June 28th 2017

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Why Uhuru could outwit Raila in 2017

If there is a fact of Kenya’s politics that our so-called thinkers have problem understanding, it is that there are voters out there who looked rationally at Uhuru and Raila in 2013 and decided that Uhuru was the better president for them.

By Free Press Reporternewsdesk@kenyafreepress.comWednesday, 05 Oct 2016 19:37 EAT

President Uhuru Kenyatta with singer Bahati and other youths at the State House Summit on Monday.

What makes President Uhuru Kenyatta tick? Kenya watchers are concerned with variants of this question, recognizing the president’s unbroken popularity in his base in spite of a disreputable performance record over four years.

Expectedly, Kenyans disagree over Uhuru’s real record. Supporters lavish him with praise for good things he has had absolutely no control over, such as the unprecedented high level meetings, visits and conferences that have taken place in Nairobi over the last two years.

Likewise, opponents censure him for problems that, however acute today, predate his administration and would require painstaking efforts to address, such as insecurity, inflation and Kenya’s growing uncompetitiveness in the region – despite rosy statistics.

With the 2017 elections approaching, Uhuru’s odds are much better than in 2013 when he prevailed against the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The widely-held notion that African incumbents ‘don’t lose elections’ has been vindicated in nearly every election held this year, from Uganda to Zambia to Gabon. The international community that catalysed the holding of free and fair elections in Africa has shown no compulsion to keep the history of multiparty democracy moving in the right direction.

Notwithstanding this, many analysts contacted by the Kenya Free Press believe that Uhuru’s re-election outcome will be influenced by three factors: tribe, the Kenyan elite’s fear of opposition leader Raila Odinga, and the president’s likable character. The Kikuyu and Kalenjin, which as of now account for more than one third of registered voters, are solidly behind the president and Jubilee. There are more dissenters within the groups than there were in 2013, but these are still in the absolute minority.

Raila has increasingly become an integral part of the Kenyan establishment politics, but fears abound about what his presidency would entail, and these are often overblown during elections by Raila’s own rhetoric. In the absence of a verifiable electoral programme, the former PM is inclined to excite his base by radical stances that unnerve the legion of the corrupt and powerful. He is, for instance, expected to once again bring the land question to the fore after years of ignoring the subject.

In Central Kenya, it is Uhuru’s character rather than performance that will appeal to voters. Uhuru is congenial and down to earth, even if his leadership is solidly committed to maintaining the oligarchic rule that his father created. The Central Kenya voting bloc is enthused with stopping Raila from ever ascending to the presidency, but aside from that the president has the support of millions there who think the system is working fine.

Uhuru is seen as a genuinely easy going person. A number of his public encounters in the recent past have convinced even critics who thought that the earlier incidents in his administration where he interacted with common people were stage managed. A case in point is his embrace of singer Bahati during the Jubilee Party launch last month. The singer, apparently carried away by Uhuru’s hospitality, removed the president from his seat beside the first lady Margaret Kenyatta, sat there and began to entertain the first lady as the president stood by.

It was a spectacle to behold. Social media erupted in furore as Kenyans censured Bahati. In the middle of the scandal, it was easy to think that would be the end of Bahati’s encounters with Uhuru. But just this week the singer met the president again at State House and there was no inkling of evidence that Uhuru had had second thoughts about him.

There are other examples of the president’s simplicity. However, the one that stands out more is  the restraint his nuclear family has exercised in interacting with power. The first lady Margaret has won the admiration of many by scrupulously staying above politics, despite leading a resonant campaign to improve healthcare throughout the nation. It is unimaginable for the wives of any of the top leaders to dominate public space for so long without infusing their opinion about governance or politics.

The question emerges: If Uhuru is all these, why is his administration so detested? It takes a lot to run a government, and even Uhuru’s supporters recognise that he lacked the experience for the job. And while it is proper that the buck stops with the president, government is a complex bureaucracy with overlapping interests. Even small institutions like political parties can be so badly managed.

Civil society has accused the president of resorting to repression as a way of covering up his failures. Repugnant laws against the media and NGOs have been passed, but there are those who believe the president is the beneficiary of acts by overzealous and inept loyalists who are protecting themselves from scrutiny.

Why the president can’t act against these goes to explaining his inexperience. In the initial days of the administration, he concentrated power in his office, but over time he has given autonomy to trusted allies like former minister Anne Waiguru, solicitor general Njee Muturi and the deputy president William Ruto.

An indicator of this autonomy is the recent surprising move by new Devolution Minister Mwangi Kiunjuri to recommend the commencement of the law on NGOs that his predecessor Waiguru had blocked for three years. As the move showed, the political climate could improve if the pragmatic officials seized political initiative.

The president benefits also from deep political cynicism. After NARC leaders joined forces and deposed the Moi regime, long term critics of the system such as Kiraitu Murungi, Mukhisa Kituyi, Anyang Nyongo and Raila himself took charge. Though they brought revolutionary thinking in the early days (moving government from the core to constituency, economic reforms, infrastructure development etc), many in the team got enmeshed in corruption.

The NARC regime initiated so much change that answered the hopes of many Kenyans. Like in Uganda where Yoweri Museveni is still credited for change of the early 90s, notwithstanding the rot he presides over, there are some Kenyans for whom the NARC reforms surpassed their wildest imagination.

Prying on such people’s vulnerabilities, the elite helped build a culture of cynicism that benefits only those in power. Tribalism was the cover of a strong resistance for change. Yet liberal gains occur only when strong social forces moderate the influence of political elites to expand social rights. The gains in Kibaki era did not happen by themselves. In fact, he opposed most of them, but was forced to give way by powerful pro-reform forces. Now, the social forces that forced the NARC and grand coalition government to expand economic benefits are in retreat. Unions are more powerless now than at any time in Kenya. Parliament is functioning more as an extension of the executive.

As an inefficient leader, it is in Uhuru’s interest to neuter independent institutions, but he’s been helped by the opposition’s cluelessness, with occasional good exceptions. Without a concomitant effort to reach out to tribes that coalesced around Jubilee, Raila’s constant attacks on the president have invariably amounted to ‘soft balls’.

Groups like Somalis, Maasais, Samburus, Kurias, Pokots and others gave Uhuru the votes he needed to top up the GEMA/Kalenjin bloc, and their representatives are the bedrock of the government’s parliamentary majority. In these constituencies are tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of voters who have not been ‘brainwashed’ like the Jubilee core, but which the opposition hasn’t made a good effort at reaching – barring to some extent the Maasais.

If there is a fact of Kenya’s politics that our so-called thinkers have problems understanding, it is that there are voters out there who looked rationally at Uhuru and Raila in 2013 and decided that Uhuru was the better president for them.

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