In the weeks leading up to Kenya’s 2022 presidential election I wrote a piece that attempted to explain why Raila Odinga was not winning by a landslide and sent it in to the Elephant. It started by pointing out that given that Odinga was a long-term opposition leader who enjoyed strong support among the country’s marginalised and disenchanted communities, he might have expected to win the election at a canter after receiving the backing of President Uhuru Kenyatta. After all, the “handshake” between the two leaders appeared to have removed one of the main barriers to Odinga winning a general election, namely the state machinery that he and his supporters have consistently argued has been used to lock him out of power.
Yet despite the Azimio coalition bringing together the sitting president and the country’s most powerful opposition leader, Odinga did not seem to be running away with the election. The feeling I got from different parts of the country was that many voters were disenchanted with the handshake and the prospects of an Odinga/Kenyatta alliance. Opinion polls also suggested that the campaign was struggling to get into first gear, and that his main rival, William Ruto, retained an advantage. So I sat down to try and explain why, and wrote a piece about the four challenges that I thought his campaign faced, and why they meant he could lose the popular vote.
Then something changed.
The opinion polls began to shift. According to newspapers such as the Daily Nation, Odinga first went into a slight lead and then began to pull away. In one influential poll released just six days to polling day, the Daily Nation put Odinga 8 per cent ahead of Ruto. I distrusted these polls for a number of reasons: a nationally representative private poll my research group had commissioned put the election much closer, with Odinga leading by just over 2 per cent; telephone-based and computer-assisted polls would ignore the poorest members of society, who might be more likely to support Ruto’s “bottom up” economic message; some respondent’s may have been worried about saying they would vote for a candidate not favoured by the president; and, the media had tended to favour Odinga in its coverage. But as more and more polls came out giving Odinga a large lead, my belief in my argument waned. Maybe I had got it wrong, and the Azimio campaign had found a way of overcoming its own contradictions.
I soon lost confidence in my argument and, not wanting to publish analysis that I wasn’t sure about, I wrote to the editors at the Elephant asking them to shelve the piece.
In the wake of the announcement that William Ruto had won the presidential election with 50.49 per cent of the vote, my mind has consistently returned to the piece, because I think it may shed some light on the outcome. The results, of course, have been rejected by Odinga’s team which has petitioned the Supreme Court to try and overturn Ruto’s victory. But even if Kenya heads to a “fresh” election, or a run-off, it seems clear that Azimio struggled to excite and mobilise the electorate – including in his “home” counties. Whatever this was, it was not a resounding victory for Odinga and the “handshake”.
So in the hope that it might help those seeking to understand what happened in the elections – and because the analysis will still be relevant if the country requires a second presidential poll – I decided to publish the initial piece. The main analysis – which starts in the first section below – remains untouched. All that has been changed is this introduction, with a new conclusion inserted at the end of the piece to connect the discussion to the actual election results.
My argument ran as follows. Odinga’s campaign suffered from four major challenges: the fact that he lost popular trust following the handshake with Kenyatta, the president’s own unpopularity among key communities and his inability to deliver his own community, the mixed messages being sent out by the campaign, and a complacency that the election was in the bag. These weaknesses threatened to undermine his support not only in competitive areas such as central Kenya, but also in his own heartlands. This might not have mattered against a weak opponent, but Odinga was facing one of the most effective strategists in Kenyan politics. Ruto had begun to lay the groundwork for the 2022 campaign well in advance of 2017, ensuring that his allies were elected in key areas in that year’s general elections. In addition, through his “hustler” narrative and critique of privileged “dynasties” Ruto had hit upon a message that resonated with a cross-section of Kenyans suffering significant economic hardships.
If Odinga’s campaign did not resolve its internal contradictions, I argued, Ruto could well emerge victorious.
From this point onwards, I reproduce original article.
No longer the people’s president
Odinga’s reputation as an opposition stalwart was hard won and well deserved. He played a key role in helping Mwai Kibaki to mobilise support ahead of the 2002 elections, securing the country’s first ever transfer of power at the ballot box. Odinga then broke from President Kibaki when it became clear that he had no intention of either pursuing constitutional reform or keeping the promises he had made to his allies. Having defeated Kibaki in a constitutional referendum that would have taken the country backwards, he continued to campaign for reform.
Ruto had begun to lay the groundwork for the 2022 campaign well in advance of 2017, ensuring that his allies were elected in key areas in that year’s general elections.
In this way, Odinga played a major role in the introduction of a new constitution in 2010, even if it took the 2007/8 post-election crisis to generate the necessary political will to change the rules of Kenya’s political game. With the introduction of a Supreme Court and a system of devolution that created 47 new county governments, this represented a major democratic breakthrough that has profoundly shaped the country’s politics ever since.
