Raila Odinga's swearing himself in as a people’s president could have both political and legal implications. Legal scholars are already divided on this and this swearing in of Raila Odinga has attracted the attention of foreign governments, calling for dialogue, and a possible power deal. So what can we make of this juicy and appetising unfolding story and new chapter in Kenya’s political history?
While thinking about this piece I glanced at some Kenyan and regional print-media to get a clue on the unfolding and potentially dramatic political episode—swearing in of the “People’s president.” This is what I saw: “US call for unity cabinet resisted” (The Standard 9 January 2018, front page); “Mr President”. When a supporter decided that Raila should take oath—pictorial, The standard, 9 January 2018, p. 2); “Form parallel government after oath, advisers tell Raila” (The Star, 9 January 2018, p. 6); “To safeguard future vote, tell us what happened” (The East African, 6-12 January 2018, p. 16); “Democracy, free elections, human rights? What are those, and who cares anyway?” (The East African, 6-12 January 2018, p. 17). These few headlines seem to suggest that the political season in Kenya isn’t over yet. Some time back, as Kenya geared for 8 August elections in 2017, I advised that people should keep some ugali, in case the election season takes longer than anticipated due to electoral complications. I am afraid, the Kenyan political season is no yet over, and we may have to wait a while. The metaphor of “keeping some ugali” is still relevant, as the threat to get sworn in by Raila Odinga came to pass on 30 January 2018, at Uhuru Park.
The million dollar question in everybody’s mind was whether Raila Odinga would honour his promise (or was it a threat) to be sworn in on 30 January, as the people’s president (a new concept in Kenya’s post-colonial political theory). Now that Raila swore himself in as a people’s president, a related question is what the political and legal implications of such an act will be in the long run. And for President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, the headache is what to do about such an event that according to law, amounts to treason (but legal scholars are divided on this). As it has been alleged, this swearing in of Raila had attracted the attention of the United States and Israeli governments, calling for dialogue, and a possible power deal. So what can we make of this juicy and appetising unfolding story and new chapter in Kenya’s political history?
But what are the issues? Context of the “Swearing in”
Muthoni Wanyeki (whose article is cited in the introduction—“To safeguard future vote, tell us what happened”)—a regular contributor to The East African, and the African Director of the Open Society Foundations, grapples with what seems to be at stake. The listed real issues in Kenya as the new-year sets in include: state of the economy—ugali issue; diminished growth rates, slowdowns from agriculture to construction and manufacturing; rising domestic and external debts. These issues no doubt hugely affect jobs and livelihood. But Muthoni Wanyeki quickly raises her own “real issues” that some might be too quick to ignore as they claim that putting ugali on the table is a mother of all issues. What is Muthoni’s short list of real issues? These are mainly political concerns arising from the disputed recently held elections in Kenya. One narrative is: look, elections were held, they were disputed, the courts of law ruled, and the winner emerged, so let us move on with putting our economy and lives in order. The other narrative that Muthoni Wanyeki amplifies is: look, the two elections were not credible and they lack legitimacy, and that the vote did not rightfully express the political preference of the citizens. Who is right in the two competing and conflicting narratives?
The Supreme Court ruled twice—first time in favour of the National Super Alliance (NASA); second, in favour of Jubilee [Party]. Issues of electoral justice and accountability are clearly at stake. This is all the more crucial if the two leading contenders for state power enjoy a sizable amount of support—the crowds that showed up at Uhuru Park on 30 January, bear testimony to this claim. Jenerali Ulimwengu, another regular contributor to The East African and whose piece “Democracy, free elections, human rights? What are those, and who cares anyway?”, is even more pessimistic about the whole liberal democratic project was also cited in the introduction. His astute critique is born of a long period of accurate observation and he comes to this sobering conclusion: “Most of our countries are so torn apart by centrifugal forces at the service of tribal, ethnic, racial and confessional bigotry that to call them a nation is simply a charade.”
