Government efforts to head off the protests proved fruitless. Almost three weeks after a disputed election plunged Kenya into chaos, thousands of demonstrators defied a ban to take to the streets Wednesday for the start of three days of opposition rallies. Ignoring gray skies and light rain, they clashed with riot police armed with batons, rifles and tear gas. When several top advisers to opposition candidate Raila Odinga arrived at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi, a knot of police approached and began firing tear-gas canisters to disperse them. "Why are you doing this, why are you doing this?" the advisers shouted as they fled down the streets.
In nearby Uhuru Park, soldiers wearing red berets and clutching wooden batons and Kalashnikovs guarded every entrance to the sprawling green lawns. The crowd-control strategy seemed to be one of intimidation and muscle, and the normally hectic city streets were mostly empty. The police tactics were brutal but effective: early in the afternoon, mounted police waving wooden batons fired tear gas and charged a crowd of reporters and photographers who had assembled for an aborted rally by Odinga, the contender expected to win the December ballot until incumbent Mwai Kibaki claimed a narrow win amid widespread allegations of voter rigging. Both candidates are now claiming victory.
And while the first day of protests did not reach the levels of violence that many had feared, at least two people were killed in western Kenya. Gang clashes also continued through the night in places like Mathare, a Nairobi slum destroyed by the violence of last week. Roaming groups of young men armed with machetes, stones and bows and arrows faced off against each other. They threw stones and charged each other along the main street. In one neighborhood, called River, hundreds of young men staged charged street battles. Bystanders in nearby buildings watched the violence from their windows and balconies. The situation deteriorated further when the police arrived and chased each side. They fired live rounds and beat stragglers with bats and clubs. As the dust began to settle, police remained behind. "There will be blood, they're going to try to kill us," one participant told a NEWSWEEK photographer who was on the scene.
The coastal city of Mombasa, which saw some of the worst violence in the days immediately after last month's disputed elections, was today the site of a citywide sit-in that devolved into chaos when police attacked rallygoers, including children. Most stores were closed, their metal shutters rolled down to protect against looting, and just a few cars breezed by along the usually traffic-choked streets. People were still shopping for water and onions to offset the effects of tear gas when four trucks of policemen arrived in full riot gear demanding that the group disperse. The protesters wouldn't budge.
Instead, they sat down, held up placards that read JUSTICE BE OUR SHIELD AND DEFENDER and started singing the Kenyan national anthem. But before they could finish, police began lobbing canisters of tear gas. Police chased protesters nearly a mile before they scattered. Hussein Khalid the 29-year-old program coordinator for Muhuri, a Muslim human-rights organization was one of those present. Khalid and about 15 others took refuge on the shaded steps of Mubarak Mosque, where they washed their eyes with bottled water and called other groups of protesters in the city on their mobile phones to see how they were faring. "We will do this until our right to choose our leader is given to us," said Khalid. "It is not for politicians to sit and discuss how they are going to share power. That's why we had elections."
Mombasa, Kenya's capital until 1905, is a well-known vacation destination for foreign tourists attracted to its Indian Ocean beaches, fresh seafood, seemingly laid-back Swahili culture and good access to safaris. But post-election violence, which has broken down largely along tribal lines, with people from Raila's Luo tribe fighting the dominant Kikuyus, saw around 30 killed in Mombasa. (The death toll nationwide now exceeds 600.) The city is particularly important to Odinga. In a country where an estimated 78 percent of its 37 million people are Christian, Mombasa's residents are mostly Muslim. The majority of those Muslims are said to have voted for Odinga, a Christian who tapped into their feelings of marginalization and disaffection with what is perceived as Kibaki's anti-Islam stance. That religious dimension, not typically a fault line in once-stable Kenya, was on display Wednesday. "We cannot leave Kenya like this," Sheik Khalifa Mohamed, the organizing secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya told NEWSWEEK at his office in Mombasa. "It will be the beginning of dictatorship in Kenya if people do not keep fighting now. Kibaki was not elected, and he is not the winner."
After catching his breath at the mosque, Khalid headed off to join another protest group. About 60 protesters sat there peacefully until two pickup trucks full of armed policemen arrived. Again, they asked the group to leave. Again, the protesters refused. This time, the police attacked with clubs. Three policemen beat Khalid, striking him on his waist, legs and back and continued after he had fallen to the ground. Two friends were able to drag him into a vehicle and take him to the hospital along with another protester, Betty Sharon, 38, who had been beaten by six policemen on her arms and thighs. When NEWSWEEK last spoke to Khalid, he was still waiting for the results of his X-ray. He was suffering pain in his wrists and had no feeling in his right leg. But he vowed to continue to protest. From her hospital bed, her arm wrapped in a sling, Sharon said the same thing.
In Nairobi, an affable riot-police captain named Mohammed clutched an AK-47 by the strap as he marched with his riot squad past Moktar Dadah Street. Earlier in the day, Mohammed had told his men "to stay together, stay smart and keep peace only." But some of the riot squads seemed to deliberately target innocent bystanders. In one neighborhood off Moi Avenue, the police threw a canister of tear gas and hit a woman in the head, throwing her to the ground and scattering the crowd. Still, government supporters were reluctant to accuse police of wrongdoing. Cathy Wangashi, a hairstylist at the Karuri Salon, blamed Odinga's supporters, not the police. "We don't want this violence," she said, "We want president Kibaki to lead us. These people are trying to drag us down."
Not all of Nairobi was caught up in the protests. Across town at Wasanii, an artist's pub that sits atop Kenya's national theater, a group of actors were enjoying refreshments. And in a shady corner of the University of Nairobi, a musician named David sat peacefully under a willow tree strumming a reggae ballad. "It's all gonna go away sometime," he said of the violence. But with the protests scheduled to continue and no solution yet to the nation's political crisis, that may just be wishful thinking.