Why ‘chief minister’ role a double-edged sword for Matiang’i

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i
Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i has been demoted, not promoted. His appointment as the ‘Chief minister’ may be a bureaucratic elevation, but it is a political downgrade. Allow me to explain.

As a civil servant, Dr Matiang’i has been given the authority to practice leadership at a wider scope, and get more things done. Which is good. But as a potential national politician, Matiang’i has just been given burdens. And his burdens are threefold. 

His first burden: jealous ministers and other powerful enemies. Matiang’’i has been given the uncomfortable position of the ‘first amongst equals’. As the new police of his peers, or ‘the chosen one’ he faces a demotion in popularity and becomes open to sabotage. His second burden: workload. Unlike the amorphous de facto position that Opposition chief Raila Odinga currently enjoys, Matiangi’s new job is less about ceremony, status or prestige and more about performance. With the new appointment, Matiang’i is about to have as little sleep as a new parent with colicky triplets. On top of his higher workload comes the increased allocation of blame when things go wrong. The buck stops with him. He is now the ‘chief blame bearer’. But of course when things do work out well, all credit is to the President; after all a minister must never outshine his master! 

His third burden is that of history. Former presidents have had favorite ministers who got things done. Moi had the likes of George Saitoti and Nicholas Biwott. Kibaki had the likes of Amos Kimunya. Although these ministers got recognition and special assignments, they never rose beyond their stations as servants of the President. This is the fate of the most hardworking animal, the faithful donkey.

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A good, strong donkey is always given a heavier load than the rest. But even when he is made chairperson of the other donkeys, he still remains a donkey. The perennial servants in the history of ministers were always picked like hot cake to serve the presidents intentions, but dropped like hot potatoes when they had served that purpose.

Matiangi’s appointment as ‘Chief minister’ is about Uhuru’s legacy, not the President’s succession. Uhuru is desperate for results. He is streamlining his government to salvage lost time and have something to show for his time in office. He needs a Matiang’i to do just that. Like a headteacher in a school, Uhuru Kenyatta has selected his best prefect and made him the headboy. It is illogical to think that the headboy is being primed to take over as a teacher, let alone a headteacher. He is still a prefect and a student. He has neither the training nor the experience of running a school. In this case, Matiang’i has neither the political capital nor the capacity for electoral mobilisation. At least not enough to significantly alter the 2022 power constellation.  

If the President’s true intention had been to elevate Matiang’i politically for 2022, he would have gone about it very differently. He would have been less obvious about it. When it comes to fielding preferred successors, open praise, recognition and appointments always have the opposite effect. They are a recipe for disaster and rejection. This is what happened to Uhuru himself in 2002. Finally, I believe the President is enjoying this storm in the Jubilee teacup. In making sudden and radical administrative changes, Uhuru is employing the tactic of ‘creative chaos’. Creative chaos is an offensive strategy meant to confuse the political landscape. Uhuru is asserting power and confusing the ranks. Every once in a while, he must remind people who is boss, especially since the preoccupation for 2022 is overshadowing his presidency. In his second term, Uhuru has been like a person whose will is being read, while he is very much alive and sitting in the room. To shake things up this time, he has given Matiang’i a demotion, disguised as a promotion.  

- The writer is a PhD candidate in political economy at SMC University. [email protected]

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Fred Matiang’iChief ministerPresident Uhuru Kenyatta