Full military uniform on elected leader sends the wrong message

Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta is by virtue of being the Head of State, the Commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces. That’s what Section 131 (1) (c) of the 2010 Constitution says in black and white. But the commander-in-chief isn’t a military rank in a civilian democracy. In the nomenclature, it’s not a promotion from a field marshal or a general. Rather, the commander-in-chief in a political democracy denotes the submission of the military to civilian authority. Put differently, the democratically elected head of state superintends the military on behalf of the voters. The citizenry controls the military through him. That’s why Mr Kenyatta was wrong to don full military regalia on Jamhuri Day. Let me break it down.

The Constitution isn’t confused about the source of authority in Kenya. It’s crystal that clear all sovereignty resides in the people. It’s not invested in leaders, state institutions, or in the security or armed forces. No – Kenya is a civilian democracy in which duly elected leaders are empowered by the people to govern. The military is the people’s servant. The military serves at the direction of the civilian authority invested in the natural person and the office of the president and head of state. The military answers to the head of state not because he is a military officer, but because the people have given him command over the military as a civilian leader. It’s an open and shut case.

I have a theory

Nowhere in the Constitution is the office of commander-in-chief constructed as a military rank. Nor does the Constitution even imagine, or contemplate, that the head of state is a military officer in the chain of duty command. To be sure, an elected president can be a retired military officer. But that’s an entirely different matter. Until recently, most American presidents had served in the military, but that wasn’t the source of their control of the US armed forces. It was their position as the top elected American that bestowed upon them their command over the military. In America, or Kenya, the president can fire a military leader as the civilian commander-in-chief. A conflation of the two isn’t even possible.

So why did – and does – Kenyatta on occasion wear military gear? Let me be clear. I have no objection if Kenyatta wears a jacket inscribed “Commander-in-Chief” for particular state functions. But I go into paroxysms every time I see him in full military command, or combat, gear. In Africa, this is a particularly unnerving sight. Thank goodness Kenyatta has had the good sense not to don dark sunglasses with the military gear. I thank him for avoiding the iconic military dictator look invented by the likes of Manuel Noriega, Muamar Gadhafi, Mobutu Sese Seko, Samuel Doe, and Augusto Pinochet. That signature image of a Third World banana republic tin pot dictator lives in infamy. 

I have a theory. Kenyatta has “won” two elections. In both cases, Kenyatta’s electoral legitimacy – and legality – were deeply contested by NASA’s Raila Odinga. In 2013, the Supreme Court upheld his election in a much lampooned opinion. In 2017, his election was nullified by the Supreme Court. In the repeat election, he ran essentially against himself – unopposed – when Raila and NASA pulled out citing electoral shenanigans. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to divine Kenyatta’s electoral illegitimacy. That’s why the March 9 handshake with his erstwhile nemesis Raila was a golden coup. The handshake – which I fully support – has settled the country. More importantly, it has conferred legitimacy on Kenyatta. Jamhuri Day was the first national opportunity for Kenyatta to stamp his full authority as Kenya’s head of state after the March 9 handshake. The scion of the Burning Spear didn’t miss the occasion. Seated at the dais were his once-fierce NASA opponents. The whole NASA top brigade – Raila, the top gun, and Kalonzo Musyoka, his running mate, Musalia Mudavadi, and Moses Wetang’ula. That’s the best holiday gift Raila could have given Kenyatta. It was in front of this NASA core that Kenyatta strode in wearing his most colourful Commander-in-Chief military regalia. The statement was clear – Kenyatta and NASA jointly told Kenyans that he was Kenya’s legitimate leader. It was icing on the cake.

Methinks military dress on the person of an elected leader sends the wrong message. It beckons the military to think its officers are superior to their civilian leader. It doesn’t matter even as some have argued the military uniform “looks nice” or was just “good fun.” Those are silly, simple, and uneducated arguments. There’s powerful symbolism in the use of the tools and instruments of repression and violence – and the military uniform ranks up there. I beseech the son of Jomo to drop the act.

- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua

Uhuru Muigai KenyattaCommander-in-Chief2010 Constitution