Friday, January 03, 2020

The past as prologue

From the moment the Supreme Court declared that Uhuru Kenyatta had been validly elected, the question of who would succeed him as Kenya's fifth president has been hanging fire. The Second Kenyatta Succession has inspired boycotts, violence, death, handshakes, tangatanga-ing, kueleweka-ing, inua-ing and embrace-ing. But the thing that has woven all these different impulses together has been the Building Bridges agreement between the president and the doyen of the opposition, the former prime minister. It has drawn a clear line for those who have chosen sides in the succession politics aimed at the 2022 general election: you are either pro-William Ruto or you are not. For only the second time in Kenyan politics, the question of whether or not the president will be succeeded by his deputy has become the organising principle for all political actors.

When Kihika Kimani and his Change the Constitution Movement took flight in the late 1970s, Daniel Moi was seen as weak and ineffectual, forgetting that he had survived in Kenyan politics by biding his time and picking his battles. He had not put a foot wrong from the moment Jaramogi Odinga over-estimated his sway with the electorate in the Little General Election of 1969. The Kieleweke and Tangatanga windbags, and the feminine versions of Team Embrace and Inua Dada, under the cover of the Building Bridges Initiative, have simply updated the Change the Constitution Movement with snappier made-for-TV messaging, social media strategies and vastly larger amounts of cash bribes to wavering politicians. The objective remains the same as it was forty years ago: prevent the president's deputy from succeeding him. The outcome, I think, will be the same: these people under-estimate the deputy president at every turn.

In the pursuit of political power, it is remarkable how little the constitutional structure matters in Kenya. The same political machinations have survived unchanged from the pre-2020 constitutional order. While Kenya attempted to turn back the clock to the 1963 - 1964 Majimbo Constitution, the only truly new thing in the whole arrangement was a Supreme Court that Kenya neither needed nor particularly wanted, and the unnecessary expansion of commissions and independent offices whose utility, as demonstrated by the thankfully short-lived Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution, is middling at best. The Ouko Auditor-General's office has published our fiscal scandals for all to see but so long as no one has been jailed over it, what good was he or his shiny new office?

Kenya's political ambitions have always been small and small-minded. The 1963 - 1964 ambitions were to position the president as a god-king, infallible and all-knowing. The 1964 - 1969 ambitions were to cut down to size any ambitious pretenders to the throne - or to cut them down, period. The 1969 - 1978 ambitions were to build a cult of personality that didn't invite pesky queries - and keep the country guessing as to whether this person or the other was best suited to adopt the mantle of President for Life. This cycle replayed itself between 1978 and 2002, and once again between 2002 and 2013, constitutional change notwithstanding. That the BBI smoke and mirrors is being sold as a wholly new thing is a testament to how narratives can be shaped on the collective amnesia of those who should know better.

The next two years will be spent almost entirely dealing with the politics of succession and hiding from the people the dire economic straits they are faced with. The fire and brimstone of "constitutional change" will keep nearly all of us occupied, trying to answer the question whether or not William Ruto will be Uhuru Kenyatta's political heir or a footnote of history, rather than dealing with the accelerating destruction of livelihoods, savings and grassroots wealth. The revolution you have been promised on Twitter by notable windbags like Miguna Miguna will not materialise. In the end, we shall come full circle and the cycle shall play itself out for the next ten years.

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