Uhuru’s speeches reveal reality about government, the nation

President Uhuru Kenyatta.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jamhuri Day Speech, with the rallying call “Returning the River to its Course,” included a declaration that “the rule of law, good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability are the pillars of our constitutional democracy.” According to the president, these are “the golden thread that is woven across the entirety of our supreme law.” Kenyatta’s speech included language such as “the shared values of the people of Kenya” and an exhortation that it is our “solemn duty” to enforce the Constitution.

Since Kenyatta became president, this was the first time that language to do with accountability, or upholding the Constitution, has found its way into his speech. After speaking for seven years now, the content of Kenyatta’s speeches, during all major occasions, has become predictable. The president will usually pay tribute to the founding fathers, remind the audience that Kenya underwent terrible colonial rule that left the country poor and marginalised.

Kenyatta will then talk about the efforts of the founding fathers at nation building before reeling off the tremendous achievements of his own “administration,” including the number of roads built, homes connected with electricity and lately progress made towards achieving the Big Four agenda. Since his handshake with Raila Odinga, national unity has now entered the content of these speeches, together with the fight against corruption, replacing the hostile anti-Odinga rhetoric that was a mandatory part of the speeches.

During his first term, when he faced charges at the International Criminal Court, Kenyatta would include in every major speech, an attack on imperialist powers whose evil agenda, supported by treacherous and unpatriotic local agents, was to harm the national interest. It is his attacks against these unnamed people that made it difficult for the president to speak about accountability or upholding the Constitution. What is astounding about the speech last week is that a person, whose candidacy and subsequent ascension to the presidency constituted a repudiation of the Constitution, has finally come round to asserting the same Constitution.

Besides its increasing banality, Kenyatta’s unfailing reminder of the horrors of colonial rule and his praise for the country’s “founding fathers” is highly ideological. It comes from a view of his father, Jomo Kenyatta, as the ultimate liberator and hero in Kenya’s liberation struggle. His father appropriated the title “father of the nation” and deemed his own role worth of a public holiday. In Uhuru Kenyatta’s speeches, the generous reference to “founding fathers” is the closest that son can come to praising father in public.

Although the horrors of colonial rule cannot be disputed or minimised, the colonial past need not define Kenya’s current or future circumstances. With the exception of his father, who formally self-proclaimed his own heroism in the country’s freedom struggle, the heroes that Uhuru Kenyatta frequently praises remain unnamed and have long suffered official erasure. Invoking the unnamed founding fathers, and maintaining a strong line about colonialism serves two purposes. First, the cover of the unnamed others is needed to foist his father on the country. Doing so validates the younger Kenyatta’s presidency as destiny, an heirloom. Second, it is a way of telling people that however bad things might be, the colonial rule was worse.

A speech titled “Returning the River to its Course” implied the need to take the country to a fresh start. However, the premises on which the speech was based were often contestable, making it unlikely that the speech will achieve this intention. For example, contrary to the president’s assertion the country already has sufficient conflict of interest laws, starting with the Constitution. What is needed is not more law but some enforcement. If conflict of interest is a problem, the example of the president, who placed Kenya in a massive conflict of interests with his case before the ICC, and the alleged continuing use of his office to confer business advantage to family members, are examples of unresolved conflicts of interest.

Kenyatta’s characterisation of the piloting of universal healthcare as a success is also contestable and his declaration of preparedness for a countrywide roll out was surprising. Also, the difficulties surrounding the new education system render unsafe Kenyatta’s claim that Kenya has “a new world-class Competence-Based-Curriculum that extensively utilises digital learning platforms fit for the learning practices and demands of the 21st century.”

Whatever Kenyatta said about the Building Bridges Initiative, it is clear that its report did not address the problems it set out to deal with. It is also clear that the problems of the Standard Gauge Railway will not go away merely because this project received a positive spin in the latest presidential speech.

Kenyatta’s speeches now reveal two realities. The first is a world of spin and make-believe where everything about Kenya is good. The second, the real world, is more mixed but the government does not live there.  

- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]