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Old Kenya dead, new uncontrollable

Thursday April 29 2021
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Baringo Senator and Kanu chairman Gideon Moi reads a statement after President Uhuru Kenyatta met with political party leaders at State House, Nairobi, on February 25, 2021. The meeting was attended by Mr Musalia Mudavadi (ANC), Mr Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper), Mr Raila Odinga (ODM), Mrs Charity Ngilu (Narc) and Mr Moses Wetang’ula (Ford Kenya). PSCU

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

My friend Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, former Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, is a popular figure with pan-Africanist public intellectuals and civil society types.

He is the kind of man they would like to see representing them on the world stage: very confident in his African skin, learned, witty, cosmopolitan, and globally minded.

When he stepped down in February and threw his hat in the murky Kenyan presidential ring, his fan club was thrown into disarray. I woke up the morning after he announced his intention, and my email inbox and WhatsApp were flooded by messages inquiring about his move. A few were ecstatic, saying he was just what the African gods ordered, and would bring glory.

Most were worried that he would be eaten alive, or how badly their hero would be smelling at the end of his fight for the presidency. This time, I was hesitant. There wasn’t much I could tell them about Mukhisa’s prospects, except that as baptism, he will be swallowed by the monster that is Kenyan politics, the only question being how he will emerge from its belly.

The uncertainty derives from the fact that Kenyan politics has never been more volatile. Nothing is certain. Nothing is impossible.

Today, President Uhuru Kenyatta is breaking bread with opposition doyen Raila Odinga, and tomorrow their fabled surprise alliance, born of the famed March 2018 Handshake, seems to be on rocks. Then the week after, they are hugging.

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They both slam Deputy President William Ruto, whose split with Uhuru seems irreversible, but then days down the road, the signs are that Raila and Ruto are exploring a political deal. And so, the twists go on, and on.

What is more certain is how we arrived at this volatility. There are major structural upheavals in Kenyan politics that are reaching some maturity.

The first is the shrinkage of Old Money and the clout of the Old Political Families that spawned it and dominated Kenyan power for decades. If Kenyan old money were the Catholic Church, the Kenyatta house would be the Vatican. And if it were America, the Odinga family would be its Kennedys.

Kenya today, however, is New Money country, and it is producing a different kind of political baron. Its wealth is not too tied to land, nor its politics steeped in nationalist history. It needs the living economy and the state (ministers’ and bureaucrats signatures, tenders, tax exemptions, and special licences) to prosper. For that reason, it’s more flexible and less dogmatic than Old Money, and will often invest in both sides of contending politicians – just in case. It results in too much fluidity.

The second one is what, for lack of a better expression, we shall call ideological realignment. The greatest uncertainty here comes from the progressive/left swath of Kenyan politics, which has been very stable. Generally, the most radical left politics formed around a small contingent in Central Kenya, and the bulk of it arose in the wider political western Kenya, with “Luoland” being the centre. In the middle of the two, a more moderate progressive tendency developed, and a kind of tripartite alliance generally known as progressives emerged. The Odingas, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga the father, and in later years the son Raila, were its patrons.

That progressive tripartite alliance has fractured. It was under pressure from the post-election violence (PEV) of 2007-2008, but tipped over with the Uhuru-Raila 2018 handshake.

The 2007-2008 period was definitive. The post-election violence in which at least 1,400 were killed and 600,000 displaced, led to an unusual moment in Kenyan politics in 2013. With Uhuru and Ruto, both accused at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of human rights violations during the PEV, running on a joint ticket, it turned into a moment of glory for Kenya right-wing intellectuals, who successfully weaponised nationalist pride and anti-imperialist sentiment to hand the duo an electoral triumph. The left and progressives, long dominant in the ideas space, were scattered but regrouped for the 2017 election behind Raila’s NASA, and a historic vindication in the Supreme Court decision which nullified the election of Uhuru.

Both the right and left/progressives in Kenya are either in retreat or at sea, grasping at straws. Their ability to shape public opinion and rally the country around causes and in certain directions is feeble. This comes at a time when mainstream media, disembowelled by digital disruptions and demographic changes, has lost a lot of its agenda-setting power.

There is democratic chaos now, with pop intellectuals – and quite a few scoundrels – on social media setting the agenda. The Kenyan digital universe is too hotly contested, extremely ever-changing, and fleeting. It shifts political narratives, and mobilises sentiment in an equally erratic fashion, lacking the predictability of old.

There are simply too many moving pieces in Kenyan politics as a result. The only thing we can be sure of is that sometime in September 2022, there will one man or woman left standing. Come to think of it, we can’t be sure about that either.