Veteran opposition figure Raila Odinga of Kenya took the oath of office as the self-described “people’s president” at the end of January 2018, only three months after he boycotted a rerun election that was called after the courts invalidated the previous vote in August.
Odinga had vowed to host a duplicate inauguration event for himself after incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta had been legitimately re-elected. He later tried to back out of the plan but was persuaded to go through with it by the younger and more militant fringe of his coalition. Even yet, he was unable to bring himself to take the constitutionally required pledge. He appeared to be aware of his limitations and refused to go any further.
That incident succinctly demonstrates one of Kenya’s present issues and the reason why many Kenyans find the ongoing conflict between Odinga and Kenyatta’s successor, his former deputy and BFF-turned-foe William Ruto, so deeply upsetting and terrifying.
In Kenya, elite conflicts over positions of authority and possibilities for exploitation have generally followed a logical pattern; in Joe Kobuthi’s words from The Elephant, “unwritten rules of engagement govern their game of thrones.”
Politicians and ordinary Kenyans who must put up with their violent predation are both aware of the locations of the red lines that set boundaries for how far they can go. To prevent the entire system from imploding, the elite that dominates Kenya through a series of crises that are each stoked in an effort to secure a seat at the dinner table needed such regulations. The amorality – and even immorality – of [Kenyan] politicians, which, according to Charles Obbo in The EastAfrican, “has helped them avoid civil wars and the do-or-die politics that have destroyed many an African country,” is a result of these norms.
For instance, the opposition has successfully demanded reform and a share of the spoils from stubborn administrations through street protests. This strategy aims to make the state overreact, which would eventually cast it as the enemy of democracy and constitutionalism. It also aims to show that the public supports the opposition’s cause. The state is eager to repeatedly play the role of the distributor of colonial horror in an effort to remind the locals of their position, and it nearly always succeeds.
The politicians reach an agreement before things get out of hand after times of fierce conflict during which death, maiming, and devastation on a scale acceptable to the elite occur. Internal disputes [among elites], which frequently resulted in sporadic violence in the nation, were resolved through elite “handshakes,” which were effectively boardroom agreements, as Kobuthi observes.
The independence generation of lawmakers has since exited the political scene, but their successors have lately come across as less inclined to play by the rules. And this is the main source of anxiety around the ongoing protests and the government’s response. Although it may appear to be the typical intra-elite power struggle, it is actually a subversion of the game in many ways.
On the other hand, the state’s response to the demonstrations also suggests that the rules are changing. Prior to now, elites had mostly refrained from attacking each other physically and instead opted to settle their conflicts over the bodies and property of ordinary Kenyans. For instance, a cabinet member was captured on camera in July 2008 during a heated debate encouraging an opposing MP to “bring his people” for an all-out war to settle the matter, implying that his group had previously massacred between 600 and 1,000 of them.
In light of that, Ruto’s aggression against demonstrators has a darker and more evil tint. His administration has so far displayed exceptional caution when compared to prior governments, despite being elected on a populist platform of making Kenya work for its poorest citizens. Maybe that was just a result of how little traction the early protests got. But it was expected that a crackdown would occur as they evolved into a platform for expressing far more broadly held concerns about the cost of life. But when it came, many were taken aback by its intensity and violence.
Ruto flooded the streets of the nation’s capital and other large cities with police, seemingly freed from all control, encouraged by his own lunatic fringe, which includes his deputy, Rigathi Gachagua, and individuals like Cabinet Minister Moses Kuria, whom even Americans appear to consider too extreme. Tear gas was used on families and children, demonstrators and bystanders were shot at and abused, opposition bloggers among the hundreds of people detained, and many opposition MPs have gone into hiding.
Nobody, including Ruto and his gang of outlaws, is certain of the extent of his willingness to compromise. Neither the chest-thumping dictatorship nor the shell-shocked opposition appear to have much room for or interest in a settlement. The possibility of the Daniel Moi dictatorship returning is being feared more and more, despite the efforts of his successors, which many people believed had made it less likely.
The protests this week have been canceled by Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja coalition, but Kenyans are still waiting to learn what the new red lines and ground rules would be.