Referendum Demand Will Raise Tensions

BMI View: Opposition leader Raila Odinga's escalating protest movement will increase political and ethnic tensions in Kenya. Calls for a referendum are controversial, but no poll is likely to take place.

A July 7 protest organised by the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) marked an escalation of the group's anti-government campaign. The movement's decision to sideline parliament by focusing on popular protests and a national referendum will raise ethnic tensions.

The protest - on the anniversary of the 1990 'saba saba' pro-democracy rally - was led by Raila Odinga, the opposition leader defeated by President Uhuru Kenyatta in the March 2013 presidential election. Odinga has held rallies across Kenya, calling for political dialogue regarding the country's pressing economic and security challenges.

A Long List Of Demands
Kenya - Opposition Resolutions

BMI View: Opposition leader Raila Odinga's escalating protest movement will increase political and ethnic tensions in Kenya. Calls for a referendum are controversial, but no poll is likely to take place.

A July 7 protest organised by the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) marked an escalation of the group's anti-government campaign. The movement's decision to sideline parliament by focusing on popular protests and a national referendum will raise ethnic tensions.

The protest - on the anniversary of the 1990 'saba saba' pro-democracy rally - was led by Raila Odinga, the opposition leader defeated by President Uhuru Kenyatta in the March 2013 presidential election. Odinga has held rallies across Kenya, calling for political dialogue regarding the country's pressing economic and security challenges.

A Long List Of Demands
Kenya - Opposition Resolutions

Odinga's 13 Point Plan

The protest itself, held in Nairobi's Uhuru Park, passed peacefully. Attendance was lower than had been expected, which organisers blamed on a 'threatening' security presence. The highlight of the event was the announcement of CORD's 13 resolutions, the group's plans to deal with the economic, political, and security challenges facing Kenya. Few of the proposals are new, and none had clear timelines.

One novel - and controversial - policy was the third resolution, which replaced calls for dialogue with demands for a referendum on the 'critical challenges facing our country'. The exact form that this referendum would take was not specified; CORD left the framing of the actual question to a 'national referendum committee'. BMI doubts that a referendum will ever take place; Kenyan law requires a proposal to receive a million signatures, the support of 24 out of 47 county governments, a majority in both houses of parliament, and the president's signature. One Kenyan political scientist said the poll was 'dead on arrival'.

People Power Or Power Grab?

Reactions to CORD's campaign have been mixed. Opposition supporters see mass protests as the only means of opposing a government they see as incompetent, corrupt, and worryingly authoritarian. Government officials claim that Odinga - who holds no elected office - is cynically exploiting a period of national crisis for personal political gain. Many accuse CORD of sidelining democratic institutions by announcing policies at rallies rather than attempting to implement them in parliament.

Popular Mobilisation, Ethnic Divisions Pose Key Risks

BMI believes that the escalation of Odinga's campaign poses two key risks. The first stems from CORD's formation of Okoa Kenya, a 'popular movement to defend the constitution'. This new organisation could mark a move towards politically and economically destabilising Thai-style protest politics. Evans Kidero, the CORD governor of Nairobi, was conspicuously absent from the July 7 rally, warning that protests in the city centre would 'scare potential investors'.

The second stems from the frequent overlap between ethnic and political loyalties. A wave of terrorist attacks - some targeting particular ethnic groups - have raised tensions in Kenya, and political protests in ethnically mixed areas could lead to violence, as happened following the 2007 presidential election. Hate speech on social media is increasingly common, and many politicians use ethnically charged language when rallying their supporters. A confrontation between Odinga (a Luo) and Kenyatta (a Kikuyu) could easily take on an ethnic hue.

The opposition's use of mass protests and demand for a referendum both aim to capitalise on popular antipathy towards a political class that is widely seen as corrupt and self-serving. Even if successful, however, these 'populist' tactics would do little to break the Kenyan's elite's hold on political power; Raila Odinga's father served as vice president under President Kenyatta's father, the country's first post-independence leader.

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Sector: Country Risk
Geography: Kenya
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