To continue the story last week, every smart country has to be interested in what is happening in its neighbour’s territory – especially during elections. Whether it’s true or not that Uganda has cast its lot with Kenya’s Deputy Vice President William Ruto, it needs a posture that doesn’t leave it exposed at the end of the country’s 2022 vote.
Despite the two countries’ similarities, power couldn’t be more differently dispersed than it is in Uganda and Kenya.
Where President Yoweri Museveni’s power is law, in Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta has a hundred constraints. The president has his power. In recent years, governors of devolved counties have also emerged as powerful figures, and the president just can’t go into a county and have his way. There are also regional overlords in Kenyan politics. There are places during campaigns where these forces can prevent a president from campaigning freely. Imagine a local leader preventing Museveni from campaigning in Kanungu or Gulu.
And Kenya’s courts are the most independent, if not the most unpredictable, on the continent. Whereas in most places on the continent the government goes to the Supreme Court or Constitutional Court as the favourite to win, in Kenya it’s most likely to lose – and in reality, it has lost nearly 90 per cent of the time.
Then, moneyed people do have more power in Kenya in ways Ugandan capitalists cannot dream of. Nearly all political alliances, and negotiated settlements out of political crises, have been hammered out in some Kenyan oligarch’s sitting rooms.
A lot of this is possible for several reasons. Kenya, unlike its neighbours, has had a long relatively unbroken near-free market economy. With Tanzania, it escaped military rule and civil war. It has the longest period of democratic and non-violent activism and grassroots organisation by the opposition and churches, and a cosmopolitan and large urban population that started growing right from the period of colonial land grabs that displaced many natives for who the towns and city became their village.
Since 2010, parties in Kenya also won the right to get state funding when they meet a certain threshold, and it’s something that is done as a technical bureaucratic process without interference from the government. To figure how different that is, imagine in Uganda the Treasury wiring Sh1 billion to the account of Bobi Wine’s National Unity Party (NUP) and State House can’t stop it.
Then there are near-autonomous state institutions in Kenya, including an apolitical military, and a public service that is entrenched and their interests are often different than that of the government of the day. It’s been so for a while.
Consider the case of Ugandan journalist Kiwanuka Lawrence Nsereko who in May 1995 fled to Kenya.
In “Hounded: African Journalists in Exile”, edited by veteran journalist Joseph Odindo, he tells the story of his last days in Kenya before he left for the US:
“My original plan was to settle in Nairobi and set up a monthly newsmagazine to be distributed back home. But that plan was discarded when Kenyan security arrested Ugandan intelligence officers who had been sent to track me down in Nairobi.
“The arrests raised tension between the two countries, making it difficult for the Kenyans to continue protecting me. I met the then powerful minister, Nicholas Biwott, in the suburbs of Nairobi. He advised me to leave as my safety could not be guaranteed.
“Apparently, some elements in the Kenyan government were considering trading me for ‘Brigadier’ John Odongo, leader of a shadowy Uganda-based rebel movement February Eighteenth Revolutionary Army (FERA), which was working to topple Daniel arap Moi. Biwott suggested I go to Australia, where he claimed to have relatives. To this day I have not understood why Biwott was so kind and concerned about me, quite in contrast with his image as a ruthless politician.
“For the three months I was in Kenya, I was shuttled between safe houses and moved from one church facility to another. I would stay in a slum one day, and in the next, I would be in a posh mansion in Muthaiga…Just before I was moved to a location near Garissa, some 360 kilometres east of Nairobi. I finally flew out to the United States on August 22, 1995, to begin life as a political exile”.
Nsereko’s story, tells you how distributed power and interests in Kenya can be. You can place a bet on Kenyan politics, sure, but unlike Uganda, these days you have to put your eggs in at least three baskets because you can’t be sure how an election alliance will form any more, and what will happen to the government that emerges after the vote.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.