Despite serving as Prime Minister in the power sharing administration that ushered in the new constitution, Odinga’s reputation as an opposition leader was further cemented in the years that followed. On the one hand, he was declared the loser in a series of close and often bruising election defeats in 2007, 2013 and 2017, which were made even harder to take by the fact that each time he was convinced he had been cheated. On the other hand, Odinga increasingly refused to play politics by the rules laid down by President Kenyatta, boycotting the “fresh” presidential election in 2017 and then refusing to accept the legitimacy of Kenyatta’s victory – ultimately being sworn in as the “people’s president” by his supporters in a controversial ceremony in Nairobi.
Against this backdrop, the “handshake” between Odinga and Kenyatta that ended their long-running standoff on 9 March 2018 took many of his supporters by surprise. Moving into government, and securing no immediate concessions in return for calling off his protests, made it look like Odinga had given up his fight for political change. Worse still, it opened him up to accusations that he had sold out those who had made great sacrifices to fight his corner, prioritising his own wealth and security ahead of their dreams.
The impact of this move on Odinga’s reputation continues to be underestimated, even today. At the elite level, it led to figures such as public intellectual and political strategist David Ndii abandoning Odinga and throwing their weight behind Ruto on the basis that he represented the only credible challenge to the corrupt ruling clique. But perhaps the biggest impact was among ordinary Kenyans. In a nationally representative survey conducted in mid-July 2020, only 18 per cent of respondents said that they trusted Odinga “a lot” and 42 per cent said “not at all”. This decline was not only felt among groups that have historically not associated with Odinga such as those who live in central (51 per cent “not at all”), it also extended to western (45 per cent) and even Nyanza itself (31 per cent).
Controversial primaries or “nominations” don’t help this situation. As I wrote at the time, discussing the winners and losers of the process, “Odinga—and his ODM party—have come out rather bruised. They have been accused of nepotism, bribery and of ignoring local wishes. This is a particularly dangerous accusation for Odinga, as it plays into popular concerns that, following his “handshake” with President Kenyatta and his adoption as the candidate of the “establishment”, he is a “project” of wealthy and powerful individuals who wish to retain power through the backdoor after Kenyatta stands down having served two-terms in office.”
What is particularly striking about the trust numbers from July 2020 is that at the time the poll was conducted – the numbers shifted in later surveys – trust in Odinga lagged considerably behind William Ruto. According to the poll, only 23 per cent of Kenyans trusted Ruto “not at all” and this figure was particularly low in key battleground regions such as central (19 per cent). This represented a remarkable turnaround for Ruto – who was once found by a survey to be the most feared leader in Kenya – and meant that Odinga started the 2022 election campaign from a position of weakness.
The Kenyatta problem
The reputational fallout from the handshake has been reinforced by the strong support Odinga’s candidacy has received from President Kenyatta and his allies. Not only is the president visibly in Odinga’s corner, but his allies in the ruling party are active parts of the Azimio coalition. This has created the perception that Odinga is being used as a stooge by the Kenyatta family and their clique to protect their interests in the next government.
Such an accusation would not have been so damaging in the past, but Kenyatta’s credibility has fallen in the last five years. Against the backdrop of a struggling economy and rising unemployment and poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic, the president’s failure to deliver on key election promises, or to reduce corruption, has created the perception that he and his government are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. This situation is only likely to get worse over the coming months, as the fallout from the war in Ukraine and the food shortages in the region push up the prices of essentials. Petrol prices are already set to be the highest in Kenyan history.
The reputational fallout from the handshake has been reinforced by the strong support Odinga’s candidacy has received from President Kenyatta and his allies.
Odinga’s dependence on Kenyatta for financial and state support is thus as much of a curse as it is a blessing. At a moment when many Kenyans are desperate for change, Odinga’s alliance with Kenyatta makes him look like the continuity candidate.
Yet this is not the worst of it. Being seen to be a “project” or a “puppet” for other interests can be politically fatal in Kenya because it implies that a leader cannot be trusted to deliver to their own communities. Odinga should know this well, because it was in part this accusation that undermined the efforts of Musalia Mudavadi to mobilise the support of his Luhya community in the 2013 general election, and so enabled Odinga to dominate the vote in western province. Mudavadi’s career has never fully recovered.
Odinga may also gain little from Kenyatta’s support in central Kenya itself. At present he is losing the region in most credible opinion polls despite Kenyatta’s support, and it is unclear whether Kikuyu leaders can really rally support for a leader who they have demonised repeatedly for decades. Kenyatta is also highly unpopular in parts of central Kenya himself – in a survey our research team conducted in July 2022, 21 per cent of Kikuyu, Embu and Meru voters said that Kenyatta’s endorsement made them less likely to vote for a candidate, compared to 17 per cent of Luos.
Yet despite this, Azimio has done little to counter the idea that Odinga is not his own man. Instead of creating clear blue water between the two leaders when setting up the new coalition, Azimio appointed Kenyatta as its chairman. And by using Kenyatta’s speeches as a vehicle to demonise Ruto and so try and so limit his support in central Kenya, Azimio has consistently reminded Kenyans that Kenyatta is a central part of the Odinga team. This created a gaping open goal, enabling Odinga’s opponents to score numerous points at his expense. Most notably, Ruto – always one to find a punchy phrase to sum up popular frustrations – has taken great delight in warning that if Odinga were to win, Kenyans would suffer a “remote-controlled presidency”.