Jenerali Ulimwengu does not mention any specific country or particular African leaders, but the analysis he makes fits perfectly a whole host of post-colonial African countries including Kenya. He argues that the high-sounding concepts that we use such as “democracy”, “good governance”, “human rights”, “free and fair elections”, “transparency”, “open government”, and “anti-corruption”, are mere gimmicks to win good-will from foreign donors and to appear good to the rest of the world. Jenerali Ulimwengu has hit the nail on the head. Sharing on these issues with him, we sort of concurred that it is better for African leaders to clearly and unequivocally declare without pretense that they are monarchs or chiefs, so that resources and time are not wasted in empty rituals we term regular elections and making of democratic constitutions. This was quite an annoying conclusion to arrive at.
Could this Raila’s “swearing in” be one way of expressing unresolved political anger and frustration about the so called liberal democracy and its failure to deliver genuine electoral justice? There is also a populist dimension to the “swearing in.” While attending the burial of the famous Harvard based scholar Calestous Juma in Busia Country, one of the fans of Raila sneaked through the crowd, with a Bible in hand, and was determined to force Raila to swear in! The security detail prevailed over this volunteer, but the crowd had a field day and was all laughter. Such a small gesture goes do demonstrate how Raila still enjoys a certain political messianic aura among the masses. It will not go away easily much as his critiques would wish it thus. Could Raila be an incarnation of the proletarianisation of political discontent in the Kenyan political economy?
Are Western powers merely concerned about the safety of the neo-colony and their respective strategic interests as opposed to a genuine popular democratic dispensation in Africa? Whose state, whose democracy? Or who cares anyway?
In terms of continental political mood, there is the post-Mugabe euphoria and soul-searching on the meaning of democratisation in Africa. Given what Jenerali Ulimwengu pointed out about the failure of liberal democracy in Africa, NASA’s resistance movement dubbed NRM, could be some desperate attempt to try out some unconventional means to resolve political grievances. Whether they will succeed, it is any one’s guess. An African proverb offers some political wisdom: “A little bird lay on its back and tried to kick the sky, and said—even if I do not succeed, let people say that at least I tried.” “In great attempts it is glorious even to fail”, goes another adage.
Raila’s “swearing in” came just a day after the 30th ordinary summit of the African Union (AU) had ended in Addis Ababa. The theme of the AU summit was combating corruption for Africa’s sustainable transformation. The African heads of state had hardly unpacked their bags when Raila did his thing at Uhuru Park. Is there some political significance in this coincidence? We have not heard any comments from African leaders about the developments in Kenya—there is an ominous silence within the region and from the international community. I guess some are trying to avoid diplomatic blunders since it is too early to tell where the political wind is blowing.
What are the implications of 30th January 2018 for Kenya?
No doubt there is an amount of political fatigue setting in following the protracted electoral season that Kenya went through. Schools have opened, and business is slowly starting to pick up, and President Uhuru Kenyatta has finished forming his cabinet, waiting approval. One version of the political narrative is that it is time to get to business and move on. The other version of the narrative is that the political question is not yet settled. It is these two competing narratives that will determine what will happen after 30th January. The mammoth crowds that showed up at Uhuru Park to witness the “swearing in” of Raila seem to suggest that the masses are not yet tired of having another political fete.
Could it be that Raila and his NASA team are playing their last card to try to win some concessions leading to some negotiated settlement, by using the “swearing in?” We cannot rule out this master strategy. Those who were worried about the risks involved in having two presidents in one republic may work for some serious dialogue. And these are not necessarily Kenyans. The region, investors and the international community should all be worried, in case the largest East African Economy—Kenya—continues on this unpredictable political trajectory.
The Kenyan government under President Uhuru Kenyatta has two options. First, ignore the swearing in such that even after Raila is sworn in, the event does not have any legal or political implications. If the government had tried to fight this swearing in, it might have given it the gravitas it did not deserve. The global media that feeds of political crisis did not get the apocalyptic scenes on 30th January. The second option is to marshal all the military muscle and go after the NRM supporters, continue the media blackout, and even try to take legal measures against Raila and those who administered the oath. This last option is premised on state-power and brutality. This move will mostly likely escalate the already tense mood and give the “swearing in” a global stature, and make it look like a mini-East African spring. Both options indeed pose a dilemma and a headache for the Kenyan security forces.
Swearing in a non-elected leader as a president of a country is a treasonable offence. NASA knows this but their version is that they were robbed of victory, and hence they resorted to a popular court of appeal. This is the heart of the political conundrum Kenya is facing—the tension between legality and a popular verdict.
