Following more than two months of almost daily political demonstrations in Kenya, EXX Africa identifies five triggers that would escalate the dispute into more widespread and violent unrest ahead of the 2017 elections.
On 7 June, Kenya’s Interior Ministry prohibited all ‘unlawful demonstrations’, providing security forces with a stronger mandate to react heavy-handedly to curb opposition protests. Supporters of the opposition Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), led by former prime minister Raila Odinga, have staged almost daily protests in major Kenyan cities since early April claiming that senior officials of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) favor President Uhuru Kenyatta and are incompetent. On 6 June, at least two people were killed in Kisumu during running battles between security forces and protesters who were to attempting to march on the local offices of the IEBC in the western city opposition stronghold. CORD has since confirmed that it will continue to stage demonstrations, despite the imposition of the ban and widespread condemnation of the protests by business owners, who have been negatively impacted by the ensuing violence.
On 9 May, EXX Africa forecast that over the next 18 months, existing inter-communal rivalries are likely to be exacerbated by intensifying political frustration and competition ahead of the August 2017 elections, raising the risk of disruptive protests. We then also forecast that violent protests are unlikely to target foreign-owned businesses, but would increase risks of disruption to operations in the agribusiness, construction, mining, and tourism sectors. A number of factors are likely to trigger an escalation of the unrest over the next few months.
Risk implications: Firstly, continued and likely heavy-handed reactions by security forces, especially by the elite anti-riot General Service Unit (GSU), will increase the probability of political demonstrations turning violent and triggering riots in major cities such as Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu. Police and GSU forces have frequently injured or killed protesters and bystanders by using tear gas, water cannon, as well as batons and ball (live) ammunition, to quell unrest. This has exacerbated frustration among protesters and resulted in the looting of shops and government buildings, while bystanders have been more prone to injury. The deaths of large numbers of protesters by security forces, which has become more likely as demonstrations have been prohibited, would be likely to trigger more widespread and intense violence. Additionally, perceived security failings and alleged extra-judicial killings of ethnic-Somalis are likely to motivate an increase in violent anti-government protests in Garissa, Mandera, and Wajir counties. Further allegations of extra-judicial killings, especially against Muslim clerics, are likely to motivate violent protests, particularly in Mandera county, in addition to Eastleigh and the South C Estate in the capital Nairobi, and the Changamwe, Kisauni, and Majengo areas of Mombasa.
Secondly, as security forces concentrate on curbing unrest, their attention has shifted from the threat of terrorist attacks perpetrated by domestic radicalized youths by Kenyan militant Islamist groups such as al-Hijra or the Muslim Youth Council. While Somali militant group al-Shabaab currently lacks the capability to stage high profile attacks within Kenya, outside of northeastern border areas, Kenyans of Somali ethnicity and coastal Muslim communities are feeling increasingly side-lined both politically and economically. Such communities will become more likely to stage attacks in cities such as Nairobi and in Coast Province. In case of a high-profile attack or series of attacks on for example a political rally or public place, opposition demonstrations will gain momentum in condemnation of the government’s failure to provide adequate security. Indeed, militant groups will be motivated to attack political rallies to trigger a more violent and widespread wave of unrest.
Thirdly, while President Kenyatta has announced an invigorated anti-corruption campaign, the disclosure of fresh graft scandals or failed prosecutions of former officials charged with corruption crimes would trigger a more coherent opposition backlash. The CORD opposition coalition has made battling corruption its flagship campaign promise for the 2017 elections and its demonstrations would be invigorated as fresh scandals emerge or if the government fails to deliver high profile prosecutions.
Fourthly, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has dropped cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, yet the ICC may still reopen the cases or instigate new prosecutions. There are still three open ICC arrest warrants for witness tampering and such cases may involve both Kenyatta and Ruto in future prosecutions. While both men are likely to work together closely ahead of the 2017 elections, any future ICC investigations of high profile government officials will motivate the opposition to reinvigorate anti-government protests on a more widespread scale.
Finally, the increasingly volatile political situation will fuel existing ethnic and inter-communal rivalries over the 18 months. Grievances stemming from local officials’ alleged corruption in revenue collection and land acquisition, and resulting from increasing risk of delayed salary payments in the public sector, are likely to drive violent protests in all counties. County governors are likely to incite inter-communal rivalries amid land disputes affecting their constituencies to influence the demarcation of land parcels earmarked for construction of the LAPSSET corridor project. Land disputes involving ethnic-Maasai, Kikuyu, and Kalenjin in the southern counties of Kajiado, Nakaru, and Narok are likely to involve violent occupation of land and vandalism of property belonging to companies alleged to have illegally acquired ancestral lands. These rivalries are increasingly exacerbated amid the ruling Jubilee coalition’s ongoing process of integrating the predominantly ethnic-Kalenjin United Republican Party (URP) with the Kikuyu-dominated ruling Jubilee Alliance Party (JAP). Violent protests between political rivals are likely in Narok, Baringo, and Bomet counties during this period.
Robert Besseling is the founder and executive director of EXX AFRICA, a specialist intelligence company that reports on African political and economic risk to businesses. He holds an MA (Hons.) in History from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He also has an MBA and a PhD in African political and economic history.
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