Matiangi shouldn’t have overreacted to Raila’s oath of office

President Uhuru Kenyatta. [Photo: Courtesy]

It is an understatement to say that CS Fred Matiang’i overreacted to the mock swearing-in of Raila Odinga as “The People’s President.” Raila’s ‘swearing-in’ was a political statement, intended to please his political base and to further dent the legitimacy of President Uhuru Kenyatta. The Constitution of Kenya does not provide for the position of “The People’s President.” What Raila did is not a treasonable offence. Yet the government reacted by switching off TV stations indefinitely, declaring the National Resistance Movement (NRM) a criminal organisation, and promising to arrest and prosecute a number of politicians and journalists. The government’s reaction is misguided for three main reasons.

First, it unnecessarily creates a storm in a tea cup. By escalating the political confrontation to include the restriction of media freedom and free speech, Dr Matiang’i is contributing to the erosion of the Bill of Rights. The best way to deal with Raila’s ‘swearing-in’ would have been to ignore it, and craft a response. But by lashing out, Matiang’i is fanning the flames and cementing the image of Kenyatta as a fickle incumbent who is perennially insecure about his legitimacy. Let us not mince words. Banning the NRM comes very close to banning the leading Opposition party. If indeed the NRM is a criminal gang, let Matiang’i show us the evidence.

Second, the resulting political confrontation will undoubtedly distract the administration from achieving Kenyatta’s stated goals for his second term – including the Big Four agenda. How do they plan to achieve this when international news outlets run stories of a government that shutters its three biggest private TV stations with wanton abandon? Any thinking investor knows that a government that engages in such brazen actions without much thought is a government that cannot be trusted to honour contracts, or to provide an enabling business environment.

Finally, the harshness with which Kenyatta treats NASA and the media will come back to haunt the leading lights within Jubilee. The fact of the matter is that the existence of Opposition is a source of power for the rank and file within Jubilee. The pugilist skills of Messrs Aden Duale and Kimani Wamatangi are only valuable because there is a need to balance the likes of TJ Kajwang and Miguna Miguna. Absent the Opposition, the Jubilee leadership will no longer need the services of their loyal foot soldiers.

Changes in the intra-elite balance of power within Jubilee as a result of the erosion of rule of law will have implications for succession politics. Suddenly, the William Ruto wing will be rendered powerless by a CS of Interior willing to jail anyone who refuses to toe the party line. And in the same vein, Kenyatta’s supporters may find themselves robbed of their bargaining power should Ruto manage to capture the services of Matiang’i. No matter how you look at it, the government’s overreaction to Raila’s ‘swearing-in’ is colossal mistake that will cost us dearly. The one silver lining from all of this is that our media houses may have finally learned their lesson.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. Twitter: @kopalo