Sometime in June 2012, I got a call from the Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) asking if I would be willing to edit the commission’s report, which the caller said was around 1,000 pages long and needed to be edited within a tight deadline of ten days. I told the caller that an important report of that size and significance would require a minimum of one month to edit, if not two months, and that it was impossible for me to edit it in under two weeks. (For those who may not know, editing is not simply a matter of correcting spelling and grammar; it often involves consultation with the author(s) to ensure logic and consistency, and in some cases, to verify facts.) I did not think I could do a professional editing job in such a short period, so I declined the offer.
A few days later, I happened to be in Mombasa when two members of the TJRC’s staff approached me and pleaded with me to take on the editing assignment. I told them that I would, but only on the condition that another editor work with me on the report. They agreed and so I was quickly booked into the Serena Hotel in Mombasa where the TJRC team was temporarily based to put the final touches to the commission’s report.
Upon arrival at the hotel, I was immediately struck by how youthful the TJRC staff were. The majority were born and raised during the Daniel arap Moi era, and I remember wondering if they had the experience and knowledge to understand the extent of the horrors of the injustices and human rights violations that had occurred in Kenya during both Jomo Kenyatta’s and Moi’s regimes.
But what became obvious to me within the first days of my arrival was the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of the commission. It was clear that many of the commissioners who were staying at the Serena were not comfortable in each other’s presence, and while there was a shared camaraderie between the staff of the commission, there was an air of suspicion about who could or could not be trusted. For example, I was told that every document that I would edit would be password-protected and that I should not leave my computer without logging out as even the waiters and the cleaners in the hotel could not be trusted.
At first I thought that the tense atmosphere was the result of the controversy surrounding the chair of the TJRC, Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat, who refused to resign despite questions being raised about whether he could be an impartial chairman given that he had been a witness to some of the human rights violations committed during the Moi regime, in which he had held important positions in various capacities. His failure to withdraw from the commission had even led one of the commissioners, Betty Murungi, to resign.
Prof. Slye’s book shows that the request for an extension was not so much due to the staff needing more time to finish the report, but because the political establishment did not want the findings of the report to influence the outcome of the March 2013 presidential elections
However, having read Prof. Ronald C. Slye’s book, The Kenyan TJRC: An Outsider’s View from the Inside, it is now clear to me that something much more sinister was afoot. I had entered the commission at precisely the time when a plot was being hatched to not release the report in 2012, as per the TJRC’s mandate, but the following year – after the 2013 elections to be precise. Indeed, during my stay at the Serena, I was told that what I and my co-editor were editing may not be the final report after all, as the commission would be asking for an extension to complete it. At the time, I thought that asking for a delay in the release of the report was probably a good idea; while many sections of the report were well written, some chapters clearly needed more work, and probably needed to be redrafted.
Prof. Slye’s book shows that the request for an extension was not so much due to the staff needing more time to finish the report, but because the political establishment did not want the findings of the report to influence the outcome of the March 2013 presidential elections. Given the nature of the TJRC report – which sought to gather evidence and make public all the human rights violations and historical injustices committed by Kenya’s ruling elite since independence – it was understandable that many prominent people would not be happy with its contents, and would prefer that the report not be made public. For instance, Uhuru Kenyatta, whose father has been associated with various land-related injustices, would not want such a report to influence his chances of becoming president in 2013, particularly and especially because he was at that time also indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity committed after the disputed 2007 election.
However, that commissioners appointed to the TJRC (all of whom have impeccable professional credentials) would succumb to political pressure and agree to delete some sections of the report that adversely mentioned the Kenyatta family is something that I did not expect. Slye – a professor of law at Seattle University and one of three foreign commissioners at the TJRC – shows in his book that by the time the commission was finalising its report, several commissioners had already been compromised or had been coerced into taking political sides, and that by the time the report was released in May 2013, chances of the report’s recommendations being implemented were virtually nil. In addition, some of the commissioners were actively colluding with the new government of Uhuru Kenyatta to delay the release of the report.
Prof. Slye says that when he asked some of the other commissioners why they had asked for such a long extension, even though the report was nearly complete by mid-2012, he was told that it was not the commissioners who wanted an extension, but the government of Mwai Kibaki, presumably so that the report would not be released before the 2013 election (which suggests that Kibaki and his cronies did not want the report’s contents to influence that election). Slye believed that this would be counterproductive because “if our report had been released in a timely manner before the [presidential] debates, it would have provided an opportunity for the voices of the thousands of Kenyans we had heard throughout the country to be included in this important national discussion”. In other words, if Kenyans had had a chance to debate and discuss the contents of the report prior to the 2013 election, they might not have been so eager to support an Uhuru presidency.
