Uhuru ‘too young to go home narrative’ misses the point

President Uhuru Kenyatta at a past function.
Ahead of the expected retirement of President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Mt Kenya political bloc is testing the waters, with a view to changing terms of engagement over his succession.

A recent gathering of Mt Kenya MPs declared that since the region contributes 60 per cent of the national wealth, it must be included in any post-Kenyatta era settlement. If necessary, the constitution must be amended to do so.

The offering from Mt Kenya is of concern at many levels. First, the Mt Kenya region is repudiating the narrative about the tyranny of numbers.

Ahead of the 2013 election, Kenyatta’s ideologues asserted that a political coalition of the Mt Kenya and Kalenjin regions made an unassailable bulwark that would win the election for Jubilee and also allow the party hold power in perpetuity, with (the now Deputy President) William Ruto succeeding Kenyatta at the end of his term, and another candidate from the mountain region succeeding Ruto.

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The basis of the Mt Kenya claim to power in 2013 was numbers. The region asserted that their larger numbers would win the election for Jubilee and allow it to rule the country in perpetuity. The basis on which it is now proposed to renegotiate the Kenyatta succession is that their region is too wealthy to be left out. Since wealth relations do not easily change, they are inviting the rest of the country to accept a life of domination.

Second, while the claim as to the region’s contribution to national wealth remains unverified, it negates the basis of democracy which is numbers. This new claim is likely to evoke reaction from poorer areas which can argue that they are not prepared for perpetual political and economic domination only because of their poverty.

A logical counter-argument would be that if access to public power is to be predicated on wealth, then self-determination becomes an attractive option. Arguments about dividing up the country surfaced during the 2017 elections but were never resolved. These could be revived now.

The tyranny of numbers, Mt Kenya’s original explanation of Jubilee power, was shredded in the fresh election that was ordered after the Supreme Court annulled the initial 2017 presidential election. Circumstances transformed the fresh election into a referendum on Jubilee, as the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, had withdrawn from the election. The 38 per cent turnout exposed the lie in the tyranny of numbers claim.

It is clear that Mt Kenya legislators are floating in a trial balloon, hoping to gauge public reaction to the possibility of Uhuru somehow renewing himself in public office.

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Elsewhere in Africa, incumbents have affected disinterest after instigating efforts to extend their stay in power. Uhuru is doing the same. For him to stay on after he retires, it would most probably require an amendment to the constitution and the co-optation of sections of the power elite who are currently jostling to replace him.

The demand from Mt Kenya implies that Kenyatta could ditch Ruto and seek validation elsewhere, most likely from Raila. If such an arrangement succeeds, it would constitute a privatisation of public power and an acceptance that the Mt Kenya region has an overriding claim over the territory called Kenya.

Once the country adopted a constitution with presidential term limits, it settled the question of how long any President could serve and removed the kind of anxiety that is inherent in the proposals from the Mt Kenya region. One of the arguments made for a Kenyatta post-retirement is that he is too young to go home; that he should be allowed time to complete his legacy; and, of course, that the interests of the Mt Kenya region are unique and require special protection.

The book Legacies of Power collects essays on the post-retirement roles by a number of African presidents, covering Kenya, South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania and Ghana, among others. Retired presidents have had vastly different experiences after office, ranging from Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings who retired at 54 and often got his knickers in a twist, to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela who had a charmed post-presidential life, while his charity work also uplifted millions among the underprivileged.

Uhuru has lived a life of extreme privilege. The son of a President, he has also increased his already considerable wealth since coming to power. The motivation for looking out for Uhuru is a feeling that Kenya owes him. This cannot be the truth. On the contrary, Uhuru might consider that his privileges constitute a debt to the country. A debt to give back. 

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Even though he had already sacrificed so much during his earlier life, Mandela spent his retirement years giving back to society. Thinking that Uhuru’s only use to Kenya and humanity is through formal public office is lazy and unimaginative. Kenyatta is too young and too rich to consider that he cannot find a role without bothering the country to fit him in again.

- The writer is Executive Director at KHRC. [email protected]

President Uhuru KenyattaMt Kenya MPsPolitics