In the past, Odinga’s messaging was powerful and clear, but it is now unconvincing. This is partly because his campaign has to cope with the internal contradictions of being an opposition leader backed by the establishment. But it also reflects muddled thinking and a failure to capture the public imagination.
Back in the day, you knew where you were with an Odinga campaign. He was in favour of constitutional reform, devolution, and shifting power and resources in the direction of the country’s economically and politically marginalised ethnic groups. This gave him a clear brand and an obvious set of slogans. Things have looked rather different since 2010, however, and it is important to realise that the challenges facing Odinga have a history that predates the 2022 general elections.
Being seen to be a “project” or a “puppet” for other interests can be politically fatal in Kenya because it implies that a leader cannot be trusted to deliver to their own communities.
In one respect, Odinga was a victim of his own success. The achievement of a new constitution complete with devolution took away one of his main demands. Thereafter, Odinga’s team has struggled to find as effective a framing device that would resonate with as wide a range of communities. In post-2010 elections, Odinga has presented himself as the defender of the new arrangements – the only leader who could be trusted to make sure that devolution was protected and extended. In some ways this made sense – devolution was very popular – but as all good politicians know, promising to make something a bit better is never going to excite voters as much as promising something completely new and game changing.
Campaigning on the same issue also risked making Odinga look like a one trick pony – something that his then Jubilee rivals took full advantage of. In 2013, for example, Jubilee leaders sought to tap into popular excitement at the new technological opportunities transforming the country by claiming that they were “digital” while Odinga was “analogue”.
The 2022 campaign has brought with it even greater challenges. By presenting himself as the opposition candidate on the side of Kenya’s hard working “hustlers”, Ruto has appropriated Odinga’s approach and updated it for a new generation. At the same time, the closer relationship between Odinga and Kenyatta has generated suspicions that an Azimio government would predominantly benefit their Kikuyu and Luo communities, respectively. The obvious implication of this is that an Odinga presidency would preserve rather than challenge the greater economic and political opportunities that communities that have held the presidency currently enjoy. Along with Odinga’s damaged reputation, this has made it much harder to craft a message that resonates with communities that have never tasted power – i.e. with Odinga’s historical support base.
These issues have led Odinga to make a series of speeches that have been couched in warm tones, identifying important lessons from Kenya’s past without presenting any clear blueprint for how to navigate its future. Such narratives no doubt evoke warm memories, in particular the role that Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta – Raila and Uhuru’s fathers – played in the nationalist struggle. But they are unlikely to excite the county’s youth, who are too young remember this history, have borne the brunt of recent economic downturn, and represent more than three-quarters of the population.
These challenges could have been overcome by a creative campaign that highlighted past government failings and promised to put them right. But Azimio has gotten itself in such a mess that such a campaign has not been possible. There are two aspects to this. First, it is unclear who is actually in control of Odinga’s campaign. Strong rumours suggest that powerful figures around Kenyatta – most notably his influential brother Muhoho – have as much sway as long-time ODM leaders. It is not hard to see how such a situation would lead to mixed messages and undermine Odinga’s ability to position himself against Kenyatta’s legacy. While the president is understood to have informed Odinga’s team that he understands that they may need to distance his candidacy from the current government, others around Kenyatta are said to be extremely sensitive about any criticism, binding the hands of Odinga’s speech writers.
As all good politicians know, promising to make something a bit better is never going to excite voters as much as promising something completely new and game changing.
Second, the Azimio coalition has struggled for unity and purpose. The difficulty of integrating its numerous parties into a common organization and slate of candidates was so great that it proved to be easier to change the law to allow coalitions to be registered as parties than to create a more unified political vehicle. Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance is not without these challenges, but the greater number of leaders and parties involved on the Azimio side mitigates against a clear and coherent structure and leadership. As Pamoja African Alliance (PAA) spokesperson Lucas Maitha put it, as his party tried to quit the coalition: “There is a lot of confusion in the coalition today. Nobody knows who is calling the shots in Azimio”.
The lack of integration within the coalition also means that it risks fighting against itself when it comes to some downstream races for Governor, Senator, Member of Parliament and MCA. Kenyans don’t have to look back far in history to see the impact that this kind of fragmented campaign can have. It was exactly the same set of challenges that undermined the campaign of President Kibaki’s Party of National Unity in 2007, and led to what was effectively the “incumbent” grouping losing control of the National Assembly.
The complacency of the powerful
You might have thought that the challenges outlined above would lead to significant changes to the campaign structure and a real sense of urgency. Instead, what is striking is the apparent complacency within the Azimio coalition. This appears to be rooted in two assumptions. The first is that Kenyan politics is still essentially an ethnic census, in which success simply requires you to recruit the most “Big Men” (or “Big Women”). The second is that whichever candidate has the backing of the state is bound to win. On that basis, Odinga cannot lose.
