Kenya: In praise of the minimalist President – By Magnus Taylor
It’s a cliché, but the first thing I experienced coming back to Nairobi this time around was the traffic. Two hours of it, mostly bumper to bumper, from the airport to the house my friends now live in – fully equipped with the necessities of expat living: guards, barbed wire and internal panic buttons. I live in fear of accidentally pushing the latter in the night whilst groping for a light switch and precipitating a Special Forces type storming of the building by a private security firm.
The last time I was here was 2008/09 and there was a definite reticence among the population in talking about the “˜post-election violence’ of 9 months earlier. This time, however, politics is everywhere. Posters and billboards adorn free space on anything large enough to accommodate a Post It note. Most are for the frontrunners – Raila Odinga of the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) and Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance. The second being a political coalition of the lowest common denominator – the binding factor between Uhuru and his VP candidate William Ruto being that they are both indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
Over the 2 hours between airport and house I get to know my taxi driver well. He is happy, even excited to talk politics. He feels the people are with Raila now, although polls suggest a neck-and-neck battle between him and Kenyatta, with both on mid 40s. The remaining 10 percent will go to 6 other candidates, who all appeared in the recent Presidential debates, the most significant of these being Musalia Mudavadi – an establishment Luhya politician who was touted in 2011 as being a potential compromise leader for the jubilee alliance – a less divisive figure than the princely Uhuru Kenyatta, and benefitting from being free of the ICC albatross. However, Mudavadi has chosen (or was forced) to go it alone and it’s predicted that he will become a kind of kingmaker should the election require a second round.
Yesterday I attended a forum for journalists organised by the Media Council of Kenya. This largely consisted of speakers from academia, press regulation and the government detailing how much more prepared they are to stop violence induced by hate speech this time over. However, a lot of play is made on subjects like social media, which would seem to be largely a concern of urban populations with regular access to the internet. One audience member wondered what measures were being taken to stop violence being perpetrated by rural youth, transported in to urban areas (and paid) by politicians to cause havoc.
Whilst everyone seems better organised this time, it’s possible to argue that the political context for the election is worse. Whilst the roots of violence last time have been well documented – long-standing grievances in the Rift Valley over land and, amongst the Luo, a feeling that they were once again being denied the Presidency – the events were sparked by a clumsy attempt to rig the election by the Kibaki campaign and failures by the Kenyan electoral commission to stop it. It seems unlikely that this will happen again. However, no one seems to know what either candidate will do if he loses, particularly Uhuru Kenyatta. As Raila Odinga has stated, it would indeed be difficult to run the country via Skype from The Hague whilst an ICC trial grinds on (potentially for years).
Uhuru’s latest ploy is to appeal to purely economic interests – he says that it will cost Kenya 6 bn shillings to hold a run-off election, so why not just vote for him first up? Sounds suspiciously like he’s afraid of what will happen in a head-to-head with Odinga – a fight he’s widely predicted to lose. Also, by that logic, why bother having a vote at all? Let’s just give the somnolent President Mwai Kibaki another 5 years.
Yesterday the Daily Nation (one of the country’s 2 most popular papers) printed an op-ed by the jester of Kenyan politics, Charles Onyango Obbo, who is incidentally not a Kenyan at all, but was kicked out of Museveni’s Uganda and settled next door. It is rare to see much written about Kibaki that is particularly positive, or even much written about him at all, as he has become a singularly uninspiring individual, spending most of his time inside State House and rarely giving interviews. Now in his 80s, he probably had his best years before he was elected in 2002. However, Obbo makes an argument that Kibaki (deliberately or not) has invented the “minimalist presidency.” He might have appeared bumbling and disengaged at times, but this brought a new political certainty to the country “the near-guarantee that Kibaki would keep off.”And boy has the economy grown under his light touch stewardship, from what Obbo calls the “economic grave” of 2003. Predictions are, that barring political meltdown next week, it will continue to expand at over the magic 5 percent.
Perhaps Uhuru’s appeal to the economic rationale will make sense to Kenyans after all – it might be the quickest and easiest way they can get rid of this politics thing for another 5 years. Once that’s achieved there’ll be space left over for the more prosaic programmes such as that hinted at by Dr Evans Kidero, who is running for Governor of Nairobi on what seems to be an anti-rubbish platform: “Modern garbage disposal equipments (sic) and waste disposal systems.” Hardly the stuff that dreams are made on, but if you’ve seen the state of the roadsides outside of the CBD then you start to think this makes some kind of sense – a political ideology Nairobians can truly believe in!
Magnus Taylor is Editor of African Arguments Online. He will be reporting from Nairobi over the election period.