William Ruto using democratic ways to amass power, but will he wield it wisely?

Mwangi stood by, shouting expletives at the inspector and challenging him to a fight. I had just witnessed and confirmed what the elders in our estate, Kivumbini in Nakuru County, used to say, "Mwangi Cowboy was powerful and untouchable." I had witnessed him slap and beat up the most ferocious boxers in our estate. Even those who could easily break his bones dared not touch him. It was rumoured that he had the ear and heart of Kenya's founding president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

Since Jomo visited Nakuru almost every weekend, the inspector must have feared challenging Mwangi Cowboy. "What if word reached the president, a man who held the power of life and death?" When Jomo Kenyatta died in August 1978, Mwangi Cowboy, the mysterious drunkard who frequented our estate on terror missions, suddenly disappeared. He must have realised that his thin body couldn't withstand the weight of the countless toes he had trampled upon.

Today's Mwangi Cowboy

Memories of Mwangi Cowboy came streaming back to my mind recently as I watched the evening news. My heart sank. A chilling fear gripped me. I coiled in my seat as I listened to the National Assembly Speaker make a ruling on which coalition has the majority in the August House. Moses Wetang'ula made his declaration clear, pouring cold water on hopes of a strong opposition in Parliament.

Supporters of President William Ruto celebrated the ruling. Leaders from the Kenya Kwanza coalition told off their colleagues in Azimio. President Ruto was now in total control of key government organs, including the Council of Governors.

Ruto is quickly and systematically amassing power. Almost all arms of government from the Council of Governors, to Speakers of both the National Assembly and the Senate, to the Leader of Majority, are aligned to him. He appointed to the Cabinet, men and women who are both his friends and supporters. Ruto is one of the best political students of former President Daniel arap Moi. He has mastered the art of the late Professor of Politics and is rapidly consolidating power. And around him, many Mwangi Cowboys are emerging. What will happen if and when he wields absolute power?

Those close to him, just like Mwangi Cowboy of my youth, might start exercising what Prof Pierre Bourdieu calls symbolic power; the power to establish, reproduce and reconstruct reality.

Dangers of absolute power

Jomo Kenyatta held absolute power. In fact, he wielded power even over the private lives of his ministers. During a session of entertainment by traditional dancers at State House, Nakuru, he spotted two beautiful girls. He quickly sent for his Attorney General Charles Njonjo and Defence Minister Njoroge Mungai, to "come and pick wives for themselves from the dancers."

Dr Mungai once told me that he was hurriedly led to the stage before the dance was over and made to pick one of the girls. "Since no one could defy Mzee, we each led our girls away and made sure we didn't meet Mzee for some days because he would have insisted that we marry them."

Ernestine Kiano, the first wife of Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, told me during a book interview that she tasted the negative side of abusive State power. Jomo, she said, was behind her deportation from Kenya in 1966. "Before I was deported, a young officer from the Special Branch paid me a visit to warn me of the impending deportation. He told me, 'Mama, Mzee Kenyatta is not happy. He keeps asking who this woman is who appears to me more beautiful and popular than my young wife,' and true to his words, I was thrown out of Kenya back to the United States of America, my country of birth," she said. Before marrying Kiano, Ernestine was a model and a Rotarian.

Today, as I watch Ruto move to consolidate power, I recall an evening lecture I attended sometime in 1980 at Nakuru's Menengai Social Hall. President Moi was then a young populist leader. He had set free all political prisoners and was busy touring the country, planting trees and fighting soil erosion. Songs had been composed in his praise and leaders were competing to win his attention. Prof Gideon Saulo Were, a History professor and author, told the lecture that Kenyans were creating a monster, which would in turn eat them up.

"When we sing, dance and praise the president like we are doing now, as sycophants, we shall suffer when he attains absolute power, which corrupts absolutely. How shall we deal with the ultimate dictator?" he posed. By the time of his demise in a road accident in July 1995, Prof Were's warning had come to pass.

I lived during the reign of Jomo Kenyatta and worked under Moi, when political power was corrupted and absolutely so. The two presidents held the power of life and death in both their hands and tongues. I witnessed what power can do if let loose in careless hands.