But these are flawed and deeply dangerous assumptions. Many of the leaders behind Odinga have no capacity to direct the votes of the communities they claim to lead. Odinga gained ground on Ruto when other leaders such as Kalonzo Musyoka officially joined his side, but the likes of Gideon Moi and Charity Ngilu bring few votes with them. Ruto has also demonstrated a remarkable ability to penetrate the support base of his rivals, and is currently the most popular candidate among the Kikuyu, turning assumptions about ethnic voting on their head.
The assumption that the state can simply deliver an election is also problematic. Spending more money doesn’t mean you necessarily get more votes – especially if the money is seen to be tainted by corruption. Using the security forces to intimidate rival voters or applying pressure to the electoral commission can be effective, but if Odinga remains behind in the polls, any blatant attempt to manipulate the process would return Kenya to the political crisis of 2007/8. Moreover, with the emergence of an assertive Supreme Court that just rejected Odinga’s proposed “Building Bridges Initiative” constitutional changes, even these more cynical strategies can no longer guarantee victory.
Spending more money doesn’t mean you necessarily get more votes – especially if the money is seen to be tainted by corruption.
Azimio leaders therefore have no room for complacency. Yet that is just what they are demonstrating.
The original text ends here; what follows is a reflection on the official results of the election, and what they tell us about the accuracy of the foregoing arguments.
The 2022 election results: The Handshake blues
It is too early to know what the 2022 election results will look like after a Supreme Court petition, and correlation is not causation, but some of the results suggest that the intuitions outlined above may have been on the money.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the results was the strength of support for Ruto in Central Kenya. Most notably, neither Kenyatta nor Odinga’s running mate Martha Karua proved able to mobilise much support in the region. While Odinga performed better than he had done in 2017 – demonstrating that he did gain something from his chosen alliances – Ruto convincingly defeated him in Kenyatta and Karua’s home polling stations. In Murang’a County, Ruto secured over 343,000 and Odinga just over 73,000, with a turnout of 68 per cent. In Nyeri, Ruto won with 272,000 votes and Odinga just 52,000, on another 68 per cent turnout. And in Kiambu Ruto polled a massive 606,000 to Odinga’s 210,000 on a 65 per cent turnout.
Much less commentary has focussed on the elections in what are usually thought of as Odinga’s home areas, in part because much of the Azimio accusations of electoral manipulation have focussed on central Kenya, but there is an interesting story to be told here as well.
Things don’t look that damaging for Odinga if you just scan the numbers quickly without putting them in context. In Homa Bay, Odinga polled almost 400,000 votes and Ruto got under 4,000 on a 74 per cent turnout. Odinga also won overwhelmingly in Siaya (371,000 to 4,000) on a 71 per cent turnout and in Kisumu (420,000 to 10,000) on a 71 per cent turnout. These landslide victories are the stuff of politicians’ dreams, and turnout percentages in the 70s look healthy compared to most parts of the world.
Indeed, these results look pretty good until you remember that these counties are in Odinga’s electoral base, where he was hoping for the kind of overwhelming wall of support he received in previous elections. In 2013, turnout in Nyanza was 89 per cent. Homa Bay recorded 94 per cent, Siaya, 92 per cent, Kisumu 90 per cent – an average of around 20 per cent higher than 2022. Moreover, comparing the 2022 turnout in these areas with Ruto’s heartlands reveals striking differences. In Bomet, Ruto won 283,000 votes to Odinga’s 13,000 on a turnout of 80 per cent. In Elgeyo Marakwet, he secured 160,000 to Odinga’s 5,000 on a 78 per cent turnout. And in Kericho he polled 319,000 to Odinga’s 15,000 on a turnout of 79 per cent. Overall, the four counties in the country with the highest turnout all went to Ruto.
Odinga also suffered from a similar drop in turnout in other areas that have historically supported him. While he won the vote at the Coast, in a number of counties it was much closer and turnout collapsed. In Mombasa, Odinga polled 161,000 votes to Ruto’s 113,000 on a turnout of just 44 per cent. Azimio leaders will complain that this was due to the last minute cancellation of the governorship election, and that that may have had an impact, but Mombasa was far from the only county in the Coast to see a decline. In Kwale, it was 125,000 for Odinga and 52,000 for Ruto on a 55 per cent turnout. Back in 2013, turnout had been 66 per cent in Mombasa and 72 per cent in Kwale. While turnout declined in every county in 2022, the route to victory planned by the Odinga team assumed that they would be able to at least match his 2017 performance in his home areas now that he was backed by the power of the state.
Taken together, these figures suggest a common story. Potential Azimio voters in all three regions were unpersuaded by the handshake. In central Kenya, former Kenyatta supporters were not prepared to accept Odinga and instead flocked to Ruto. In Nyanza and the Coast, some Odinga supporters, disenchanted by his alliance with Kenyatta stayed at home, denying him the numbers needed for victory. Had Nyanza and the Coast turned out as they have done in the past, Odinga would not just have secured a second round run-off, he would probably have won outright.