The government of Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, used his powers to cajole, bribe and threaten commissioners and senior staff of the TJRC to have this and other references to his father’s land grabbing removed from the report, including the testimony of Toza
In his book, which was published last year, the law professor reveals the intrigues that intensified near the date of the report’s release in May 2013 and how various top State House mandarins sought to influence the contents of the report, in particular, references to land grabs by Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The Office of the President seemed particularly perturbed by the testimony of a man from Kwale named Toza who claimed that he and his community had lost 250 acres of prime beach land to President Jomo Kenyatta. “The owners of the land were offered the equivalent of US$84 per acre of land, far below the then market value,” writes Slye. “Toza’s father refused the payment and, with other dispossessed residents, unsuccessfully fought to keep the land in the hands of the local community.”
According to Slye, “The government of Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, used his powers to cajole, bribe and threaten commissioners and senior staff of the TJRC to have this and other references to his father’s land grabbing removed from the report, including the testimony of Toza.”
Why would Uhuru Kenyatta’s government go to such extraordinary lengths to doctor the report? After all, it is common knowledge that the Kenyatta family became the richest family in the country within just one generation because the patriarch Jomo went on a land-grabbing spree shortly after independence and used his enormous political influence to dispossess people of their land. This narrative is well-documented in various reports, inquiries, books and articles, and as our recent history has shown, has had little impact on the Kenyan electorate, which went on to elect Jomo’s son in the controversial 2013 and 2017 elections, even though the latter was at that time facing charges at the ICC. So why fear the obvious?
Alliance of the Accused
Slye’s book suggests that while the delay in the report’s release probably had to do with the fact that Kibaki did not want the report’s contents to influence the 2013 election, the behind-the-scenes machinations to change the report after Uhuru became president were motivated by a desire to whitewash the new Kenyan presidency. The combined “Alliance of the Accused” between the two ICC indictees, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, was viewed as “a shift away from accountability and a further entrenchment of impunity in Kenyan politics”. Both Uhuru and Ruto portrayed the election as a “referendum against the ICC”, and so probably did not want the report’s findings and recommendations to influence the ICC’s case against them. (Both cases eventually collapsed due to various reasons.)
This shift in accountability, whereby the electorate voted for candidates not despite the fact that they were indicted by the ICC, but because they were indicted, dramatically changed the political landscape in Kenya. Slye believes that it had a direct effect on the final days of the commission:
“My first indication that something was seriously amiss occurred on May 6  when I happened to visit our printer’s office to check on the status of the production of the report. When I arrived, I found commissioners [Margaret] Shava and [Ahmed Sheikh] Farah standing over our staff and directing which parts of the report to remove concerning the Kenyatta family. When I asked them under what authority they were changing the content of the report, they replied that we had to remove references to Kenyatta, as the matters were considered sub judice.”
This assertion was clearly false as none of the testimonies referring to Kenyatta were before a Kenyan court. In fact, few, if any, of the over 40,000 statements and testimonies gathered by the TJRC, including from families of the victims of the Wagalla massacre and those who were tortured by the state’s security forces, were cases that were being tried by Kenya’s justice system.
All three of the foreign commissioners – Ronald C. Slye from the USA, Berhanu Dinka (now deceased) from Ethiopia, and Gertrude Chawatama from Zambia – then signed a dissent opinion on the land chapter of the 2,000-plus pages of the final report. Part of the dissent statement reads: “With much regret, and after many tireless days of trying to reach a reasonable compromise, we are obligated by our conscience and the oath we took when we joined this Commission, to dissent completely from the amendments made after 3 May 2013 to this chapter in this Volume devoted to Land – Chapter 2 of this Volume B.”
The TJRC website, which carried the final edition of the report, has since been dismantled. The only available online version of the report, including the dissent and other related documents, can be found on Seattle University’s website.
Neither Prof. Slye nor most of the other seven commissioners were present when Ambassador Kiplagat handed over the report to President Uhuru Kenyatta on 21 May 2013. The ceremony was a hurried, low-key affair, which was surprising given that much time and many resources had gone into the commission and its work.
In March 2015, nearly two years after the TJRC report was published, President Uhuru Kenyatta, in his State of the Nation address, made a public apology to all those who had suffered human rights violations and injustices under previous regimes, and promised to establish a 10-billion-shilling fund for those affected. To date it is not clear if these funds have been disbursed to victims or their families.
Meanwhile, the TJRC website, which carried the final edition of the report, has since been dismantled. The only available online version of the report, including the dissent and other related documents, can be found on Seattle University’s website.
As part of his legacy, Uhuru Kenyatta must claim the TJRC report on behalf of all Kenyans, and ensure that its recommendations are fully implemented.
