A week after Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga lost the repeat presidential election, he walked into a crowded phone shop by telecommunications company Airtel Kenya in Nairobi’s central business district.
Surrounded by a throng of supporters chanting “resist,” Odinga was there to officially cancel his Safaricom line and migrate to Airtel. Before his withdrawal from the Oct. 26 election redo, Odinga had accused Safaricom of committing electoral malpractice during the results transmission. Both operators along with Telkom Kenya were hired to provide connectivity between polling stations and the electoral commission’s national tallying center in the Aug. 8 elections. But during the repeat vote, only Safaricom was retained to transmit poll results.
After president Uhuru Kenyatta was declared winner, the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition said it would put in place a program for an economic boycott targeting companies aligned with the government and the ruling Jubilee party. Just as he urged his supporters to quit the vote, Odinga now called on them to cancel their subscriptions with the country’s biggest mobile operator and to not purchase dairy products from Brookside and cooking oils from Bidco.
Odinga, 72, said people should “boycott the goods and services offered by the businesses for whose benefit dictatorship is being established.”
The boycott of Safaricom, if carried out comprehensively, is particularly ambitious as it would mean boycotting not just the dominant number one mobile phone network but also not using M-Pesa the leading mobile money service, which Safaricom controls. M-Pesa enables almost 30 million people to pay for everyday goods and services, access loans, and send money all over the world. Around $28 billion flowed through it in 2015, equivalent to around 44% of Kenya’s GDP that year. M-Pesa has around 80% market share of all mobile money transactions in Kenya, according to the regulator.
On social media, some Kenyans have been highlighting what they see as the hypocrisy of the opposition by sending small amounts of money to NASA’s M-Pesa account to show the coalition itself hasn’t deactivated M-Pesa. It is still receiving funds from supporters.
The economic boycott was the latest iteration of Kenya’s political quagmire, which has continued for the better part of a year now. It is also part of the opposition’s scheme to show the connection between electoral politics and economic power in Kenya, and the way the two have been inextricably linked. The “economic liberation program” is also meant to shed light on how wealthy businessmen and powerful lobbies and companies use “electoral autocracy” as a means to control the country and stay in power.
Brookside dairy milk products displayed on a shelf inside a supermarket in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)
By refusing to buy these products, the opposition also hopes to blame the roots of poverty, widening inequality and spiraling debt in Kenya on the government. The issue of economic marginalization is already taking center stage, as calls for secession and self-determination of some regions continue to get heated and further polarize the nation. Dennis Owino, a political commentator, says that given the number of people killed in protests in opposition strongholds, the embargo was also a peaceful way to picket and save lives.
“By resorting to [an] economic boycott, which is within the law, supporters had a safer way to make their voices heard, because if they can’t listen to you in the streets, you kill them in their pockets,” Owino said.
By launching the boycott, Odinga is also casting aspersions on the personality and legitimacy of a Kenyatta presidency. The son of Kenya’s first president, Uhuru Kenyatta, 56, is a multimillionaire and one of Africa’s richest people. His family also has holdings in real estate, hospitality, media, and banking, and owns a majority stake in Brookside Dairy Limited, which has operations across East Africa. The Odinga family is also among the wealthiest families in the country, and Odinga’s father Jaramogi was the first vice president under Jomo Kenyatta.
Over the years, Odinga has redefined himself as a social reformer and a voice for the marginalized. After running four times for president and losing, Odinga says he is using the economic snub as a way to safeguard Kenya’s democracy.
The long-term implications of the boycott are not yet known but the crisis is set to heavily weigh on the region’s biggest economy. The government has already revised the economic growth forecast for 2017 to as low as 5% following the political crisis and a biting drought. It has also spent about $600 million conducting two elections, which are yet again being challenged in the courts. The Safaricom Dealers Association have also said the boycott could lead to the loss of one million jobs.
Ben Payton, the head of Africa research at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, argues the ongoing crisis could unnerve investors and cloud the outlook for Kenya’s economy for years. “The knowledge that serious outbursts of unrest are likely to occur every five years—with possible attacks on assets and disruption to supply chains—prevents Kenya from establishing itself as a safe destination for long-term investments,” he said.
However, Owino says the embargo might lead corporates to reexamine their role in politics and promoting good governance. “Eventually, Kenyans get to have the joy and confidence that their voices matter,” he said.