Odinga also suffered from a similar drop in turnout in other areas that have historically supported him.
This is not to imply that Ruto did not earn his victory – he campaigned hard on a message cleverly designed to profit from Odinga’s difficulties, and many of the votes he won were not simply negative rejections of the handshake but a vote for change. But that message was so effective against Odinga – the archetypal “change” candidate – precisely because the handshake and his alliance with Kenyatta undermined his ability to persuade potential supporters that his presidency would deliver anything different to the last eight years.
This core challenge will remain if the presidential election needs to be re-run, and even now it seems like key lessons are not being learned. With so much effort going into making allegations of electoral manipulation, there seems to have been little time for Azimio leaders to reflect on what may have gone wrong and why. Even if those around Odinga believe they were hard done by in Central, it doesn’t seem plausible that their performance was undermined by manipulation in Nyanza, an area in which Ruto’s team has had very little presence. Yet there seems to be little recognition that Azimio may have simply have gotten its tactics badly wrong.
If the campaign strategy remains the same, with the added challenge of having to re-mobilise citizens who are tired of the election and may blame Azimio for further disruption on the basis that they refused to accept defeat, the outcome of a “fresh” election is unlikely to be different to the first.
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Changes in Suicide Reporting Welcome, but Slow
Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness.
Earlier this year, the Baraza Media Lab and the Centre on Suicide Research and Intervention published a report that looked at how broadcasting stations report on suicide on social media. Its contents were sobering. Many leading media houses were found to report suicide as a criminal act. Reports also contained harmful elements such as descriptions of suicide methods and imagery of suicide and did not provide helpful information for readers who may be thinking of suicide.
So how have journalists been reporting on suicide since the data was collected? A very cursory survey of news outlets on social media shows reasons for both optimism and worry. Over the course of 2023, media outlets have published more stories about mental health, indicating an increasing awareness of it. This year has also seen an increased number of responsibly written social media posts that take into account the need for sensitivity on suicide.
Now, the negatives. Knowledge on responsible reporting of suicide, while improved, remains inconsistent across news operations. Real progress will require further integrating social media into editorial processes, subjecting its copy to as much rigour as the stories themselves to ensure errors are not introduced once stories are completed. Also, many insensitive references to suicide on social media were accurately reproduced from news stories.
The term “committed suicide” continues to appear on news websites, even in stories where responsible reporting would be expected, such as those that explore the risk factors of suicide. Stories use the insensitive word “suicidal” in phrases like “treating suicidal people as criminals” and “people who are suicidal”. The same insensitivity is also observed in the phrase “mentally ill” – ironically in stories that call for acts of suicide to be decriminalised.
It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary. It was interesting – and revealing – to see a media outlet’s official X account, formerly known as Twitter, include both the terms “died by suicide” and “committed suicide” in the same tweet.
News websites continue to narrate morbid details about the manner of death by suicide. You are still likely to find phrases like “the body was found hanging in his room”, a man “who set himself ablaze” and “doused himself in a flammable substance before setting himself ablaze while carrying the Kenyan flag”. The imagery of suicide, with the noose particularly prominent, continues to be used in stories, inadvertently advertising hanging as a suitable method.
It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary.
Media outlets aired insensitive footage. One camera focused on a woman overcome with emotion, who understood she was being filmed. One story goes as far as to narrate that instead of dissuading the deceased from taking his own life, a bystander handed him a lighted match and taunted him over unsuccessful attempts to light himself on fire, displaying the contempt people have for people thinking of suicide and inviting viewers to agree with those ideas.
The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing. Reports are more likely to use “died by suicide” where the only death reported is by suicide. On the other hand, when person who died by suicide had killed another person, the phrase “committed suicide” is used freely.
The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing.
Yet the same responsibility to reduce the prominence of suicide applies even in the context of crime reporting, and steps that broadcasters take to make footage of murders acceptable, such as using trigger warnings and black and white for bloodstains, may still be unacceptable in the context of suicide prevention. According to a 2021 brief by the University College Cork, Ireland, no graphic footage should be used in reporting murder-suicides, and care should be taken to discourage copycats, or position murder-suicide as a solution to anything.
Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness, resulting in disrespectful coverage that tries to “say it as it is” and neglects to include sources of help for people who may be thinking of suicide.
Why President Kagame Should Not Run for a Fourth Term
The 2024 elections in Rwanda are an opportunity for the country to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions and a governance that is more tolerant of critics.
The constitution of Rwanda was amended in 2015 to allow President Paul Kagame to stand for a third term of seven years. Kagame was re-elected in 2017 and his term ends in 2024. The change in the constitution also allows him to stand for a fourth and a fifth five-year term. In my view, President Kagame should not run for a fourth presidential term in the 2024 elections.