Which goes to show that this government would prefer to erase the report and its findings not just from Kenyans’ memories, but from the public domain as well. This is unfortunate because it was lack of acknowledgement of the atrocities committed by various regimes that had led to the bloodletting of 2007 and 2008. The recognition that historical injustices needed to be addressed eventually resulted in the establishment of the TJRC. By suppressing the TJRC report, and failing to implement its recommendations, the Uhuru Kenyatta government may be laying the foundations for similar violence in the future.
Wounds may heal, but painful memories and resentments can simmer for generations. As part of his legacy, Uhuru Kenyatta must claim the TJRC report on behalf of all Kenyans, and ensure that its recommendations are fully implemented.
What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward
There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a buffoon. What happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way?
Consider something for a second: how severe could things have gotten, both in America and globally, if Trump weren’t an utter coward?
I can already hear the murmurs of dissent: “How can he be a coward? Trump just tried to overthrow the US government on live television!” Yes, that is entirely true — and yet he didn’t. The entire tenure of his administration seems to have been a series of near misses; flirting with dangerous ideas and flitting back under the umbrella of normalcy just before the precipice. Every disaster that he helped to foist on the world could have been exponentially worse — if only he had been as committed to being the strongman he always boasted to be.
He isn’t. He’s a little daddy’s boy, a frightened man-child who doesn’t have the courage to follow through on the bull he himself spouts in front of adoring supporters. He’s an entitled, rich, spoilt moron and always has been. For all the bluster, when the chips are down, he’s quick to back off. Remember that boastful kid in primary school who was probably dropped off in his family’s C-Class Mercedes and looked down on everyone within insulting distance? He’d puff himself up and spit on others, until one day someone slapped the hell out of him. Upon getting struck, and family power no longer mattering, it became apparent that he didn’t even know how to throw a punch. That’s Trump in a nutshell. But Trump was also the gleeful little sociopath who led the charge in starting a fire only to have it pointed out there could be consequences without Daddy around. Learning of possible repercussions, he was the type to throw others quickly under the bus and backtrack from his own fomented chaos.
To be clear, in the last year especially, Trump absolutely could have gone horrifyingly further than he did. Could you imagine if Trump, the wannabe little dictator that he is, had the convictions (terrible though they are) of a Museveni or an Uhuru? It was within his power to do so, but he kept pulling back. Take for instance the Black Lives Matter movement across the United States in the summer of 2020. Yes, there was horrible police violence, clashes amongst protesters, chaos and destitution. In the midst of all of those charred buildings and the all-pervasive sense of loss in Minneapolis (the city where George Floyd was executed by police), I had a feeling I could not quite shake off as masked marchers swarmed in the streets around me: couldn’t this have been so much worse? To be clear, there absolutely could have been martial law declared but all those Trumpian threats of militarising entire cities never fully materialised beyond a handful of arrests by unidentified officers of questionable loyalties.
Sure, all these things are a horror and an affront to “Western society”. We get it. But all things are relative in politics so imagine if Uhuru had been in Trump’s shoes. Kagame calling the shots. Museveni. What would have happened? Experience tells me that those ugly bruises and lost eyes from rubber bullets would have needed body bags; the amount of live ammunition used would have been innumerable, and the scale of the tragedy would have been of unheard of proportions. Ask a Kenyan university student how their protests tend to wind up; talk to a random Kampala youth about how things shook out a couple weeks after the presidential election. If you can manage to find one, talk to an opposition leader in Rwanda. If there are any brave enough to filter back into Burundi, ask anyone involved in the coup attempt against Nkurunziza a few years back. The point here isn’t to give undue credit to tyrants, but merely to point out that things can always be drastically worse.
What happened in November of 2020 in Kampala? Protests at the arrest of Bobi Wine were met with such utter brutality it was incredible that anyone would dare stick their head out. Officially 54 people were killed but there are claims that the real death toll is in fact far higher. Take the days after the Kenyan re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta back in 2017, when there seemed to be a sort of suspension of what was to come next as the election drama unfolded and the cops came down hard on Kawangware and Kibera. That’s what being a totalitarian looks like. It is cops firing on crowds, social media shutdowns and mass power cuts. Looking back years from now, the reality will prevail that Trump could easily have gone there but didn’t.
That is the essence of Trump, absolutely having the power to be a world-class dictator, but lacking the organisational skills, intelligence, or conviction to jump in all the way. He always dips his toe in at the deep end, but never dives. The waters of reality are always a bit too cold for him, the soup just a bit too hot for his liking. His legacy will be one of having half-assed it in all aspects of his administration, from fascism to COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. I don’t think that it is any real stretch to look at him and state plainly that he’s just too cowardly to really accomplish anything that he aspires to. While Sevo cranks out press-ups on state television, Trump has spent his time cranking out tweets in between bites of “quarter-pounder” cheeseburgers from the comfort of his own bed.
