A top Kenyan newspaper published a fake death notice of a prominent opposition financier, a bizarre error rights groups interpreted as another sign of an anti-democratic slide.
The Daily Nation apologised by mid-morning for publishing the funeral announcement for businessman Jimi Wanjigi, whose picture, history and family details were used but whose name was slightly altered. The paper said the ad was published in error and it was working with police to find who placed it.
After a week of arrests of opposition politicians and a crackdown on independent media, a prominent rights campaigner said the announcement amounted to a death threat to Wanjigi, who funded opposition leader Raila Odinga’s election campaign last year and whose house was raided by police in October.
“It sounded like a threat to Jimi Wanjigi and must be understood as forming part of intimidation to which the political opponents of Jubilee (the ruling party) are being subjected,” said George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.
Wanjigi was unavailable for comment.
Few Kenyans have forgotten the killing of Chris Msando, a top election official whose tortured body was found days before the August election. It is unclear why Msando was killed, but his death added to a climate of fear surrounding the vote.
The killing sent shockwaves through Kenya, a key Western ally in a volatile region.
Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won the August poll, but the Supreme Court annulled the results on procedural grounds, forcing a repeat election on October 26.
Odinga boycotted that contest because he said it would be unfair; Kenyatta won 98% of the vote.
Now Odinga claims he won the August election, although he has yet to produce credible evidence. Last Tuesday his supporters symbolically inaugurated him as president, provoking Kenyatta’s government into a much-criticised response.
Since any move against Odinga would likely spark widespread street protests, government focused on those around him. First, they shuttered three television stations planning to stream Odinga’s event live. Government justified the shutdown on security grounds.
Larry Madowo, a journalist at one of the stations, said the censorship “feels like when I was growing up under President Moi.”
Moi, a strongman who presided over decades of one-party rule, tortured critics and presided over a government that became a byword for graft.
Since he left power in 2002, Kenya has become the region’s richest economy, with relative media freedom, regular multi-party elections and a vigorous public debate on governance.
Two of the stations shut down are now back on air, but not until four days after a court order that transmission should be restored. The censorship prompted criticism from the United States, Britain and the United Nations.
Three opposition figures have been detained. Two were released on bail the same day. Firebrand lawyer Miguna Miguna was held incommunicado and charged with treason before being deported to Canada on Tuesday night, despite an order to produce him in court on Wednesday.
In Odinga’s western strongholds, Miguna’s treason charges prompted demonstrations in which one person was killed.
The government argues Miguna lost his citizenship because he renewed his passport under old laws forbidding dual nationality. Lawyers maintain government ignored due process and violated the country’s new 2010 constitution, which permits dual nationality. On Wednesday, Chief Justice David Maraga issued a rare rebuke to government.
“Compliance with court orders is not an option for any individual or institution,” he wrote in a statement. “To disobey a court order is not only a violation of the Constitution but also a dereliction of public duty.”
OPPOSITION IN DISARRAY
So far, Kenyatta has not commented on Odinga’s inauguration as “people’s president” and his spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on the crackdown. But veiled references appear in Kenyatta’s speeches.
“Elections are over, the people of Kenya have chosen their leaders,” Kenyatta said on Wednesday.
The crackdown played into the hands of an opposition appearing to be in trouble, analysts say.
An opposition dossier presented as proof that Odinga won the August election was debunked by a British IT expert and Kenya history author Charles Hornsby, who said it claimed some polling stations had a turnout exceeding 100%.
Several opposition leaders, some of who hope to stand for the presidency in the next election, skipped Odinga’s inauguration. They privately expressed misgivings over the event, diplomats said.
“There is so much theatre going on,” said a Western diplomat. “Most are insiders doing this for political gain, for power. The tragedy is real young men end up dying on the streets.”
Odinga has yet to outline his strategy and failed to show up to a rally on Sunday.
The crackdown has ensured headlines focus on censorship, arrests and flouting of court orders instead of the opposition’s lack of direction.
“Kenyatta’s Jubilee government seems intent on wrecking every chance it gets of occupying the high ground,” read a note from research group NKC African Economics. “They have made a complete mess.”