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February 16, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: The 10-year rule of our politics

Kenya
Kenya

If you could travel back in time to the period just before the 1997 General Election, given what we now know, you would be amazed at the political spectacle that would confront you.

For you would find that the serving president, Daniel Moi, going into his final presidential contest, was facing no less than four substantial candidates out to dethrone him.

There was the official leader of the opposition, Kijana Wamalwa, who was then the most influential politician from Western Kenya. Then there was Mwai Kibaki, the Grand Old Man of the opposition and the undisputed leader of the Central Kenya communities.

There was Raila Odinga, a hero of ‘the Second Liberation’ then embarking on his first presidential campaign, supported by a fanatical base in ‘Luo Nyanza’ and the Coast. And finally there was Charity Ngilu, who made waves as the first woman to embark on a serious presidential campaign. 

Basically, all the ‘big tribes’ whose votes usually have decisive influence in Kenyan presidential elections had ‘one of their own’ as a candidate. Now just five years earlier, in the 1992 General Election, Moi had faced a similarly divided opposition and gone on to win despite having well below 50 per cent of the total votes cast. 

So, you would have thought that these ‘Big Four’ would have found it wise to select one amongst themselves to face Moi. But it would seem that something which is perfectly obvious will often take the Kenyan political class a full decade to accept.

 For what we now consider to be the most elementary fact of presidential elections (ie, that what you need is a group of regional coalitions backing one candidate, and not each region fronting ‘one of their own’) was somehow just not politically feasible back then.

Only in 2002 ­­- 10 years after the first multiparty elections of 1992 – did we first see serious multi-regional political coalitions forming. And from then on, they became the norm.

 But after the victory of the joint opposition parties in 2002, a new pattern revealed itself, which was to hold true for the next decade and beyond. This pattern was that even if an opposition leader was able to gather behind him a truly formidable coalition of regional voting blocs, and effectively isolate the serving president and his core supporters, still the president would somehow be reelected. 

In short, something that had been only vaguely apprehended during Moi’s tenure (and which most had not realised was the real secret of his success) suddenly became perfectly obvious.

This was that no matter what electoral agency organised the polls, and no matter who was appointed to lead such an agency, a serving Kenyan president simply could not lose when seeking reelection.

The presented ‘final tally’ as well as the declared ‘winner’, had little or nothing to do with the long queues formed by voters on election day. Rather, decisions were made behind closed doors and the predetermined outcome then conveyed to the public and to the rest of the world, by the electoral agency.

And this was done with such cunning that it was impossible to tell whether a president had just managed to successfully rig himself back into office. Or whether it was ‘deep state’ operatives – all with vested interests in the continuation of that presidency – who had embarked on this rigging without bothering to consult the president.

This brings us to the present, and the proposed constitutional reforms aimed at returning Kenya to the Westminster parliamentary system of government, in which the Prime Minister would serve as head of government and a President would be largely ceremonial.

I think the strongest case to be made for the Westminster system is that it will effectively dissipate the toxic passions that have in recent years accompanied every presidential election. 

Under the Westminster system, our MPs will be every bit as corrupt as they are now. And there will still be election rigging all over the place.

But what we will not have is that which we fear most: A country divided into two irreconcilable rival factions, each convinced that their presidential candidate simply cannot lose.

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