Why all is not well on Kenya's top floor
The future is uncertain as the path to the presidency opens up on both sides of the political divide.
Anybody hoping for politics to quieten down with the advent of a new year will have been roundly disappointed- the first quarter of 2018 has been rocky with the fallout from the election. It’s now 6 months later and things show little sign of quieting down. This drama is not the usual election sideshow- it’s endurance shows that many people are still preoccupied with the prospect of change, long after the ballots have been counted.
The swearing-in ceremony of a non-president was the highlight of the post-election pantomime, in which Raila supporters packed out Uhuru Park to watch as he took an oath to declare himself “the people’s President”. The government threatened arrest and deployed a heavy police presence, but despite this, thousands of Kenyans- mostly young men, many unemployed- put themselves at risk of violence and detention to attend the event.
Contrast this with Kasarani’s empty stalls last December at the official swearing-in of Kenyatta, and it becomes clear that Uhuru’s supporters feel comfortable in being first past the post, but are not burning with a desire to support their man once victory is in the bag. Meanwhile for the NASA cohort, aluta continua - even if the prospect of ‘winning’ is impassable. Many feel cheated, and so confident that Kenyatta will fail to deliver that they will face tear gas and even risk their lives to show their support for a mock-up ceremony which offers no material gains.
The fake inaugeration was also a litmus test for the future of opposition leadership. This was Raila’s last election, and the perennial agitator has left no obvious successor ready to step into his shoes. And in part, that is the problem- people expect the leadership to be ‘left’ to a successor. But the kind of change that opposition supporters are calling for cannot be brought about by a career politician waiting in line for their chance to shine. The system which has disenfranchised so many in the country requires an agitator to dismantle it and these are changes that cannot be made by anyone who cares for their reputation or, some would argue, Kenya’s stability (‘But stability at what cost?’, inevitably the reply).
The size of the challenge at hand can be illustrated by the fact that even Raila, who has hoisted himself to the top by antagonising Jubilee, did not appear to want to go for the swearing in himself. After uttering a statement about in-augerating himself in protest, his words took on their own life, until despite various threats and legal declarations and moving the date twice, he opted to save face, honour his words and went ahead with the stunt.
So, the opposition veteran was forced to shake branches that, as a member of the establishment, he has little interest in shaking (let us not forget that Raila has many and varied business interests and he would not benefit from radical change as much as his campaign speil would have us believe), while his closest disciples failed to show up altogether. Mudavadi, Kalonzo and Wetagula all made impeccable Houdini impersonations and vanished from the stage of play on the day of the inaugeration.
With Raila stepping down, all three are logical candidates to front the 2022 opposition campaign, and a cynic might argue that their absence was less to do with security or restriction of movement than a trying to please friends in high places and possible allies in the Jubilee camp with that in mind.
So what of those who turned up? There was Joho, the fiery Governor of Mombasa who has shown little fear of speaking out and leans into controversy rather than shying away from it. His abrasive style could appeal to the more radical cohort of supporters calling for secession, and the next five years may see him shoot through the ranks.
The other loyalist was Miguna Miguna. In an earlier article, I argued that Jubilee should think themselves lucky to have an opponent like Raila due to the fact that he has many investments in Kenya, lives a comfortable life and thus little interest in seeing Kenya go down the path of war. Miguna Miguna is exactly the kind of firebrand candidate that would not provide them with such a luxury.
Already he has irked officials with his brash, no-nonsense style, and has successfully been booted out of the country to Canada, where he holds dual citizenship. He has publically announced he will return to Kenya next week- what the government will make of this, we shall have to wait and see.
For certain, he has stoked interest amongst opposition supporters, who see a man ready to unleash himself on the status quo, although some find his bridge-burning style too much. It has certainly rankled the government who, until his proposed return on Thursday, have solved the problem for now by sending him to the other side of the globe. But, to focus its effort on getting rid of Miguna is myopic. There will come
other opposition figures with no stake in the economy and little to lose...and another Miguna will follow.
Soon, Raila will retire from political life himself, and his support base- almost half the country- will look for a new figure to lead them to Canaan. This will be a dangerous phase in Kenya’s political development because ultimately, the man who ends up at the front of the opposition will likely be one with a vision and nothing to lose, or one who will stop at nothing to gain power.
What’s more, with Kenyatta having run his last race, there will be power struggles happening in the Jubilee camp too. The future looks more certain for the incumbents, with Ruto is the firm favourite to front the next campaign. Although his candidacy seems almost certain, that does not mean he will take it easy. On the contrary, Ruto will fight hard. He is more self-made than most at the top, and has everything to lose if he messes up in 2022. We should expect to see see the perceptive wits that helped him climb the ranks go into overdrive. Already, we’ve seen a rapid softening of his demeanour, seeking to appeal to a wider set of voters with 2022 in mind.
In short, there are significant changes to the order of things ahead and things could easily escalate or become incredibly messy incredibly quickly. To keep the lid on things, this is the point in time it would be prudent for the government to either address the concerns of opposition support base or negotiate a robust political settlement with Raila and other opposition principles.
The warm words and handshake photo-op that Raila and Kenyatta shared on Friday (9 March) ago suggest that both parties are well aware of this and starting to ease into some form of alliance to sooth discontented factions.
Division is nothing unusual in politics and in most countries, opposition is a sign of a healthy democracy and helps hold governments to account. Most countries voters are also split down the middle- Republican v Democrat in the US, Labour v Conservative in the UK etc. so it should come as no surprise that half of Kenya is voting for the opposition. What makes the situation dire is that Kenyan politics is still incredibly emotive because it dwells on bread and butter issues. Many people are poor, hungry, and suffer- if only through neglect, although often enough through direct abuse- at the hands of a state whose job it is to protect them. But people will not endure this forever.
Out of self-preservation (never mind willingness to improve the country) Jubilee must act or Kenya will enter a minefield. The throne is vacant and the people are angry. The people, by the way, are young, unemployed and live in a region awash with illicit arms from Somalia, Congo and South Sudan. Add an opposition leader willing to gamble on the future of Kenya to get the top, and all hell would break loose.