President Paul Kagame was appointed Vice President and Minister for Defence on 19 July 1994, immediately after the end of the war and the Rwanda genocide. When President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in 2000, Kagame was elected by the Transitional National Assembly to replace him. Three years later, in 2003, Kagame was elected president and has been president of Rwanda for over two decades. He has, therefore, risen to higher levels of decision-making over three decades, a sufficient period of time during which to oversee the implementation of policies he thought would advance the betterment of Rwandans. Kagame should, therefore, consider letting another willing and capable Rwandan build upon his achievements and continue to advance Rwanda’s interests. Indeed, under Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has made some achievements but there are also shortcomings.
First, from a war-torn country, Rwanda has emerged to become a state with well-defined and functioning structures and institutions supported by fairly clear legislations. In my opinion, this has been achieved thanks to Kagame’s administration’s commitment to bring about change in Rwanda manifested immediately after the end of the war and the genocide against the Tutsi.
Second, Rwanda has also made some economic gains even though these can be challenged in many aspects. In 2000, Kagame made a pledge to transform Rwanda from a low- to a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy by 2020. Since then, the Rwandan economy has grown significantly and its GDP per capita has increased from USD304 in 1995 to USD940 in 2022. The country’s human development index has soared and Rwanda has been recognised by the World Health Organization as one of the countries that are performing well on the goal of achieving universal health coverage. The country’s life expectancy has increased significantly, from 47 years in 2000 to 67 years in 2020. Moreover, according to UNICEF, the government has made some improvements in expanding education for all across Rwanda.
Lastly, through a meticulously executed campaign of communication, compelling narratives have been disseminated across the world that speak well of Rwanda. This along with the country’s commitment to deploy its soldiers to multinational peacekeeping missions across the world (Rwanda ranks fourth on the list of countries that contribute in peacekeeping in the world) has enabled Rwanda to strengthen its foreign relations with other countries and project its image as a development success story.
There are certainly more achievements that President Kagame has made during his 30 years in leadership that his replacement can learn from and retain to move Rwanda forward. However there are shortcomings. Kagame managed to put the country back on the world map but failed to create an environment for the country’s citizens to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms.
Upon taking power following a military victory, his political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), pledged a consensual democracy to Rwandans. But over time this democracy has transformed into a political system that suppresses political dissent, restricts pluralism and curtails liberty in Rwanda. Most affected are those who dare or are perceived to challenge his government’s narrative in Rwanda and abroad. In many instances, Kagame’s government has abused its power, colluding with the judicial system to criminalise his critics. As a result, Rwanda has repeatedly been categorised as not a free country by Freedom House.
This has led to independent and inter-governmental human rights organisations and representatives of developed countries that financially support Rwanda to publicly criticise his leadership for lack of political inclusion, human rights violations and the overall democracy deficit in Rwanda. This situation continues to tarnish Rwanda’s reputation that Kagame’s leadership has been working hard to restore.
Furthermore, independent reports on the development of democracy and governance throughout the world – and in Africa in particular – all point out that citizen participation in Rwanda remains limited, as do local NGOs.
Political participation in Rwanda is limited only to those who adhere or are willing to be affiliated to his political party, the RPF. This has prevented the emergence of a genuine opposition that could have provided checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda. The repercussions are that lack of accountability within public institutions is rampant and Kagame has many times publicly criticised officials in his administration for not delivering as they should. In fact, the pledge he made in 2000 to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy has not materialised and Rwanda remains a low-income country to date.
Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population. Hence, the economic gains made by Kagame’s administration can be challenged in many aspects as previously pointed out. For instance, substantial public funds have been invested in the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) sector while less has been allocated to education, agriculture, and rural infrastructure development. Thus, despite remarkable economic growth and a significant improvement in the human development index registered by Rwanda since 1994, these achievements are tarnished by high inequalities in income, health and education. Furthermore, they are characterised by economic injustices such as unfair land expropriation and the uprooting of farmers’ crops. Rwanda’s human capital development remains below the average for African countries due to a lack of quality education and high levels of malnutrition among children below five years. Only 41 per cent of households in Rwanda are considered to be substantially food secure. The private sector’s contribution to growth has remained small and growth is predominantly led by state-owned enterprises and those belonging to the ruling party. Overall, Rwandans have been consecutively ranked among the bottom five least happy populations on the global happiness index.
Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population.
Over the past three decades, curtailed civil liberties and mounting social inequalities have seen Rwandans seek refuge abroad and prevented from returning to their homeland those who had fled Rwanda after the RPF took power in 1994. This situation has exacerbated the issue of Rwandan refugees that has persisted since Rwanda’s independence.
In particular, under President Kagame, the unresolved issue of Rwandan refugees settled in Rwanda’s neighbouring countries has been a source of political tensions between Rwanda and its neighbours. The Rwandan government has maintained that there are negative forces resident in eastern DRC that are out to destabilise Rwanda, a reference to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is an armed group formed by Rwandan refugees in DRC who, following their forcible eviction from Rwanda during the genocide, resorted to armed struggle as a means of retaking power in Rwanda. Despite Rwanda’s armed forces launching military operations against the FDLR on numerous occasions on Congolese soil in collaboration with the Congolese army, the Rwandan government continues to insist that the FDLR is a threat to Rwanda’s security.
