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Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga holds a Bible during a symbolic swearing in as president after contested elections in Nairobi on Jan. 30. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

Kenyan TV stations remain shut down after planning to air mock ‘inauguration’

Despite losing in the country’s recent elections, Kenya’s main opposition leader Raila Odinga declared himself “the people’s president” and was “sworn in” at a mock inauguration Tuesday.

The event, held in downtown Nairobi, drew thousands of his supporters. In response, the government shut down three television stations that had planned to air the ceremony.

Odinga also briefly changed his Twitter profile to “President of the Republic of Kenya.” It was then changed to “Sworn in as the People’s President.”

The move was purely ceremonial but underscored the tensions still lingering after the country’s contested election.

How did the government respond?

The “swearing in” ceremony proceeded without police interference, but private radio and television stations said Kenya’s government cut their transmissions earlier in the day. As of Wednesday, the top three television stations remained down. The government also declared a subset of Odinga’s coalition, an “organized criminal group.”

An Interior Ministry spokesman told the New York Times that the broadcasts were cut to protect Kenyans’ lives. At the time, Kenya’s interior minister Fred Matiang’i said, “The government had to do what it did because the lives of Kenyans are more important than what you call freedom of the press or what might turn out to be an inciting broadcast.”

Kenya’s Interior Ministry then released a statement Wednesday calling Odinga’s ceremony a “well-choreographed attempt to subvert or overthrow” the government. The statement also said that the three television stations will remain shut down “until further notice”, calling the planned broadcasts a “serious breach of security.” The Interior Ministry said it will launch an investigation into the ceremony and the television stations.

Police also confirmed to the Washington Post that a stun grenade was tossed at the home of former Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka on Wednesday morning and two rifle shots fired. Musyoka called it “an assassination attempt.”

Odinga supporters have been holding regular demonstrations since the August election. Some of the protests had involved looting and violent clashes with police. According to the BBC, 50 people have been killed in violence since the election.

In response, the government banned street protests in some cities.

How did we get here?

On Aug. 8, 2017, Kenya held presidential elections. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won 54 percent of the vote, but the the Kenyan Supreme Court later declared those results “null and void,” citing electoral irregularities. The court ordered a new election to be held in October.

Before the new election, Odinga pulled out of the presidential race saying the electoral commission failed to address problems with the voting process, and he urged his supporters to boycott the election.

The election went forward and Kenyatta won the election re-run with 98 percent of the vote. Only 34 percent of voters turned out, down from 80 percent in the August election.

What’s next?

The country remains on edge. An Amnesty International spokesperson told CNN the Kenya government should avoid cracking down on demonstrations too harshly.

The International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent violent conflict, said Odinga and Kenyatta are “playing a high-stakes game of brinkmanship” and called for western diplomats to press the two sides to accept compromise.

The group warned that the roots of this conflict run deep and electoral reforms are needed if Kenya wants lasting peace.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Kenya’s presidents have been from two ethnic groups, despite the country being home to more than than 40 ethnic groups.

President Kenyatta comes from one of the ruling groups, the Kikuyu. Odinga is from another group, the Luo.

The International Crisis Group is urging a number of reforms to give non-ruling groups more power, offering Odinga an “olive branch,” which would ideally reduce tensions and limit violent conflict.

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