The late fiery legislator, Martin Shikuku, once told me a frightening tale. He said during the inquiry into the assassination of former Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki in 1975, the parliamentary committee unearthed chilling information on the truth behind the death of Kung'u Karumba, one of Kenya's nationalists and freedom fighters. Karumba was among the Kapenguria six with Jomo Kenyatta, Bildad Kagia, Fred Kubai, Paul Ngei and Achieng Oneko. He was a close friend of Jomo and a businessman with heavy interests in Uganda.

Shikuku said during the inquiry, chaired by Elijah Mwangale, Karumba's widow walked in accompanied by a retired intelligence officer. She had come to listen in thinking that the inquiry would also bring to light her husband's whereabouts. It then emerged that Karumba had once visited Mzee at his Gatundu home. Since they were friends, he would visit without an appointment. On this particular day, however, Jomo was tired and in a bad mood. He told Karumba to come back another day but stubborn Karumba insisted on staying. So Mzee told one of his bodyguards, "Muondoe huyu hapa (remove this one from here)", and he went to sleep. The following day he summoned his bodyguards to ask them, "Where is my friend Karumba?" "Mzee, we removed him like you instructed us," one of them responded. "It's ok, bring him back so that I can now meet him." There was a long silence before the bodyguard explained that they had interpreted his instructions to mean that he be eliminated.

Shikuku went on to say that Mzee was so furious that he thoroughly beat up his bodyguard. He then quickly called an urgent meeting of his kitchen Cabinet and a narrative was created that Karumba, who had business ties with the wife of one of Idi Amin's military generals, Isaac Maliyamungu, was killed in Uganda and his body went missing. This was in June 1974.

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta with his Cabinet. [File, Standard]

Shikuku was very close to JM and each time they met at the Hilton Hotel's sauna, Shikuku would warn the outspoken legislator to be careful with his quick tongue since; "Walls have got ears."

On March 2, 1975, top security officials, including GSU Commander Ben Gethi and European Police Reservist Patrick Shaw, accosted JM outside the Hilton Hotel. Gethi asked JM to accompany the security officials in a convoy of cars. He was taken to an unknown destination. The following day, his burnt, and mutilated remains were discovered by Maasai herdsmen in Ngong Hills.

His fingers had been chopped off and eyes gouged out. He had also been shot in the head. The killers burnt his body with acid probably to prevent identification. The acid, however, kept scavengers at bay, leaving most of his body identifiable. The country burst into flames of revolt, with university students rioting. Shikuku believed that political sycophants might have thought that by killing JM, they were doing Jomo Kenyatta a favour.

It is Lord Acton, the 19th century British historian, who said, "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely". Power leads people to take unethical shortcuts. Power brings out the best or the worst in people. Both Jomo and Moi enjoyed absolute power. However, it's those close to them that oftentimes abused that power.

Ben Moreel, in an online article titled Power Corrupts, published on July 20, 2020 says: "These persons who are corrupted by the process of ruling over their fellow men are not innately evil. They begin as honest men. Their motives for wanting to direct the actions of others may be purely patriotic and altruistic. Indeed, they may wish only to do good for the people."

Moreel says that as his appetite for using force against people increases, such "a leader tends to increasingly surround himself with advisers who also seem to derive a peculiar pleasure from forcing others to obey their decrees."

Ruto has just begun his five-year journey at the helm of the country's leadership. He will definitely want to run for a second term. Many have claimed that he can barely handle power responsibly. Others have portrayed him as a dictator who might even want to change the Constitution to stick in power 'forever' like his Ugandan elder Yoweri Museveni.

When Ruto quickly lifted the ban on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), was he sounding a warning gently let out by Prof Were 42 years ago? He could easily have appointed a commission like he did for CBC to seek and allow public participation as required by the law. Instead, he has single-handedly made a decision that will gravely affect lives of millions of Kenyans and future generations. How many more such directives do we expect from him?

With a weakened opposition, and majority in the two Houses of Parliament, he could turn into a benevolent dictator who overly concludes that power and wisdom are the same thing. Will he lose his ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient? Will the Mwangi Cowboys in his government and inner circle abuse power whenever they go? We can only pray that he seeks God's wisdom like did King Solomon and remains humble and true to his Hustler promises.