‘President Raila’ and how the power of bad examples has East Africa in a pickle

Thursday February 1 2018

Daniel K. Kalinaki

Daniel K. Kalinaki  

By Daniel K Kalinaki

A very good Kenyan friend approached me in Nairobi sometime in June 2016 and said, half in jest, that after failing to get rid of Museveni, Ugandans had cleverly decided to have a second president.
Opposition leader Kizza Besigye had recently sworn himself in as “the people’s president” and had been promptly hauled off to jail, charged with treason. We had a brief discussion in which we examined Ugandan politics such as a curiosity, the way a scientist examines an insect in a specimen jar. I argued, unsuccessfully, that part of the problem was the way we studied political trends in each country without attempting to locate it in a wider space and time quantum.
I spoke to my friend on Tuesday night, a few hours after veteran politician Raila Amolo Odinga swore himself in as “the people’s president” in Kenya. Being a mature person, loyal and sensitive to my friend’s feelings, I took the opportunity to laugh long and hard at how quickly the tables had turned.
Yet it was merely gallows humour. The developments in Kenya reflect growing exposure of the weakness of the institutional edifice on which we have attempted to build and practice democratic rituals – and how this is increasingly giving succor to a revisionist approach to the whole notion of nationalism and nationhood.
The political crisis in Kenya has resurrected long-standing secessionist tendencies at the coast and sparked new ones in opposition-leaning ethnic enclaves, mostly in western Kenya.
We shall return to this nationalism thing. But to see how Kenya, of all countries, came to this point, we need to go back to the turn of the millennium. If someone had come to you in January 2002 and said Liberia would in 15 years be politically more stable than Kenya you would have politely patted them on the head and shared the telephone number of a good psychiatrist.
Kenya had just gone through a peaceful election that brought the curtains down on the ‘Moi Error’ while Liberia was in the throes of a brutal civil war. Yet last month, George Weah was elected undisputed leader of a peaceful and united Liberia while Kenya is enmeshed in a power struggle.
In fact, zoom out and a striking picture emerges over the continent, of a cluster of countries in West and Southern Africa that, while not entirely out of the woods yet, have turned the political corner in the last decade or so: Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, as well as Angola, Zimbabwe, and even Nigeria.
A plausible theory is the power of example and the influence of regional power plays. In West Africa, a combination of Ecowas’ willingness to intervene and the example served up by Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and others has made it difficult for power grabs, as in Burkina Faso and created regional momentum for progressives.
A similar thing can be seen in Southern Africa where Pretoria, despite Jacob Zuma, and SADC have remained anchors, with the likes of Namibia, Botswana offering examples. This is why the coup in Zimbabwe had to be dressed up as a resignation.
East Africa, on the other hand, seems to be regressing as Kenya’s example shows, along with South Sudan, DR Congo, Burundi and even Tanzania where glimpses of autocracy have emerged. Here a mismatch is apparent. The two countries that have enjoyed the longest spells of relative stability, Kenya and Tanzania, have been unwilling to cultivate or enforce a common set of values beyond their borders. Yet those that are most willing to intervene abroad or in the region, like Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia, do not have democratic cultures and traditions to export.
Pan Africanism provides an opportunity for African state and nation builders to build a new political culture around shared values and democratic traditions and allow disparate interest groups to find and create new identities beyond state borders.
Because this requires a re-examination of the limits of sovereignty, it is only common sense that those who seek to reshape power arrangements abroad either do so with clean hands at home in order to provide an example worth living up to, or do so with sheer brute force as conquerors.
In a nutshell, therefore, Kenya’s current political pickle might be built on internal contradictions and power arrangements but its response to those contradictions, both by the government and the opposition, is informed by the indifference and worst-habits of the neighbourhood.
Thus Raila swore himself in because Besigye did, and the government switched off TV stations and outlawed his organisation because Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan all have done the same, and worse.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. [email protected]
Twitter: @Kalinaki.