The United Nations has twice – in 2012 and 2022 – accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, an armed group that is fighting in the eastern DRC. This conflict has displaced populations and led to the death of millions of African civilian lives. In 2016, the UN Security Council accused Rwanda of recruiting and training Burundian refugees with the aim of ousting the then Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza. Western countries have suspended or withheld aid to Rwanda over allegations that it supported the M23 in 2012 and some of Rwanda’s donors have recently publicly called on the Rwandan government to stop supporting the M23 and remove its troops from eastern DRC. The European Union and United States of America have sanctioned Rwandan military officials for backing the M23. The US has placed Rwanda on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act List and suspended its military aid to the country due to Rwanda’s support of the M23, which the US says recruits and uses child soldiers. Not only do these allegations of Rwanda’s involvement in the regional conflict further tarnish the country’s image that Kagame’s administration has worked hard to restore, but the tensions with neighbouring states have also prevented Rwanda from maximising the benefits of regional integration and trade for its development.
President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive. To successfully implement such reforms in governance requires a new leadership with fresh perspectives and approaches that will be able to build on Kagame’s achievements in order to address unresolved historical grievances of Rwandans and at the same time enable Rwanda to maximise its potential in the region and experience genuine development.
President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive.
Considering Rwanda’s history of long-serving strongmen who have taken power, retained it and lost it through violence, the 2024 presidential election is an opportunity for Rwandans to experience the transfer of power in a peaceful and transparent manner as has been the case in neighbouring countries including Burundi, DRC and Tanzania. It is an opportunity for Rwanda to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions to take the lead instead. This can be achieved by building on the legislations that have been reviewed and implemented under Kagame’s leadership. Therefore, while recognising with gratitude the achievements that he has made over the past three decades, Kagame’s greatest achievement yet would be to step away from power at the end of his term in 2024. In so doing, Kagame will have paved the way for better leadership in Rwanda and opened the door to future generations of Rwandans aspiring to become leaders in Rwanda.
Why Kenyans Demanded an Apology from King Charles
The traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day, and this is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from King Charles.
Many British people are surprised that King Charles’s visit to Kenya was not welcomed by many Kenyans and human rights organisations. People whose families had suffered at the hands of British colonialists during his mother’s reign demanded an apology for crimes committed. Although the British monarch expressed “deepest regret” for the atrocities committed by the British in Kenya, he fell short of making a public apology.
However, many Brits believe that there is nothing the king needed to apologise for. One presenter on Sky News even wondered why Kenyans were calling for an apology from the king given that Britain had done much “good” in the country. After all, he said, without any hint of irony, the British Empire had brought democracy to Kenya (how he equated imperialism with democracy beats me) and given Kenyans “the gift of the English language”.
It was obvious that the presenter had been taught British imperial history that has whitewashed the atrocities that the British Empire committed in its colonies around the world. British children are to this day taught that British colonialism was a “civilising mission” that brought modern education and infrastructure, in addition to Christianity, to regions that were steeped in ignorance and backwardness. Apologists for the British Empire, such as the historian Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, argue that Britain should be congratulated for conquering the world because British civilisation brought science and technology to people who held superstitious beliefs, and injected a “work ethic” in populations that were lazy and lacking in imagination. This is sort of like saying that slave owners did slaves a favour by shipping them to the Americas and forcing them to work for free because these slaves are now US citizens and enjoy all that America has to offer (even though it took them four centuries to gain rights as equal citizens).
A few months ago, the editor of a German magazine contacted me to ask whether I could submit an article on the atrocities the British had committed in Kenya during colonialism. He told me that while his magazine had documented human rights violations by German and Belgian colonialists in places like Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it had largely ignored the violations committed by Britain in places like Kenya because the majority of Germans believe that British colonialism was not as brutal as that of other European powers, and that its net impact on its colonies in Africa had been positive. It dawned on me that perhaps Europeans are not being told the true story about colonialism and its horrific impact on Africans. So, here’s primer.
Erasure of memory
Kenya officially became a British colony in 1920, but prior to that, from 1895, it was deemed a “protectorate” – a term suggesting that the colonisers who grabbed the land were there to protect the interests of the “natives” who would benefit from being colonised. A widely held belief is that because Britain spearheaded the abolition of slavery, the British were “benevolent” colonisers, unlike the French and the Belgians who plundered and looted their African colonies. (In addition to extracting raw materials and exporting items such as ivory and rubber, the French and the Belgians also stole invaluable artefacts from their colonies in West and Central Africa, which today are displayed in museums across Europe, including in Britain, despite efforts by African governments to have these artefacts returned to where they were stolen from.)
Yet, those who care to join the dots between the anti-slavery movement and the colonisation of Africa are acutely aware of the fact that the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 (dubbed the “Scramble for Africa”) that carved up Africa among European nations, including Britain, took place just a few years after slavery ended. Because slavery was no longer legal and was costly to maintain, the only other way Europeans could extract cheap labour and highly profitable resources from Africa was by colonising the continent.
