A while back, President Uhuru Kenyatta donned a set of military fatigues to preside over the graduation of nearly 2,000 General Service Unit officers at the GSU Training School in Embakasi. It was not the first time he was wearing his Commander-in-Chief credentials on his sleeve, having famously picked up the habit nearly three years ago.
His wearing the uniform at all is problematic. For the Constitution is clear that “the national security organs [which include the Kenya Defence Forces, the National Intelligence Service and the National Police Service] are subordinate to civilian authority.”
Thus, Commander-in-Chief is actually a civilian, not military, designation. What Prof William Astore of the Pennsylvania College of Technology said concerning US Presidents is true of our own.
“Though the President commands our military, he is not, strictly speaking, a member of it. Rather, as our highest ranking public servant, he stands above it, exercising the authority granted to him by the Constitution to command the military in the people’s name.”
This distinction is a critical aspect of any modern democracy. It is so important that most democracies go to great lengths to remove even the appearance of the military being in charge.
In Germany, where the Constitution provides for a civilian Minister of Defence as overall commander, none ever wears a uniform. In the US, even retired military officers who ascend to the presidency are reluctant to wear the uniform in office. Twenty-six of their 45 Presidents had previously served in the military, but few wore fatigues as President, out of respect for the civilian nature of the office.
In an insightful passage in the Atlantic, Dennis C. Blair, a former US director of national intelligence and a retired US Navy admiral, explains, “One of the most essential characteristics of a democratic government is the ability to ensure that the armed forces are used only for the purposes ordered by democratically elected leaders. Democratic political control is achieved not by certain officials wearing suits rather than uniforms, it is assured by constitutional and legal processes ensuring that elected leaders in the executive and legislative branches have the ultimate authority over how the power of the armed forces is used.”
In short, the President need not pretend to be a military officer in order to command the KDF. That he apparently feels he must do so is most worrying. It is not just about the President’s wardrobe choices but about civilian and democratic control of the machinery of war and the proper role of the military in domestic affairs.
Kenya, which has never experienced the misfortune of military rule, has always had an uneasy relationship with its soldiers. Following two failed coup plots in the ’70s and the ’80s, the country has preferred to keep the troops happy, well fed and watered in their barracks.
But that appears to have changed in recent years. It has now become almost routine to deploy the army within the country to deal with local trouble spots.
Further, President Kenyatta has carved out a much more pronounced role for both serving and retired military men in his administration, including appointing the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Samson Mwathethe, to chair the Blue Economy implementation Committee, which oversees the implementation of government programmes.
Given that he has proven incapable of holding the generals accountable for the bungling that resulted in massacres of both civilians and soldiers at the Westgate Mall, Garissa University College, El Adde and, most recently, Kulbiyow, there are real concerns about his ability to keep them under his thumb.
President Kenyatta literally needs to suit up and start showing the military who wears the trousers.