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Africa’s dictators looking at Trump missteps and smiling

By Maina Kiai | October 6th 2019

The internet has made it possible that we get news from across the world in real time and wherever we are. But nothing beats being in the country where it is all happening as it happens, for perspective.

It is one thing to follow news of Donald Trump (pictured) and his antics from afar, and another to see it up close, as I do currently from Washington DC. It is even far scarier as one flips through TV channels and reads newspapers.

Being in the US gives a front row seat to the efforts to create an autocracy out of a system with historical checks and balances and limited presidential powers.

To watch a regime pushing backwards against a system that has endured for 200 years, with the foundation being that those in power, at least at the federal level, always act in the best interests of the people, not their own. Trump is turning those assumptions upside down, and fast. The most recent scandal, now subject to impeachment proceedings, must make our African dictators smile. The US has historically believed it has superior values and codes than any other country on earth.

While most countries look at international law, and especially international human rights law, as a beacon of hope, most Americans think that their constitution — despite some utterly backward interpretations by their Supreme Court — is the standard.

That Trump could pressure a foreign country to undermine his perceived political rivals, and apparently hold back military aid as added pressure, has not been witnessed in the US before. These were not about US national or foreign policy interests. They are not even about corruption. They are about trying to weaken his opponents for the 2020 elections.

Using public office for personal benefit is common in Kenya. Jomo Kenyatta forced a change in law so that his friend Paul Ngei could stand in elections after he had been barred for committing election offences.

The Kanu era saw the subversion of the constitution regarding allocation of public land to benefit individuals in the land grabbing frenzy.

Ageing senior civil servants in the Kibaki era changed the retirement age from 55 to 60 — when 70 percent of the population is aged below 35 — so that they could stay on and benefit.

But none of these beats the UhuRuto era. The effort to pasteurise all milk may seem, on the surface, to be noble.

But the major beneficiary of this rule would be Brookside, owned by the Kenyatta family, which has a near monopoly on the dairy industry.

Talk of conflict of interest, which is unconstitutional. But this is quite similar, in fact, to Trump keeping having his hotels across the world used by both foreign and national officials seeking favours from him.

If the regime was serious about pasteurising all milk, then the Kenyatta family should sell off Brookside, so that there is no real or perceived benefit to them.

For most of Kenya’s existence, the push has always been to expand political and democratic space to escape from the dictatorship path.

It has been a long and difficult road, with blood, sweat and tears littered everywhere. We thought we were finally making headway first in 2003 when the Kanu regime was routed out and Mwai Kibaki came in with tremendous goodwill.

But that was quickly wasted when the Anglo Leasing scams were unleashed and it became clear that for many in the Kibaki regime, this was simply their “turn to eat” rather than getting Kenya ahead as a viable nation state.

The second disappointment came after the 2010 constitution when those who ascended to high office determined to roll back time and take us back to dictatorship — as long as it was “theirs”.

But the constitution has some inbuilt obstacles, such as devolution, transparency and accountability as well as the Bill of Rights, to autocracy. These have been the most targeted by this regime.

It maintained the provincial administration which should have disappeared with the coming of devolution, as a control mechanism.

It makes no sense to have county commissioners reporting to Nairobi, when we have governors and other officials who owe locals their direct loyalty rather than Nairobi.

And the Treasury has been weaponised for centralisation and control by its huge appetite for secretive loans, and by its reluctance to release funds to the counties, thus compromising their efficiency and effectiveness. For the more funds the counties have, the less there is to steal from Nairobi.

Make no mistake. Efforts at centralisation of power; weakening or denigrating institutions of accountability; flagrant disregard for decency and transparency — such as with massive and unexplainable church donations and  ignoring conflict of interest issues — and a desire to be and act as above the law, are all part of the template for autocracy and dictatorship.

We have been through this in Kenya and it is fascinating to see the Americans in a similar boat.

- The writer is former KNCHR chair. [email protected]

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