Riot fears as Netanyahu heads to inauguration of Kenyan president
Kenyatta won 98% of vote in rerun boycotted by opposition

Riot fears as Netanyahu heads to inauguration of Kenyan president

Dozens have died in political violence surrounding reelection of Uhuru Kenyatta, and more trouble is expected Tuesday; PM seeks to boost ties with East African nation

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Nairobi on July 5, 2016 (Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Nairobi on July 5, 2016 (Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The inauguration of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Tuesday, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to attend, could turn violent and therefore will take place under extremely tight security security arrangements.

Netanyahu is scheduled to fly to Nairobi on on Tuesday morning, and depart later the same day, after attending some of the events surrounding Kenyatta’s swearing-in ceremony. The Kenyan won a controversial election last month, which some observers say was rigged.

About 100,000 people are expected to attend Tuesday’s inauguration, some 60,000 inside the city’s Kasarani Stadium and the rest outside. Kenya’s opposition is planning to stage an “alternative inauguration,” as well as acts of civil obedience, which observers say could spark riots, since a government spokesperson last week threatened to respond to the opposition’s plans with “equal force of the law,” according to local reports.

This year, Kenya has held two presidential elections, both of which were marred by violence, with scores of political activists being killed by police.

The election’s first round, on August 8, was overturned by the Supreme Court, after opposition leaders complained the results had been hacked.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inspects an honor guard in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 5, 2016. (Kobi Gideon / GPO).

Kenyatta won the October 26 rerun election, which some observers say was rigged again. The country’s opposition, led by former prime minister Raila Odinga, boycotted the rerun election, leading the incumbent to garner 98.25 percent of votes cast. Voter participation was at 38%.

In a November 2 letter, Netanyahu congratulated Kenyatta on his “landslide victory.”

Odinga’s National Super Alliance — a coalition of opposition parties — has vowed to swear in Odinga on Tuesday, at the same time as the official inauguration of Kenyatta is to take place. The Alliance insists it will not recognize Kenyatta’s presidency and vowed to organize protests against his government.

Given the events of recent weeks, such protests are liable to turn violent.

“Police have used excessive force to contain protests since August, in a prolonged electoral period,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued last week, saying it had documented at least 67 killings, “most by gunshot, during protests by opposition supporters after the electoral commission declared Kenyatta the winner of the August 8 election.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at his Jerusalem office on February 23, 2016 (Haim Zach/GPO)

A source familiar with the prime minister’s travel plans said there were some concerns over his safety in a massive crowd. Hebrew media reports said the Shin Bet security service has not greenlighted for Netanyahu to appear at Nairobi’s Kasarani Stadium out of concern for his safety.

The Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday declined to comment on Netanyahu’s travel plans. Unusually, during Sunday’s cabinet meeting, he did not mention his upcoming trip to Kenya.

Netanyahu will be attending “part of the day’s celebrations but not all of them,” an Israeli government source told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity. At this point, it appears unlikely that Netanyahu will appear at the stadium. Instead, he will probably attend some smaller events celebrating Kenyatta’s reelection.

The most recent outbreak of violence in Kenya occurred when police used tear gas and water cannons to break up crowds cheering Odinga, after he returned from a trip abroad, according to Human Rights Watch. “Local and international media reported that, in the process, the police either shot or beat to death dozens of people.”

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (C-L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C-R) sign agreements in Jerusalem on February 23, 2016. (AMIR COHEN / POOL / AFP)

Israel sees Kenya as a key strategic partner in East Africa. The two countries cooperate in many areas, including in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Israel is said to sell military equipment to Kenya.

Critics argue that the conflicting camps in Kenya — those who support the president and those who oppose him — are about equal in size, saying that is was unwise for Netanyahu to publicly take Kenyatta’s side by attending his controversial inauguration.

“In volatile areas, it’s in Israel’s strategic interest to have good relations with the government, not with particular parties,” said Naomi Chazan, a former left-wing lawmaker and expert on African politics.

Odinga visited Israel earlier this year, but was not granted meetings with Israeli officials.

In Nairobi, Netanyahu is also scheduled to conduct a series of bilateral meetings with African leaders. For instance, he is expected to meet with Rwandan President Paul Kagame to discuss plans to have African refugees in Israel be sent to Rwanda.

A poster welcoming PM Netanyahu to Kenya on the streets of Nairobi, July 5, 2016 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Some 20 heads of state are expected to attend Kenyatta’s inauguration, Kenyan officials said this week, without providing more details. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir — who is sought by the International Criminal Court — is expected to attend, according to local media.

In July 2016, Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Kenya. During the visit, Kenyatta pledged to help Israel gain observer status at the African Union. “We believe that there is need for us as a continent to once again to re-engage Israel on a more positive basis, with an understanding that our partnership can help make this world that much more secure,” Kenyatta said at a joint press conference with Netanyahu at Nairobi State House.

Israel and Kenya are “natural partners,” Netanyahu said. “We face common challenges, the first among them is as I’ve just said, terror… Now, alongside these common challenges, Israel and Kenya share common opportunities in technology, water, agriculture, cyber and much more.”

In February 2016, Kenyatta — the son of Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta — visited Jerusalem. “My hope is that my visit to Israel will open another chapter in our long history of relations for the benefit of our two countries and peoples,” he said at the time.

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