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‘Trump’ lessons for the next Kenyan president

By Babere Chacha and John Wahome | November 19th 2020
US president Donald Trump.

The incredible post-election events taking place across the Atlantic Ocean are mind-boggling. It is most unbelievable that the spectre of an ex-president refusing to concede — or as Donald Trump might actually do, refusing to vacate office — can take place in the mighty USA! Isn’t this the very country where the rest of the world has long derived its global liberty and democratic standards? How are the mighty fallen!

In his four short years at the Oval Office, Trump has upended the world’s conventional morality and order by trashing time-tested American values, reversing gains painstakingly achieved through years of racial and gender struggles, breaching longstanding international protocols and pacts, and repudiating science. He has also relentlessly fanned the embers of racism.

Suddenly, negative terms mostly associated with Third World politics such as tribalism (yes, we counted at least five international newspapers including The New Yorker associating Trump with ‘tribalism’), stolen elections, electoral fraud, tear-gasing of demonstrators, and so on are now commonplace in the mainstream American press. Pro-Trump Republicans are protesting the election on the streets of Washington, and people are getting hurt and hospitalised. They are using the equivalent of our own beloved dog whistle, ‘our people are being finished.’

As such, it is by sheer luck that the Trump phenomenon did not happen during the formative years of Africa. His irascible, puffed-up and authoritarian style, so out of place in the world’s premier democracy, would no doubt have been a welcome boost for the many despots who filled the leadership positions in Africa then. Good governance in Africa has been so difficult in spite of the West, and particularly the USA, paternalistically shouting admonitions from across the seas. One shudders to imagine how things would have been with high-handed rulers taking a cue from a kindred spirit in Washington DC.

But even now, there is a stunning correlation between the callousness with which the Trump administration has handled the coronavirus pandemic leading to the loss of a quarter million American lives, and the sudden disappearance of the initial zeal with which some African governments had started caring for their citizens. Locally, there has been great consternation and outcry with the government’s shocking determination to set aside Sh14 billion to fund a national referendum against a background of increasing Covid-19 fatalities and a financially exhausted populace that can barely afford treatment.

Ultimately, America’s robust political cultures, though at the moment tested to the limit by this cultic figure who casts a curious spell on his large Republican following, will not crumble. They will no doubt outlive the outgoing president’s far-fetched litigious threats (12 now, and counting) and his deliberate Twitter misinformation. Trump’s senseless intransigence will soon capitulate, and Joe Biden’s inauguration will no doubt proceed as planned on January 20. However, the damage has been done. The USA has forever lost its hard-earned status as the global lodestar of incorruptibility and its moral authority to lecture the rest of the world on justice, democracy and human rights. Henceforth, it will be dubious, disingenuous and laughable for Uncle Sam to call any other group of countries ‘Axis of Evil’.

For a known misogynist who routinely insults women using the same randy adjectives reserved locally for livestock, the troubling question is why over 70 million American voters — people who presumably occupy the apex in the popular construct of civilised human beings, and who should find Trump repulsive — still chose him as their president. Could there be hidden pearls from the black hole that has been Trump’s reign, for which we can seine and recast as political lessons for Kenya?

Firstly, it must be appreciated that Trump’s loss at the ballot is a remarkable achievement when viewed from the point of view of a rank outsider’s successful effort at invading the White House. Give it to him for bravery and an apparent congenital insensitivity to his actions’ consequences.

During Mike Tyson’s fearsome prime, it is said that just getting to fight him was enough achievement for many boxers. Whether you lost or even got killed in the ring was of secondary consideration. For a career businessman and Reality TV show host who reportedly initially entered the presidential race not to win, but to boost his media ratings, Trump’s whitewashing of elite Republican veterans for the 2016 primaries was quite noteworthy. To go on to trounce Hillary Clinton at the presidential ballot was incredible. Repeating the winning script against the  Washington insider Biden would have been pure nirvana. Therefore, one can understand Trump’s famously compulsive need for adoration: He is Chinua Achebe’s lizard in Things Fall Apart who, for lack of recognition after the immense accomplishment of jumping off the Iroko tree, profusely congratulated himself.

Deputy President William Ruto should be taking notes and hoping that come next presidential polls, many Kenyans will have become more disillusioned with familiar, ‘dynastic’ local politics and will identify with a ‘hustler’ outsider who carries their own, ordinary DNA. On the other hand, Trump’s fall signifies some levels of unexpected surprises in 2022; it is wise for Raila and Ruto to bridle their individual overconfidence.

Secondly, the voters who chose Trump in 2020 may have inadvertently revealed a concealed craving for a ‘benevolent dictator’ who irreverently circumvents bureaucracy to cater to their immediate needs–in their case needs of the dark variety of racial supremacy, ‘America First’, gun rights, and the like.

The clichéd theme of a benevolent dictator — often prescribed as an alternative governance model ideal for corruption-mired African countries, has increasingly featured in local debate since the launch of the BBI. Kenyans — and further research is needed here — may be gradually developing the appetite for a charismatic and messianic enforcer, a bullish Trump clone without the malevolent streak, who will transcend mere words and just make roads, amenities, infrastructure and other goodies happen to them.


Many Kenyans we have talked with, while generally supportive of the BBI, feel that its declared objectives duplicate sections already enshrined in existing legislation, but which have not been enforced. Efforts to fight ‘ethnic antagonism and divisive politics’, for example, have featured as foremost agendas in the manifestos of successive Kenyan administrations and gobbled untold billions in the process. The National Cohesion and Integration Act exists purely to outlaw discrimination. Why then, had the pre-BBI Kenya not achieved national cohesion and integration?

It similarly remains to be seen how the BBI legislation will magically unlock 35 per cent of national revenue to the counties which have so far had to beg for the timely remittance of their current modest entitlement of 15 per cent.

Corruption, the root of all our national woes, has been by far the most legislated subject in Kenya. The Sixth and Tenth chapters of the Constitution prohibit it. Corruption is further criminalised by the elaborate laws enshrined in the Anti-corruption and Economic Crimes Act, the Public Finance Management Act, the Public Procurement and Disposal Act and Regulations and the Public Officers Ethics Act. The fact that BBI portends to be slaying the same old dragons all over again evokes a ‘death-walk’ scenario, defined by Red Indians as the risky last state of a lost hiker who finds himself at the same spot after hours of going round and round in search of the way home.

Back to President Trump. His discourteous personality of petulance and vindictiveness will no doubt mar his legacy and consign him to historical infamy.

Our next president should read the signs of the times and use Trump’s infamous blunders as a stepping stone to a fairer and freer Kenya.

Dr Chacha and Dr Wahome teach at Laikipia University

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