It is a valid generalisation of Kenyan politics that it is virtually impossible to uproot a serving president intent on reelection.
When political pundits say this, they do not mean that Kenyan presidents tend to be so deeply loved that the voters will not desert them. Rather they mean that any serving president has such an immense variety of political tricks at his disposal, that he can usually find a way to engineer an apparent victory, even in the face of truly formidable competition.
Nor are these resources only available to the president himself.
When Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidential election in 2013, for example, he was not an incumbent seeking reelection. But he was certainly “the establishment’s favourite”, with two of Kibaki’s closest political associates, John Michuki and Njenga Karume, “crowning” him the Muthamaki or King of the Kikuyu ahead of that election.
But here is the really interesting question: Why then did the same Uhuru lose in 2002, despite being “the establishment’s favourite” then as well? More so as the political establishment that President Daniel Moi controlled up to that election was an all-powerful police-state support system, dedicated to its own self-perpetuation above all else.
The answer lies in a saying credited to the American historians Will and Ariel Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”.
Of course what Moi led was an unrepentant tyranny, rather than a great civilisation. But the point is valid nonetheless.
And to elaborate on it, let me first point out that the presidential bag of tricks is only effective in a fairly close election. And, as it happens, most of our presidential elections are close enough for state-controlled interventions to have a decisive impact.
As a challenger, you need to be assured of well over 60 per cent of the final tally, if you are to defeat His Excellency – or whoever the president’s men are supporting.
Then we need to remember that although in 2013 Uhuru had strong supporters within the Kibaki establishment, that alone was not decisive. What mattered more was that going into the poll he actually gained additional support, while not losing any of the support Kibaki had in 2007.
This feat is credited to Deputy President William Ruto. Defying all expectations, Ruto was able to get the Kalenjin community to support Uhuru for the presidency in 2013.
So here is the crucial difference: Where the Kibaki political establishment, supporting Uhuru in 2013, gained an important vote bloc, the Moi political monolith of 2002, which also supported Uhuru, effectively splintered ahead of the general election of that year.
When reviewing the transitional 2002 election, political analysts tend to focus on Raila Odinga’s vigorous campaign on behalf of candidate Mwai Kibaki.
But the far more difficult work involved in paving the way for an opposition victory in that election had in fact already taken place by then. Something had happened weeks earlier that had made President Moi’s Kanu vulnerable to defeat.
And this was that the very same Raila – improbably serving as the Kanu secretary general at the time – had led a large contingent of key Kanu leaders out of “the Independence party” in protest against Uhuru being nominated as the Kanu presidential candidate.
It was the loss of these Kanu stalwarts – some of them regional political kingpins in their own right – which made Kibaki’s victory possible. If Kibaki had faced the old Kanu, in all its glory, he would definitely have lost to Uhuru in 2002.
All this carries a lesson for the upcoming presidential election.
For many days now, there has been endless speculation about a political deal made between Kenya’s two premier political dynasties – the Kenyattas and the Mois – to somehow accommodate Senator Gideon Moi’s political interests at the expense of Ruto.
If there is any truth in this, then what we have here is a perfect recipe for the breakup of the President’s Jubilee Party.
And if JP should lose any portion at all of the Rift Valley vote, then Uhuru is definitely headed for retirement.