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Tensions High as Protesters Rally in Kenya's Capital

by Gabe Joselow July 07, 2014

A festive atmosphere in Nairobi's Uhuru Park belies the tension surrounding Monday's political rally, with concerns among the population and the government that it could boil over into violence.

A heavy deployment of security forces from the army, police and national youth service are keeping watch over Monday's events, in which thousands of people attended a rally organized by the country's opposition party.

Police fired tear gas earlier in the day to disperse stone-throwing protesters at the entrance to the park.

The event is being driven by leading opposition figure and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who lost to President Uhuru Kenyatta in a disputed election last year.

Opposition grievances

Demonstrators used the event to vent frustrations with the country's current leadership and the state of national security.

Odinga-supporter Moses Onyango came to the rally from the North Mathare neighborhood of Nairobi. He says the opposition feels sidelined by the current government.

"(The) most important issue first and foremost is security,' Onyango said. 'There is insecurity in this country. There is what we call tribalism, we want to eradicate totally. And thirdly, the most important, is unemployment."

The Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) coalition of opposition parties is calling for a national dialogue with the ruling "Jubilee" coalition to discuss challenges facing Kenya.

Last week, Deputy President William Ruto accused CORD of seeking to divide the country.

Other Jubilee members have said the opposition should save their grievances for parliament.

Worsening crime and insecurity is among the biggest concerns listed by CORD supporters.

Kenya's coast has been especially hard hit by recent terrorist attacks for which the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility.

In an attack that started late Saturday night, gunmen killed at least 21 people in two areas near the coast.

Last month about 60 people were killed in a major assault on the town of Mpeketoni.

Kenyatta has said the Mpeketoni attack was politically motivated, despite the claim of responsibility from al-Shabab.

Dialogue necessary

John Njoroge, 21, comes from the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi, Odinga's former constituency. He said dialogue is the only way to confront the security challenges facing the country.

"We cannot sit and see ourselves being buried in the graves of poor leadership. So we came here to stand up, be active and defend our nation,' Njoroge said.

The term Saba Saba, which is Swahili for "Seven Seven," commemorates a pro-democracy rally held July 7, 1990, to challenge the government of then-president Daniel arap Moi.

Odinga was also part of the planning for that protest, which turned violent when the government ordered police to crack down on demonstrators.

Fearful of a repeat of violence at Monday's rally, many Kenyans decided to stay home.

The normally traffic-clogged roads in Nairobi were clear during the morning rush hour, while many shops in town were closed for the day.

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