It would be disingenuous to say Kenyans did not fret over what would happen on January 30, 2018, when Raila Odinga was set to be sworn in as the ‘people’s president’. The Government had made it clear that whatever the Opposition was contemplating was an illegality, a treasonable act, and banned any gathering at Uhuru Park. Grounds for a bloody showdown had been laid. The post-August 2017 election period descended into a time of mourning, sorrow, fear, and despondency.
Opposition supporters disputing the August 8, 2017 electoral outcome engaged the police in running battles in parts of the country, battles that claimed the lives of a baby, a minor, and a number of adults. In an estate in Nairobi, matters took on an ethnic tangent and members of a certain community were killed by unknown people, while a hard-working woman trying to earn her daily bread was raped inside her business premises.
Many people dreaded the possible outbreak of violence on January 30, particularly in Nairobi. Mercifully, that did not happen, thanks to some sober mind somewhere in the lair of government. The Nairobi County police boss had the previous day promised fire and brimstone to anybody who dared defy police orders to keep away from Uhuru Park.
At the very last possible moment, the police were ordered to stay away from the venue. That was a master stroke, one of the very few to come out of a government inundated by political jokes, praise singers, and excitable fellows unconcerned with the good health of Kenya.
That done, the Government did not only take the steam out of a fired Opposition, it sullied the latter’s plans by taking out several rungs from the ladder on which the Opposition had carefully calculated to ascend. With that momentary gain, the Government could have taken advantage of the chinks in NASA’s leadership over the swearing-in to tactfully drive the Opposition into irrelevance, but it did not.
Jubilee mandarins being blunder-prone, what transpired afterwards was ample proof that the decision to keep the police on a leash was arrived at in a rare moment of lucidity.
Somebody else might have thought granting quarters to the Opposition was a show of weakness. To reassert the Government’s authority, it hit out in all directions, gave the media a black eye, incarcerated vocal Opposition leaders, and gave the Judiciary the finger.
A number of diehard Jubilee supporters have since berated President Kenyatta for not having acted decisively and firmly. Some argue Uhuru should have ordered the police to arrest Raila Odinga immediately after taking the oath. There are those of the opinion that any unrest following a ‘Raila arrest’ would be fleeting and inconsequential.
That may sound romantic and macho, only that it is not. For argument’s sake, imagine Mombasa, Machakos, Nairobi, Kisumu, and Kakamega, where the Opposition enjoys immense support, flaring up and the Al Shabaab miscreants operating with impunity along our border with Somalia taking advantage of the melee.
Would our security services cope? How long would it take to quell the riots, and at what cost? What guarantee do we have our security services would remain apolitical?
Africa’s leadership history is replete with dictators who ended up losers. They allowed themselves to be drawn into situations where they used brawn rather than brains. While the elite around Uhuru and Raila engage in brinkmanship, it is that lowly apolitical Luhya in Kiambu, the Luo in Murang’a, and the Kikuyu in Kisumu who bear the brunt of mediocrity in a leadership that serves selfish interests.
Economic mismanagement and abuse of power got Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ali, even as he believed his position was unassailable, ejected in 2011 after the Arab Spring gathered momentum. Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast lost an election to Alassane Quattara, chose to stay put, acted tough, and was overthrown and taken into custody from a bunker where he had been cowering for days in 2011.
Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso believed he was strong enough to suppress the anger of his people, but had to flee like a common thief when, in 2014, the public bayed for his blood. Adama Barrow of the Gambia trounced Yahya Jammeh in an election, but the latter refused to hand over power. Jammeh is in exile today.
It happened to Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko. Hosni Mubarak came out of prison after six years in 2017. Charles Taylor is gracing prison cells.
There is the 1955 Rosa Parks incident in the USA to learn from. Had the Montgomery Bus Company not initiated Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, perhaps the segregation laws in Alabama State would not have collapsed under the 381-day blacks boycott of the bus company. These incidents serve to demonstrate where real power lies while emphasising that executive power is transitory. Nelson Mandela did not lock up Mangosuthu Buthelezi to deflate him.
Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard. [email protected]