On Tuesday, Kenya celebrated 54 years of Independence. In Kasarani the President addressed a near-empty stadium while his political rival whipped up a media frenzy by planning, and then cancelling, a fake inauguration to swear himself in as President, in protest at the election results. In short, Jamhuri Day was a fitting conclusion to Kenya’s 2017 Election: baffling and frustrating in equal measure, but also quietly unsettling.
Let us start with the bizarre side-show of the counter-inauguration. It was planned to coincide with independence day to send a clear message that certain factions feel ready to cut loose from the Jubilee establishment. The day of the fake inauguration actually came and went with little ado, as Raila apparently caved in to pressure calling for him to abandon the stunt.
The US and UK led the international cohort in trying to call off the inauguration, which came as no surprise. As we have seen in the past few years, whisperings of anything resembling secession is quickly dampened through whatever diplomatic means available (just look to Scotland, Ukraine and Catalonia). When this threat also carries a high risk of violence, as it arguably would do in Kenya, international stakeholders are also set to lose their financial and military investments in the country. Favor for the status quo from these groups, then, is unsurprising.
Within Kenya, the proposition was strongly opposed by Jubilee (again, no shocker) as the Chief of Police and Attorney General, both issued statements arguing that the inauguration would be tantamount to Treason. Despite convincing arguments from the likes of Lawyer Betty Murungi and Apollo Mboya of Kenya Law Reform Commission that this was not the case, resistance from Jubilee is hardly surprising.
Perhaps more unexpected was the response from within the opposition ranks, where a significant numbers of NASA supporters argued strongly against the inauguration stunt. The division within NASA and response from international actors has somewhat boxed Raila into a corner, and there now seems little he can do to maneuver his way out of it- so the ‘inauguration’ was called off.
Yet, while this election surely signals the end of Raila as a Presidential candidate, it is not necessarily the end of him as de facto leader of the opposition. Certainly, there is nobody waiting in line yet who seems capable of filling his shoes.
But while Jubilee may be celebrating the retirement of their most long-standing political antagonist, they appear to have forgotten about the half of Kenya who support him. Their boogeyman might have disappeared, but his followers have not. Close to half of the country feel that their dreams and aspirations – even just their basic needs- cannot be met by Jubilee, and Raila’s political retirement does not change that fact. What do swivel-eyed Jubilee diehards expect to happen to the opposition? Where do they think they will go? It may be prudent for them to hold off the celebrations just yet.
In all the clashes we witnessed between protesters and trigger-happy police, let us not imagine that the protesters were ignorant of the danger they put themselves in. Many went to make their voices heard knowing that there was a chance they might not go back home again.
Those celebrating the official inauguration and Raila’s withdrawal from the front line do not realise how dangerous it is to have a country where thousands feel so disenfranchised that they are willing to risk their very lives at sporadic, badly-attended local protests. Even if 5% of the most hard-line NASA supporters feel that they truly have nothing to lose, this is still a sizable number of people who feel that they have been left behind and apparently forgotten. We must appreciate that in African countries with no monopoly over violence, it is very dangerous indeed to have groups like this.
The current predicament has been a long time coming. We have seen disparate groups along the coast and in the likes of Mt Elgon before (with the MRC and SLDF respectively). Imagine a much larger group, with nothing to lose, who feel that they have no other recourse but to directly confront the government or whoever they feel is infringing on their rights.
Jamhuri Day was a litmus test to such sentiments. Outside of the main Jubilee strongholds, stadiums and playing fields were empty as people opted not to turn up to Independence Day celebrations. Another win for UhuRuto has fused the idea of Kenya with the idea of Jubilee. It’s easy to be dismissive: people stayed home on a national holiday- so what?! But that would be a mistake. This is a serious sign that Project Kenya is not working.
So what happens when someone more radical that Raila comes along? He may have been a thorn in Kenyatta’s side for decades, but he’s still a businessman. He has a stake in the economy and despite his rhetoric, stability is in his interest and always has been. Raila never wanted war. He may have been happy to shake the branches of the tree, but he never wanted to chop it down. From Pan African Petroleum Ltd to the family-owned molasses refinery in Kisumu, Odinga’s wealth and material interests would not be served by political upheaval.
But what happens when someone who has no stake in Kenya’s lucrative economy steps onto the stage? It’s not an impossibility. There are many people who don’t feel represented by the elite.This a country with over 60% unemployment but where grand corruption plagues every level of the state; where it is possible to walk out of a government building in broad daylight with 2 gunia stuffed full of cash. People are tired of being left by the wayside while the spoils of graft are flaunted before their eyes. To quote a popular statement attributed to Alexandre Ledru-Rollin "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." Kenya could easily end up with a man or woman who is willing to take advantage of the current situation.
After November’s Thika bank heist, in which 3 young, unemployed graduates stole Sh52million from the Thika branch of KCB, the father of one of the suspects unapologetically explained his son’s behavior as an inevitable outcome of watching corruption and impunity all around them. In his words: what happened is normal.
Since Jamhuri Day, Kenyatta has gone further than just avoid mentioning the low turnout in parts of the country, but has outright refused to engage in discussion of politics (an odd decision indeed for a man whose job it is is oversee the political function of the country), preferring instead to talk at length about Jubilee’s mission for “economic liberation”. By refusing to engage in meaningful debate about the country’s issues, Jubilee’s policies are doomed to fail for the majority. It is not possible to extrapolate the political from the economic, and Kenyatta knows this. With one term left to go, it is much easier for him to wade on and brush problems under the carpet than to confront his failings and the worsening political scenario.
The four-pillar plan that Kenyatta unveiled to an emptier-than-usual Kasarani on Tuesday promises to deliver food security, access to healthcare, more manufacturing jobs and affordable housing. These are pledges that Kenyans have heard before and, considering that two of the definitive lows of the incumbent’s last term included a man-made famine in the north of the country and a crippling doctor’s strike caused by a failure to pay doctors proper wages, people could be forgiven for being skeptical of the will or the means Jubilee has to deliver on at least half of these fronts.
The refusal to talk politics is telling. Economic plans will fail to deliver if the habits and structures which cause present inequalities are willfully ignored. Manufacturing is undoubtedly a good thing for an economy. Manufacturing is useless if you live in a county which has few roads or rail capable of transporting your produce. The cart is being put before the horse, and the driver is refusing to listen to the concerns of bewildered onlookers. Another feature of the plan is to promote consumption of locally-produced leather goods, starting next financial year. While this oddly specific quota may seem like a sensible way to boost the country’s economy if you are a man with a 50% stake in 110 000 cattle farms across the country, it does precisely nothing to address the concerns of people who feel pushed to one side. Without political dialogue, “economic liberation” will just reproduce the same inequalities that already exist and intensify what is already a precarious political landscape.
So while Jubilee rests on its laurels and celebrates Jamhuri Day by handing out a national honor to Githeri Man in an attempt to show its humanity, there is still an unheard, unhappy and angry throng who by all accounts will not be willing to stay silent for long- and will soon be searching for a new leader to champion the call for change.