NAIROBI - Kenya's opposition parties called for a national dialogue with the ruling administration and issued a list of key demands at a rally Monday in the capital. The event turned momentarily violent as police fired tear gas to quell rowdy protesters.
Thousands came out to Nairobi's Uhuru Park for the so-called Saba Saba day rally, organized by supporters of former prime minister and opposition mainstay Raila Odinga, who lost to President Uhuru Kenyatta in a disputed election last year.
A heavy deployment of security forces from the army, police and national youth service kept watch over the events. Police fired tear gas earlier in the day to disperse stone-throwing protesters at the entrance to the park.
Speaking to the crowd in Swahili, Odinga called for the ruling Jubilee administration to sit down for talks to work through some of the many challenges facing the nation.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” Odinga said, “and what we want today is a national dialogue.”
Members of the opposition CORD coalition read a list of demands for the government, including "immediate steps” to withdraw Kenyan troops from Somalia, where they are battling al-Shabab militants as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission.
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.
Many Kenyans stayed home Monday, out of fear the Saba Saba day rally could raise tensions.
Some small skirmishes between security forces and protesters erupted before and after the rally. Police used tear gas and fired rounds into the air to disperse rowdy youths who ran through the nearly deserted streets of downtown Nairobi, following the event.
John Njoroge, 21, who comes from the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi, Odinga's former constituency, says dialogue is the only way to confront security challenges.
“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," he said.
The Jubilee administration has rejected the call for dialogue with the opposition.
Last week, Deputy President William Ruto accused CORD of seeking to divide the country. Other Jubilee members say the opposition should express their grievances in parliament.