of trends sweeping across the rest of the world.
A few days earlier, another activist clergyman, Archbishop Henry Okullu, had delivered a similar sermon in Kisumu, hailing the democratic revolution that was toppling communist one party regimes in quick succession across Europe’s Eastern Bloc. He warned that similar fate awaited all other dictatorships the world over.
The reaction of the single party Kanu regime of President Daniel arap Moi was predictable. True to form, it resorted to the foreign bogey: President Moi pronounced that the idea a return to multi-party in Kenya was an ‘Evil dream by a few clergymen on the payroll of foreigners.
Ruling party KANU Secretary General Joseph Kamotho termed the call for multi-party treasonable. Cabinet Minister Elijah Mwangale demanded that the clergymen be arrested and detained without trial.
Despite an orchestrated assault by Kanu, the calls for democratisation did not let let up, attracting growing support from more clergymen, as well activist lawyers and members of the nascent civil society movement.
But the campaign really picked up momentum in June that same year when two prominent politicians who had had fallen foul of the one-party regime and exiled to the political wilderness, Mr Kenneth Matiba and Mr Charles Rubia, added their voices the clamour for political pluralism.
The two called a press conference to demand a return to multi-party democracy, and then applied for a permit to convene a public rally at Nairobi’s historic Kamukunji grounds on July 7, so that Kenyans could discuss the merits of multi-partyism.
President Moi went ballistic, charging that those Moi campaigning for multi-partyism were working with foreign nations. He charged that multi-partyism was a foreign ideology “peddled by some unpatriotic people with borrowed brains”. He dismissed the proponents as “anarchists, rats and drug addicts”.
Kanu leaders went into overdrive on loud public campaigns demonising multi-party campaigners as traitors and “agents of foreign masters” working to unleash terror and violence as prelude to a overthrowing the government. ,
There were waves of arrests, including detention without trial for Mr Matiba, Rubia, Mr Raila Odinga, and scores of other activists, particularly lawyers and academics, who had joined the campaign. Those not detained without trial were sentenced to lengthy jail terms on trumped up sedition charges, or driven into exile.
It was all to no avail, as the Kanu monolith by the end of that year had bowed to incessant pressure and capitulated to calls for multi-partyism
President Moi retained power in the first election under the new multi-party dispensation in 1992, but soon after came calls for comprehensive review of the constitution to reflect the changed circumstances as one-party structures and oppressive laws had largely remained .
In 1997 during the run-up to another election, civil society took up fresh calls for a new constitution.
With the political classes largely complacent, the new campaign was taken away from Parliament and to the streets, with monthly protests starting with Saba Saba, the July Anniversary of the Matiba-Rubia-Odinga 1990 Kamukunji date, onto Nane Nane (August 8), Tisa Tisa (Septermber 9)and so on.
Once again, President Moi reverted to has favourite foreign bogey. He dismissing the leaders of what came to be known as the Ufungamano, notably former University of Nairobi lecturers Willy Mutunga (Now the Chief Justice) and Kivutha Kibwana (Now Senator for Makueni County), as pawns of foreign forces out to destabilise and overthrow his government.
The new accusations of treason hark back to the KAnu dictatorship, but having made the charges public, the onus would now be on the government to arrest and prosecute those it accuses of of the most serious offense in the book.
If it did not act on such grave offenses, then it might be seen as weak and toothless; or the accusations will be deemed false and the product of political posturing.
What happened next was the surprise invitation to State House where President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto chatted heartily with opposition chiefs Odinga and Wetangula.
Mr Odinga was also captured in animated conversation with Mr Nkaissery. It is also a capital offense for anyone knowing of treasonous plots failing to report to the authorities.
An interesting element in the statement was the allusion to two unnamed neighbouring countries supposedly directing the alleged coup plot.
During the Moi days the usual foreign bogeymen were the United States, Britain, Germany and the Scandinavian countries that openly supported the struggles for democracy and human rights.
Under the Jubilee regime, the government often pointed the finger at the same western countries that supported the International Criminal Court cases against President Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto.
Bringing the suspect countries closer home introduces an entirely new element, for Kenya has not in the recent past not included neighbouriung countries on its list of enemies.
Though Mr Kiraithe did not name the countries, the list from which one can draw deductions is not too long. Kenya is bordered by Tanzania to the south and Uganda to the east, both fellow members of the East African Community.
To the North West is South Sudan, a candidate for membership in the regional bloc. To the north is Ethiopia and to the east war-torn Somalia, partners in the wider regional trade and security bloc, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.
Though not sharing borders with Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi across Lake Victoria are also considered neigbours, and are also fellow members of the East African Community. Further afield in the neighbourgood though not sharing border with Kenya lie other countries considered part of the greater eastern Africa region. They include Congo DR, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti.
None of the countries listed above have been in recent hostilities or tension with Kenya to warrant an ‘enemy’ tag, so there is bound to be a lot of speculation on which of them the government is accusing. Some of them might well be seeking clarification from the Kenya Government.