All the trappings of official ceremony were observed.
On a stage in Uhuru Park in Nairobi, a man in a colonial-era wig administered the oath of office to Raila Odinga, who placed his hand on a Bible as he solemnly swore to truly and diligently serve the people and uphold the Constitution of the Republic.
“Today is a historic day for the people of Kenya,” said Odinga, as a crowd of more than 15 000 people cheered him on.
But there’s a catch: Odinga did not win the last election. The bewigged official was not the chief justice but a partisan MP. And no matter how loud his protestations, Odinga has no legal claim to the presidency.
That office is already occupied by Uhuru Kenyatta, who staged his own re-inauguration in November. He won the October election — the rerun, held after the Supreme Court annulled the August poll — but his victory was hollow.
Odinga had urged his supporters to boycott what he described a flawed process, and they listened. Kenyatta may have been sworn in by the real chief justice but that doesn’t mean his mandate to govern is necessarily stronger than his rival’s.
Nor was his inauguration without controversy. While Kenyatta’s supporters roared in approval, and heads of state from all over flew in to Kasarani Stadium to lend credibility to the proceedings, police were firing tear gas and bullets at protesters on the other side of Nairobi. At least one person was killed.
“Today is yet another historic day for our great motherland,” said Kenyatta in his inauguration speech.
The twin inaugurations, both flawed, are the latest chapters in a rivalry between Kenyatta and Odinga that dates back decades to when their fathers sat in State House together: Jomo Kenyatta as Kenya’s first post-independence president, and Jarimogi Oginga Odinga as his deputy. Then they were on opposite sides of the brutal post-election violence in 2007-2008, in which an estimated 1 400 people were killed.
Now, an ageing Odinga knows that this is his last chance to seize power, and Kenyatta knows he needs to cement his legacy — and pay back his allies, such as Deputy President William Ruto, who have been key to his success.
“Kenya is on the brink of plummeting into the abyss of political catastrophe. The government and the opposition are locked in an existential contest for Kenya’s leadership,” writes the Reverend Francis Omondi, for the non-partisan political magazine The Elephant. “Could it be that Kenya is headed for apocalyptic politics?”
The language being used on both sides of the divide tends to support this grim assessment.
In October, after Kenyatta’s win was formalised, Odinga announced the formation of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), a name that echoes militarised rebellions in other African countries, and some of his key lieutenants now style themselves as “General”.
Kenyatta’s administration, meanwhile, has branded the NRM a “criminal” organisation and declared Odinga’s self-inauguration “treason”. The MP who administered the oath has been arrested.
Kenyatta has also come down hard on media organisations who broadcast the event, accusing them of inciting violence — a violation of the press freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, and a sign that the government is willing to flout basic rights to stay in power.
These dynamics make compromise unlikely, even if that’s the only immediate solution to this mess.
“Everybody knows what is required to solve this,” said Patrick Gathara, a cartoonist and political analyst.
“Kenyatta and Raila need to sit down. Not them only. And we need to have a serious discussion about how elections are run, how the system is run. Until that happens, anything else is going to be window dressing.”
For now, then, window dressing will have to do. And some comfort can be drawn from the fact that although dozens have already died in post-election violence, this has been sporadic rather than widespread: we are still far from the depths plumbed in 2007-2008.
“It’s not often that you light a match and put it so close to some lethal gas and it doesn’t go ‘kaboom’,” observed Nation columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo.
That match, however, is still lit. And neither of Kenya’s “presidents” seems willing to snuff it out.