Of course, the Western media will not countenance such comparisons, let alone acknowledge how much worse the situation could have easily become at the US Capitol last January 6th. For the American media, this is (rightly) a major blow to US democracy, but (wrongly) the single worst thing that could have happened. For instance, what if just two more of the thousands of protesters had discharged the firearms they were carrying inside that crowded Capitol Building? What if the pipe bombs planted near the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee buildings had exploded? What if the mob had wedged its way into the chambers of the Senate and the House quickly enough to get their hands on members of congress? And what if Trump himself had not backed off and sent out a tepid message to his supporters at the 11th hour?
Think about this: in coup d’état terms, the Trump mob had pulled it off. They had taken the single most important government building in the US and had done so quite easily. Their flags were draped from balconies and their cronies were climbing the ramparts to continue streaming through the doors. They took the seat of government and, for a brief period during the process of transitioning power, successfully interrupted the proceedings and forced all the democratically elected members of congress to scurry into the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels below the Capitol Building to save their very lives. That is a coup. A successful one at that. For one committed to following through on his calls to overthrow the government, this would be a crowning achievement.
Picture this: if three years ago Raila Odinga had called on his supporters to storm State House, and they had successfully done so while Uhuru’s re-election was being certified, forcing members of parliament to flee in their government-issue Prados, what would that be called? I know what the Western media would have said about it, that it is another sad story of a developing country in Africa that just could not get over the hump of real democracy. There probably would have been some backroom deals with international powers, and an intervention from all those British troops that hold the base up on Mount Kenya may not have been entirely out of the question. Perhaps Raila is the most eloquent example as he does have a bit of a track record of stirring up his supporters after controversial elections then backing down “for the sake of the country” after chaos has already erupted.
The coup was complete but Trump pulled out of it quicker than from his marriage to a wife turning 40. Why? Could it be that it is only when his advisors managed to get his ear during cable news commercial breaks that he realised that he might drown in the madness? I for one certainly think so. When he realised that there would be consequences for his little civil war charade, Trump felt what he always feels — fear. Trump didn’t realise there could be ramifications for what he was doing until someone (not named Mike Pence) put the fear deep into him. He backed off, and American democracy continues shakily on into an uncertain future
Now there actually might be consequences — legal ones at that. Banks are cutting ties and media partnerships are being snuffed out in rapid succession. Some Republicans are now actively jumping ship, others have deflected blame or finally acknowledged that there is a central symptom to the American political condition. It is too little, too late of course, and the task of getting Americans locked in a tribal political death embrace to try not to strangle each other is now firmly in the hands of centrist Democrats who may not actually follow through on the massive economic recovery needed for the citizens of the US to survive the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic disaster. Is the US still the preeminent superpower as the Trump administration takes the exit? Yes, unfortunately it is. Imperialism is still alive and well, and frankly could have weighed way more heavily on the global community over the last four years.
A lingering question remains, one that hangs like a suspended piano over the heads of the Democratic establishment: what or who will come along next? It is obvious that the cat has been let out of the dark ethers of conservatism for a while now; just how much has that cohort been emboldened? It is a question that I have asked before, but now as flags were draped on the smoldering fences that were brought down around the US Capitol, the core of the issue remains; what happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way? There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a showman; he evoked something amongst a huge swath of the public consciousness, only for it to prove illusory for Trump never understood what he had within his grasp in the first place.
Whoever comes next might just push the boundaries further out, might commit to striking Iran, take concentration camps for immigrants to a greater extreme, declare martial law and put armed troops in the streets with a standing “shoot to kill” order. Someone who might take measures to outlaw efforts to combat global warming and do all of this without batting an eyelid or seeing any reason to back down. The part of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic wasn’t what was visible, but the larger mass just below the surface and out of sight. To put it bluntly, next time the United States might not be pulled back from the brink by cowardice.
What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive
As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.
The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.
In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.
According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.
In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.
For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.
This was not the case in 2017.
Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).
In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.
As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.
The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.
Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.
One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections – this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.
The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.
While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.
The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.
The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.
Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.
By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.
As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.
Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.
Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.
According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.
The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.
Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!
Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.
In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources. In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.
This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.
But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.
Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Uganda: Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others
The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.
Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.
They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?
The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.
An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.
Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.
But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.
On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.
The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.
Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.
These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.
However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.
This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.
Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.
Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.
And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.
But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.
However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.
Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.
Those are the boss’ options.
In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.
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