Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Kenyatta’s weakness exposed in his attacks on the judiciary

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses Governors and Members of County Assembly at the State House in Nairobi on Saturday. PHOTO|FILE 

By Emmanuel Kisumo

Dodoma. The Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta seems to be a bitter, angry man following the nullification of the presidential election results by the Supreme Court on Friday.

Definitely the court’s decision in a vote of 4 to 2 ‘shocked’ the region as it was unexpected and unusual for an African court to nullify a presidential election. The court ordered another election in 60 days.

But President Kenyatta made his anger publicly known. Soon after the court decision he launched into a furious tirade against the judges who ruled against his electoral victory, at times even questioning the constitutional arrangement that gives the Supreme Court the final say in election disputes.

After initially saying he disagreed with the court’s decision but respected it, President Kenyatta went on and called them “crooks”, claiming that the four judges went against the wishes of millions of Kenyans. And then he issued threats saying the judges “should know that they are no longer dealing with the president-elect but the serving president” as if in this case the distinction between the two is of any practical significance. Back in 2013 when the Supreme Court made a unanimous decision to uphold his controversial electoral victory which he had secured by the smallest of margins possible, his arch rival, Raila Odinga accepted the court’s ruling graciously, wishing the president-elect the best in his task of leading Kenya.

Mr Odinga fully comprehended the enormity of going back to the streets few years after Kenya suffered its worst post-election violence. He understood how important his words would be to millions of his supporters and the unity of a bitterly divided country.

Kenya was spared the worst in terms of post-election violence in 2013 courtesy of the courts be they local or international; each with its own mandate and a role to play in stabilizing a country on edge, as some of the leading political figures were then accused of fuelling the post-election violence along ethnic lines.

President Kenyatta’s attacks on the judiciary is ill-advised. He should stop his attacks on the judiciary and the judges because his country requires him to provide leadership at this critical moment and his words and conduct are important in post-election stability especially if he goes to lose that election. The court’s decision is a litmus test to the rest of the region and the continent in their pursuit of political inclusion. As things stand, multiparty politics in the region has fared better in his country compared to the rest of its neighbours where political space is squeezed, intentions of running against a sitting president (among other reasons) has sent another country to civil war; in another neighbour controversial elections plunged the country into continued violence to this day, while in another neighbouring coutnry despite what appears to be a different way of organizing competitive politics, critics are not convinced that that country is democratic.

That despite all countries in East Africa (EAC members) having imperfect democracies, Kenya is seen as “democratic” and its neighbours are seen to be inclined towards dictatorships of varying degrees. Part of the reason for this is political tolerance in Kenya and that it is the only country in the region to elect an opposition candidate to the presidency. Toppling a well established ruling party (Kanu) from power and such momentous decision did not lead to bloodshed in Kenya as power was transferred peacefully.

The role played by the courts is another part to the Kenyan democratic story. They are seen as impartial. That they cannot be swayed by those in power or their opponents but the power of their legal arguments. President Kenyatta had no reservation before about the Supreme Court. That is what makes his attacks against them now so tasteless and offensive.

These attacks weaken him and his re-election bid and threaten to return his country back to the precipice. To his supporters these statements can be taken to mean that their victory was ‘stolen” by the courts, putting Kenya on the slippery slope affecting any attempts at electoral and extensive legal reforms across the region as well as offering justification for those in power to keep at bay any efforts of opening up political spaces in their countries.

President Kenyatta has said he is ready to go back to the campaign trail and is sure to defeat his political rival once again. He should focus his message there and not expend his energy attacking the judiciary.