In order to justify colonisation in settler colonies like Kenya and Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia), it was necessary to erase evidence of atrocities committed by the Europeans. Many of these atrocities remained unacknowledged and unreported for decades because archival documents were either destroyed or deliberately concealed. British historian David M. Anderson, author of Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya, discovered that thousands of documents belonging to the British colonial administration were flown to London in 1963 on the eve of Kenya’s independence and remained hidden from the public for decades, despite attempts by successive post-independence Kenyan governments to have these “stolen papers” returned to Kenya.
The magnitude of these atrocities was finally revealed in 2005 when the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, was published. The book documents the many crimes that British colonial officers committed in Kenya in their relentless pursuit of wealth, land and power for themselves and in the name of the British Empire. Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.
The areas where these Mau Mau revolutionaries were arrested, detained, tortured or killed in the 1950s were in and around the Aberdares mountain range in Central Kenya where Queen Elizabeth, during an official visit to Kenya, ascended to the throne after the death of her father, King George VI, in February 1952. Eight months after she became Queen of England and head of the British Empire, a state of emergency was declared in Kenya that allowed the British Colonial Office to detain people without trial. Many freedom fighters languished in camps or jails where they were subjected to torture.
Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.
The Mau Mau rebellion was a reaction to the expropriation of some 7 million acres of the most fertile land in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley – dubbed the White Highlands – in the early part of the 20th century after the building of the Uganda Railway, which opened up the interior of East Africa for British colonisation and settlement. The indigenous population was pushed into so-called reserves while others became squatters on land that was once theirs, working for white farmers for very little wages.
Elkins estimates that between 160,000 and 320,000 detainees, mostly from the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu ethnic groups, were tortured or maimed by the British at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, although official figures state that the number of detainees was no more than 80,000. It is estimated that more than 20,000 Mau Mau militants were killed. Further, more than a million people, mainly in central Kenya, were detained in camps or confined in villages known as “reserves” (which have been described as “concentration camps”) surrounded by barbed wire. Tens of thousands of people held in these dense and unsanitary guarded camps and villages died from hunger or disease.
To justify these atrocities, British officials painted the Mau Mau as savage “terrorists” because of the violent and brutal methods they used to hunt down and kill white settlers and local informers. Official figures show that Mau Mau fighters killed 32 British settlers and 1,819 indigenous people whom they believed to be spies for the British.
Today what the British Empire did in Kenya might be perceived as a form of ethnic cleansing, but because colonisation was not unfashionable then, the atrocities were not condemned, nor was anyone tried. It was only in 2011, during a landmark court case brought against the British by a group of Mau Mau veterans, that the British government, under legal pressure, admitted that the documents were in a high-security facility that also contained files from 36 other former British colonies. (In 2013, 5,228 Mau Mau veterans were awarded £20 million in compensation by a UK court, which amounts to roughly £3,000 per victim, a paltry sum given the suffering they endured.) One of these documents contained details of eight colonial officers stationed in Kenya “roasting detainees alive”. All of the accused officers were granted amnesty.
Official amnesia and disinformation were not just part of a deliberate campaign by the British Empire to whitewash the crimes it committed in its colonies in Africa and elsewhere, but also a strategy employed by post-colonial governments in Kenya to cloak their own complicity in ensuring that British interests in the country were preserved.
Post-independence Kenyan elites benefitted from colonial policies that alienated Africans from their own land and became the biggest beneficiaries of post-independence land grabs disguised as land redistribution or adjudication. After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power. According to Kenya’s 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, “Rich businessmen and businesswomen, rich and powerful politicians who were loyal to the colonial administration, managed to acquire thousands of acres at the expense of the poor and the landless.” Hence, “instead of redressing land-related injustices perpetrated by the colonialists on Africans, the resettlement process created a privileged class of African elites, leaving those who had suffered land alienation either on tiny unproductive pieces of land or landless.” Even today in Kenya, members of freedom fighting movements like the Mau Mau remain landless and poverty-stricken while those who sided with the colonialists are among the richest people in the land.
After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power.
The Mau Mau remained a proscribed organisation for four decades after independence. It was only in 2003, when Mwai Kibaki became president, that the Mau Mau were recognised for the role they had played in Kenya’s struggle for independence. Kenyatta Day on 20 October was renamed Mashujaa Day (Heroes Day) to commemorate all those who died while fighting for freedom. In 2007, a statue of Dedan Kimathi was erected in Nairobi’s central business district, and in 2015, following the 2013 UK court decision to compensate Mau Mau veterans, the British government put up a Mau Mau memorial sculpture in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park “as a symbol of reconciliation between the British government, the Mau Mau and all those who suffered”.
Despite these symbols of reconciliation and healing, the traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day. This is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from the King – because the wounds have not yet healed. While a public apology might not have been enough to completely heal the wounds and traumas of the past, it would have been an important first step.
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