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January 20, 2019

Kenya’s season of surprises


Select in your mind between five and 10 people — both locals and foreigners — who comment regularly in print, on TV or online, on Kenyan politics.

Then imagine them all brought into the same seminar room sometime in May 2017 — a few months before the last General Election.

Finally, imagine that you get to put to them this question: Hands up those who believe that the Supreme Court will nullify the results of the upcoming August 8 election, after the IEBC has declared President Uhuru Kenyatta the winner.

I am sure most readers would agree that hardly any hands would have gone up. For back then such a scenario was simply inconceivable. A deliberately generated lack of transparency over presidential vote patterns has long been standard operating procedure for Kenyan electoral agencies. But nobody could have foreseen that these almost routine “irregularities and illegalities” would lead the Supreme Court to order a fresh presidential election.

Then next consider: How many of these political pundits could have predicted that opposition leader Raila Odinga would then boycott the repeat election, even though the President was clearly panicked and acting totally out of character, shedding his established nice-guy tolerance and insulting and threatening the Chief Justice at every turn?

Again, this would have seemed to be simply impossible. For most political pundits would likely have speculated that if given such an unexpected second chance by the Supreme Court in 2017, Raila would surely grab it with both hands.

And above all, and what was beyond all speculation back then, is that not only would Raila later on proceed to symbolically swear himself in as ‘The People’s President’, but that this seemingly empty gesture would galvanise his support base as never before, while simultaneously causing shivers to run down the spines of the powers that be, leading to what many now refer to routinely as “a return to the old authoritarianism”.

I might add that few would have foreseen that the key opposition leaders would have remained united in the face of yet one more defeat at the hands of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto — though of course the opposition leaders do not recognise that any such defeat took place but insist that their victory was stolen.

So, it has been a season of unending surprises. Even the purported ‘deportation’ of a man who is as Kenyan as you can get; the shutting down of TV stations that dared to try and broadcast Raila’s ‘swearing-in’ — all this is very far from what any of us expected to see.

So how do you make sense of all this? It obviously is not in the President’s interest that this climate of uncertainty should continue. National prosperity, which he repeatedly reminds us is his only real priority now, requires a certain level of political calm, not unending political turbulence.

Well, post-election turmoil is nothing new to Kenya. Virtually all Kenyan Presidents have had to deal with it in one form or another.

But now there is a new political reality — anchored in the 2010 Constitution — which substantially explains why the President has not been able to manoeuvre past his current difficulties as other Kenyan Presidents have done in the past, when faced with similar challenges.

One of the keys to retired President Daniel Moi’s political invincibility, for example, was that he had the Vice Presidency to toy with. It is what he used to get ambitious rivals to fall in line.

At any one time, you would find leading politicians from all over the country, utterly convinced that they were Moi’s chosen successor. And even in his dealings with opposition leaders, the possibility of replacing the sitting VP was often waved in the faces of these powerful rivals, who of course found this to be a very agreeable possibility indeed.

But Uhuru does not have this luxury. In fact, you could say that the Jubilee chickens have come home to roost. He has publicly promised to support his deputy Ruto in 2022. Also, he cannot unilaterally replace him. And this greatly limits his room for manoeuvre.

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