The Bible and politics of the sacred
At the heart of the controversy of Raila’s swearing in is the most popular book—the Holy Bible—that is often used for swearing in. God is also brought into this political conundrum. Social media is replete with images of Raila holding in his hand a Green Holy Bible. It is not clear whether there were some religious representatives to honour and bless the event. Kenya is a deeply religious country and so the swearing in will have some religious symbolism at play.
It is also evident that Kenyan religious leaders are at cross-roads given the polarisation that has marked the country since the 8 August elections. Questions are being raised as to who can help mediate between the two sides of the political divide. In such tense and highly polarised political developments, playing a prophetic role is very tricky. Neutral voices are hard to find. Civil society is equally divided. The international community also has its interests. Divine intervention is needed in these trying times.
Prayers for dialogue, peace, unity and reconciliation will soon take centre-stage, in places of worship. Both Deputy President William Ruto and President Uhuru Kenyatta seem to be God-fearing men. They frequent churches to invoke divine providence. This is the time to intensify politics of the sacred and consult men of God on the way forward, as Raila laid his hands on the Holy Bible seeking divine legitimation for his cause. What we can only be grateful for is that there has not been any blood-shed reported following the swearing in of the people’s president. As Pliny the Elder once said: Out of Africa there is always something new. Having a politician swear himself in as a president in broad day light, while there is a seating head of state is indeed something new. If can only happen in Africa.
Those who thought that Kenya’s political season was over are very mistaken. Raila Odinga has a rare skill of adding fuel to the combustible Kenyan politics—he has mastered this art for decades and he is not about to give up. When you think he is vanquished, he bounces back with gusto. The fragile economy, scarcity of ugali, and Uhuru-Ruto alleged new cabinet wrangles, all play in his hands. But it is not Raila alone. He has some following of funs that are equally fascinated by Kenya’s unpredictable politics of Kula yangu, sauti yangu [My vote, my voice]. Kenya’s politics is addictive as the country’s staple food—ugali. And then Kenya’s politics has some intriguing turns and twists—a hot mixture of ethnopolitics, religio-politics, dynastic politics, and global strategic politics.
May be Aristotle was right that man is a political animal. So politics does not end with elections, it is a way of life.
Some syllogism comes handy:
Man is a political animal
Raila is a man
Therefore Raila is a political animal.
The President of the Republic of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta will have to deal with this political conundrum. This will also be a headache for the East African region and for the AU. Maybe such a situation would help to open the sort of debate that Jenerali Ulimwengu has started—to interrogate the nature and relevance of liberal democracy in Africa. What happens if we end up with constitutions without constitutionalism or democratic procedures without democracy? A related question worth asking is: Can we have democracy without democrats?
As the 30th of January came to pass, let us do some introspection on what kind of democracy we wish for Africa. Has democracy been fully embraced in Africa as part of political culture or is it just a cosmetic outward show to appease the rest of the world? If the latter is the case, then the so called democratic constitutions are not worth the paper they are written on. It is high time we went to the drawing board and honestly converse on what we want for Africa. This will mean that all those who are engaged in the African continent with good intentions (and they are many), together with African-focused intelligentsia, have to come up with fresh conceptual frameworks to design new and realistic political theories for Africa. Kenya could be the first African country to come up with a new political paradigm for an African political architecture, using its recent experiences, intellectual human capital. But this will require a certain audacity and honesty on the main actors involved in Kenya’s politics.
And since the AU has zeroed down on the scourge of corruption as enemy number one of the continent’s economic and social transformation, it is important to also give a look at political corruption and the corruption of politics in Africa. The way Transparency International measures levels of corruption, experts will have to design a new corruption index that takes into account political corruption, and come up with some ranking of the most politically corrupt countries. Mo Ibrahim’s governance index is on the right track and a good starting point, but it needs to expand its index to examine entire countries and not just the performance of the individual former head of state who should be awarded a prize.
The regional leaders of the East African Community may have to convene an urgent summit to address the issue and not claim that the issue is only for Kenyans to sort out. Kenya as a regional economic power affects the rest of the neighbours directly. If our regional integration philosophy cannot be invoked in such critical issues such as what is happening in Kenya, what else is it for?
*Dr. Odomaro Mubangizi is Dean of the Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He teaches social and political philosophy and he is also Editor of the Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.