Kenya’s ongoing political crisis assumed a dramatic turn on January 30, when Raila Odinga, the opposition leader and presidential candidate for the National Super Alliance (NASA), swore himself in as “people’s president” at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. The country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, happened to be away, attending a meeting of the African Union in Ethiopia.
The whole thing was an effective piece of protest theatre. Odinga’s swearing-in followed months of a stand-off between Kenyatta’s government and the opposition. It also included close to two years of protests against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) — the government agency in charge of elections. In August last year, Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president, “won” the presidential election for a second term, but a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court nullified the result because of multiple irregularities. The court ruled that the election was not conducted according to the Constitution. In addition, the IEBC’s Information Communication Technology manager, Chris Msando, who was in charge of Kenya’s computerized voting system, was found dead less than two weeks before the election. Odinga, citing problems with the electoral commission (and accusing it of being partisan to Kenyatta), withdrew from the rerun in October 2017. The election went ahead anyway and Kenyatta “won” the rerun in which he was the only candidate. The voter turnout for the rerun was less than 34%; less than half of what it was in the August election. In late November, Kenyatta was inaugurated as president of Kenya.
Odinga’s “swearing-in” ceremony attracted an impressive crowd. The government, which had threatened to charge him with treason if he self-inaugurated, promptly cut off live television broadcasts of the event on the country’s three most popular television stations. The three stations — NTV, KTN and Citizen — stayed off the air for another week.
Observers couldn’t help noticing that within one decade Kenya navigated a political power-sharing arrangement (2008), annulled presidential election results (2017), and now had two people claiming to be president. But more than this, the events in January exposed two significant issues: namely Kenyatta’s increasingly authoritarian style of rule and an opposition running out of choices.
Given the reputation for intolerance associated with Kenyatta’s regime, Odinga was surprisingly left uninterrupted to play out his symbolic claim to power. American and European governments had warned their nationals not to travel to Kenya except for non-essential work. Kenyatta’s local critics, in the period leading to the ceremony, predicted a bloodbath and stayed away for fear that the police and army would react against Odinga’s supporters. By restraining from using force, Kenyatta briefly confused the opposition.
By the low standards to which we hold some regimes in Africa, Kenyatta scored some PR points, as the highly anticipated showdown between Odinga’s followers and the state failed to materialize. However, the absence of a bloody outcome should not delude us into thinking that Kenyatta’s regime should not fool us. Far from it, Kenyatta remains a tyrant, and he demonstrated his tyrannical style of governance by shutting down media houses that promised to cover Odinga’s controversial moment in the spotlight. (Of course Kenyatta’s administration did not shut down K24 TV — a TV station that his family owns.)
Odinga’s swearing-in ceremony magnified a disturbing undercurrent that continues to contract political space in Kenya. The country’s media, which stagnated under Daniel Arap Moi’s authoritarian rule (1978-2002), recovered lost ground under Moi’s democratic successor Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013). They’ve lost it again under Kenyatta’s administration. Shortly before he left for Ethiopia, Kenyatta summoned a section of media executives and a few editors to State House, Kenya’s seat of power, and read them the country’s riot act. He threatened to revoke their licenses should they ignore his directive not to cover Odinga’s show. They ignored him and the directive, and Kenyatta responded through the National Communications Authority (NCA) — whose motto, ironically, is to “provide universal access to communication services” — by switching off transmission of the three television stations. With a certain bravado, his interior cabinet secretary confirmed the following day that the shutdown would stay in place as the government “investigated” the media’s supposed relationship with Odinga’s NASA.
In a move reminiscent of Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin, Jean-Bédel Bokassa and Arap Moi, who paid little or no respect to their countries’ constitutions, Kenyatta disregarded Kenya’s guiding document by rebuffing section 34. 2. a of the Constitution, which forbids the state from interfering with the media. Drawing from Moi’s political playbook, he refused to comply with a court order requiring his administration to lift the media ban. Instead, he rounded up bloggers, journalists, and opposition politicians, including the “oath” administers. In particular, he targeted Odinga’s close political allies, especially Miguna Miguna, who was detained in an airport bathroom for three days, drugged and deported to Dubai. Odinga was left untouched, probably because Kenyatta and his advisors understood too well that he did not engineer a putsch, a common pattern in sub-Saharan Africa, where leaders lie in wait for sitting presidents to depart abroad before they topple them.
Secondly, the landscape informing opposition politics in Kenya has dramatically shrunk. During Kibaki’s tenure, Kenyans debated socio-economic and political issues without fear of retribution. Kibaki refrained from ostracizing his political detractors, opposition parties, and watched in silence as news media made headlines satirizing him (or his family). This trend, however, has reversed course in the recent past, putting to question the prospects for opposition politics and media freedom in the country. Contrary to the notion that Kenya’s current political landscape has emboldened the opposition, it has, in effect, debilitated it, leaving it to the mercy of the judiciary branch that has, in most cases, resuscitated it and sustained its relevance.
Little wonder, then, that Odinga, mindful of the opposition’s uncertain future, secretly arranged for a meeting with his political nemesis, Kenyatta, on March 9th. They met again on March 24th, at the Muthaiga Golf Club, where they shared a second public “handshake.” Although much about their private conversation remains a mystery, it is clear, at least from their cozy body language, that the opposition has been co-opted into a larger political-bureaucratic establishment that is openly gushing at the prospect of driving another nail into its coffin.
Co-optation is fatal for the democratic process, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where, evidently, elections have proved inconsequential. Although social movements and opposition parties elsewhere on the continent can take heart and inspiration from Odinga’s art of political performance (especially his “inauguration”), his recent change of heart and camaraderie is counter-productive to social-political and economic changes. The struggle is real for Odinga at the moment. He is not an unproblematic icon, and anyone wishing to embrace his confusing style of politics ought to consider his political past that straddled both political spheres — opposition and government. Odinga was Prime Minister under Kibaki (2008-2013), and before that he was the Member of Parliament for Kibera for twenty years with little to show for his constituents.
Odinga and by extension opposition parties in Kenya must be aware that change in Africa is hardly realized at the ballot box, and does not come via secret meetings and public handshakes. It comes through relentless political and social pressure. Africa’s great statesmen, such as Nelson Mandela and Patrice Lumumba (and the social movements that sustained them), endeared themselves to their people, by weathering multiple political storms, not via deals cut in secrecy.
Kenya has set a dangerous precedent for sub-Saharan Africa, one that condones dictatorial tendencies and undermines progressive gains. So much so that the media and the opposition — the twin watchdogs that keep governments in check — have increasingly become ineffective. African nations that have looked to Kenya as a role model in the past should now search for examples elsewhere. As for Kenyans, we must wait for the current generation of politicians to exit the political arena for the country to heal and regain whatever influence it had on the continent. When rain falls on a leopard, it does not wash off his spots; however, the same cannot be said of Kenya’s media and opposition after Kenyatta’s crackdown.