Opposition leaders in Kenya have defied authorities to go ahead with a ceremony to swear in Raila Odinga as “president of the people” at a mass meeting in the capital, Nairobi.
Many thousands of supporters thronged Uhuru Park in the centre of the city to hear Odinga, who heads the National Super Alliance (Nasa), take an oath of allegiance on the Bible on Tuesday.
The veteran politician’s symbolic challenge could lead to fresh confrontations in Kenya, three months after Uhuru Kenyatta won a further five year term as president in a controversial rerun election. The opposition boycotted the poll, saying it was not free or fair.
Government lawyers have described the opposition ceremony as treason and it was unclear whether police would allow supporters to gather until hours before the meeting was scheduled to be held.
“We intend to hold a peaceful event, in total compliance with the constitution and the law. We wish to put the [government] on notice that we will accomplish our mission come hell or high water,” Nasa said in a statement on Monday night.
Though crowds were slow to gather, large numbers of Nasa supporters had filled the park by noon.
Authorities appear to have opted for a media blackout of the event rather than deploy police to stop or disperse the meeting. There were unconfirmed reports of scattered clashes and the use of teargas nearby.
Television and newspaper executives said they had been warned they would be closed down if they reported on the opposition ceremony during a meeting with Kenyatta, his deputy and other senior officials on Monday.
A number of media outlets, including the independently owned Citizen radio and television, NTV and KTN said on Tuesday that authorities had forced them off air. KTN had been showing a live video stream from the ceremony.
In a brief speech to the enthusiastic crowd, Odinga described a “high calling to assume the office of the people’s president of the Republic of Kenya” and stressed his acts were constitutional.
Though many in Kenya are tired of the continuing instability, the large turnout at Uhuru Park may rejuvenate an opposition campaign that had been flagging.
The turmoil in Kenya was triggered when the supreme court annulled the result of the presidential election in August because of irregularities. Turnout in the subsequent rerun was only 39%, though kenyatta won with 98% of the vote.
The supreme court was again asked to dismiss the result, but this time upheld Kenyatta’s victory.
Odinga has said the October election was “fake” and earlier said a “people’s assembly” would swear him in on 12 December. That did not happen, and a new event was planned.
Kenya is more polarised and divided than at any time since more than a thousand people died in ethnic violence after the 2007 presidential election, observers say.
Analysts at the International Crisis Group have warned that a swearing-in ceremony may prompt a tough response from Kenyatta.
“Odinga and Kenyatta are playing a high-stakes game of brinkmanship. Given deep social polarisation and a history of violent clashes between protesters and police, the two leaders’ actions could result in significant bloodshed,”it said
The former British colony has a history of disputed elections and political violence. It is a patchwork of dozens of ethnic groups in which political competition for resources often exacerbates existing ill-feeling between communities.
Odinga’s supporters, many drawn from poorer parts of Kenya, believe they have been marginalised for decades. They accuse the ruling party, which itself was formed from the merger of 11 parties in 2016, of stealing the election, rampant corruption, directing abuse by the security forces and neglecting vast sareas of the country, including Odinga’s heartland in the west.