Kenya’s return to despotism

“If you are unhappy with the election results, take your grievances to court,” Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta chastised Raila Odinga, his main challenger in the August 8 presidential elections and the National Super Alliance political coalition (NASA)’s flag bearer. Kenyatta had won, so it seemed, by a significant margin of ten percent (54%-44%), and was busy directing his inauguration team to begin the swearing in process. On his part, Odinga took the President’s advice and filed a petition challenging the results and the electoral system. Asking the country’s Supreme Court to nullify the presidential results, Odinga argued that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), a regulatory agency responsible for supervising elections in Kenya, conducted a sham election that violated the Constitution. Siding with Odinga, the justices nullified the results and ordered the IEBC to conduct fresh elections in sixty days. The IEBC complied and set October 17 as the new date when Kenyans would go back to the polls. These two incidences — the Supreme Court’s history-making decision for Kenya and Africa, and the IEBC’s new date — rattled the country’s political establishment and engendered corrosive bitterness on the President’s part, which, if left unchecked, would mutate into a chimera set to consume Kenya after October.         

In the months leading up to August 8, David Murathe, the President’s advisor, hinted that Kenyatta’s second term “[would] be lethal, brutal and ruthless.” Very few Kenyans paid attention to the ominous warning, perhaps because they believed, rather erroneously, that Kenyatta would not singlehandedly return the country back to its darker days under Daniel Moi’s tenure (1978-2002). They gloated on social media about how Kenya had made significant progress, citing as examples the new and progressive Constitution limiting presidential terms, decentralized political and economic infrastructures, the bicameral legislative body, and, above all, the independent Supreme Court.  

Only a few hours after the Court nullified Kenyatta’s victory, a seemingly rattled President, who had advised his challenger to seek redress in court, organized an impromptu roadside meeting at the Burma Market in Nairobi and censured the very Court whose outcome he had earlier promised to respect. Echoing Murathe’s words, Kenyatta promised to “fix” the Court in his second term. Specifically, he raised a finger of contempt at David Kenani Maraga, the Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya, and belittled him and the other justices as wakora (crooks/thugs). Without equivocating, Kenyatta promised to nyorosha (straighten up) the Supreme Court and threatened to do the same to his political detractors. He laid down his marker, and Kenyans should bear in mind that he who lifts up a finger at others with contempt will surely do the same to you.  

Whether or not Kenyatta was sober during the Burma Market speech (his detractors insinuate that he was inebriated), he meant what he said, and he did not back down even after his wakora slur angered most Kenyans. In any case, Kenyatta knew his Jubilee Party (JP) had secured a comfortable majority in Parliament and Senate, and he exuded confidence in passing legislations favoring his agenda. In making the infamous Burma Market statements against the Judiciary, Kenyatta probably read — if reading was his forte — Article 163 (9) of the country’s Constitution, which, among other things, permits Parliament to “make further provision for the operation of the Supreme Court.” Although the Constitution leaves open the meaning and interpretation of what constitutes “operation,” it does not authorize the President to interfere with the Court’s everyday operation, but Kenyatta will undoubtedly use his party’s majority in Parliament to “fix” things and throw out “crook” judges. After all, Constitutions in sub-Saharan Africa hold no sway to men exhibiting despotic traits.   

Cheering for Kenyatta from the sidelines are his vocal sycophants in the legal and political spheres, who continue to float a dangerous proposition suggesting that the executive branch is under attack from the Judiciary. They have argued in recent past that the Executive must be protected from the Judiciary, yet they seem to have forgotten that between the two branches of the government, the former wields the immense political and economic power necessary to impugn the latter.       

If anything, despotic regimes in sub-Saharan Africa espouse similar patterns undergirding their manifestation and identity. First, they cast themselves as the victims of judicial tyranny. Then they vilify the Judiciary, in particular, and intellectuals, in general, a strategy that shortens the complicated process of expunging judges and critical college professors. Secondly, they curb the freedom of speech and artistic forms of expression to harness national cohesion. Under this category, slight laughter against the regime is considered “hate” speech. Recently, Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), a government agency created to facilitate and promote a Kenyan society whose values are harmonious and non-discriminatory for peaceful co-existence and integration, published names of individuals it hopes to charge for spewing hate on social media, and the Kenya Film and Classification Board (KFCB), a state corporation that regulates media content, is pushing a bill in Parliament to empower its board officers and police officers to raid, search, and seize film equipment or materials from organizations perceived to be producing or exhibiting materials that they deem to have questionable content. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, despotic regimes tend to control the supply of essential commodities and consumer goods, then pretend to be working around the clock to ensure a steady supply. When I visited Kenya in May and June for research, retail stores throughout the country did not carry cornmeal, and ordinary Kenyans were unable to afford a kilogram of sugar; yet Kenya is the main producer and exporter of maize and sugar in East Africa. I finally found the cornmeal after four weeks, but the store owner allowed only two packets per buyer.

Moi perfected the aforementioned strategies, then Kenyatta employed them in the months leading to the general election and has promised to extend and complete them in his second term. It is not trivial to add that Moi is Kenyatta’s political mentor, and the two leaders have reversed the socio-economic and political gains Kenyans have made since the country gained independence in 1963. Kenyans were divided under Moi, and they are divided today under his protégé. Like a married couple in a bitter divorce, a section of the country is agitating for cession. It is unclear, however, how long the cession drumbeat will hold, but it is clear that Kenya has turned the progressive clock backwards.

Samson Kaunga Ndanyi

Samson Kaunga Ndanyi is a PhD candidate in History at Indiana University.

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