What Uhuru’s farewell rounds tell us about Kenya and Africa

Thursday July 28 2022
Uhuru pic

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta delivers a speech during the memorial service for former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi on April 29, 2022.

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, is doing the farewell rounds. His term will end sometime after the August 9 elections.

With his departure, the formal government of his Jubilee party will end. Jubilee has been folded into the Azimio la Umoja coalition with former Prime Minister and presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement. His deputy William Ruto, who is running neck and neck with Raila for the presidential vote, went his separate way with the United Democratic Alliance (UDA). And with that, a tradition established in Kenyan politics after 1997 held up; no political coalition has remained exactly the same through more than one election cycle.

Kenyatta’s farewell is different in that the formal and ritualised way he’s doing it is something that hardly any of the few African leaders who left power when their term was up or they were defeated by the opposition have done.

Not surprisingly, it has caught the attention of “African Twitter”, with some people asking jokingly about what strange thing it is.

There is a good reason for it. Since 1958, if you add run-offs and polls during Apartheid in South Africa, the data I could find indicates that there have been nearly 700 elections in Africa. Of that 700, the number that has been free or sort-of-free is about only 80.

The most common quasi-democratic or democratic change of leadership in Africa, especially in recent years, happens within ruling parties when an ailing incumbent dies in his sleep (Bingu wa Mutharika in Malawi in 2012) or steps down (recently deceased José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola in 2017); when a long-ruling leader who seems to be losing his mind is ousted in a political coup (Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2017); or hits the constitutional or party term limit (as we have seen in Tanzania and Botswana since 1985).

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Otherwise, if you remove the democratic flavour, more leaders have been changed in Africa through coups and rebellion (the bullet), than through the democratic ballot. The first ever military coup in Africa took place in Egypt in July 1952, with the ouster of King Farouk by the “Free Officers Movement”, a group of army officers led by Mohammed Naguib and our man Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Since then, Africa has seen 214 coup attempts, with 106 of them successful. Needless to say, most of the leaders ejected through coups didn’t go home to collect their pensions and wait to die of old age. They were not allowed the luxury.

The number of times that the opposition defeated the sitting president or incumbent party in a free vote and there was a transfer of power to the opposition victor is about 30. Therefore, in 64 years, only 4.29 per cent of the elections in Africa have ended in a defeat for the incumbent or his/her party, and even fewer have witnessed the farewell rituals Kenyatta is undertaking.

Additionally, those opposition victories and transitions have happened in narrow strips in the island states in eastern Africa (like Seychelles) and western and central Africa (Cape Verde); in the middle of Southern Africa (Malawi and Zambia); a few spots in western Africa, isolated Kenya in the East African Community, and lately in the Somalilands.

North Africa has endured a democratic drought for ages, and after Tunisia briefly deceived us after the 2011 Arab Spring wave, it has reverted to type with relapsed pretender-democrat Kais Saied again, turning the screws on the country.

The experience of a president stepping down when he is not walking with a cane, cutting farewell cakes, and leaving State House for someone who is not the ruling party’s candidate is therefore still outside the direct lived experience of the majority of Africans. It’s something they see on TV and read about in the press.

It makes perfect sense for them to ask, “what strange thing is that?”

Is it worth anything? Is Kenya better off than other countries that have a different political tradition? As often happens, the best answer came from a cab driver.

On Monday, I got an Uber ride with a driver who might well have been a professor of political science. Very articulate and thoughtful chap.

We got to discussing the forthcoming election and Kenyatta’s farewell activities. He is disillusioned with Kenyan politics and thinks the election will bring in mostly “another set of crooks”. Still, he plans to be first in line, vote, and then get to work early.

He told me electing a crook is better than having one imposed by force. It gives citizens some sense of power. It is like someone committing suicide having the freedom to choose how they go out.

If the newly elected leader turns out to be hopeless, then you feel you made a mistake. If you didn’t elect him, you would feel that you have been befallen by misfortune. He would instead feel he had made a mistake than the victim of ill fate.

He has mixed feelings about Kenyatta, but he’s thankful that like Kibaki before him, he has given him that gift.