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Uneasy with Uhuru endorsing a successor? You are not presidential material

By Elias Mokua | October 21st 2021

President Uhuru Kenyatta participates in the International Peace Institute's (IPI) Global Leaders' discussion on the UN Secretary General's Common Agenda Report in New York, USA. [Courtesy]

Desperate appeals are on the rise that ‘outgoing’ President Uhuru Kenyatta should not endorse anyone intending to succeed him. Very well. What is the big deal about an outgoing president endorsing a successor?

Honestly, someone feeling uneasy over that kind of endorsement should just fold up any attempts for a high office like the presidency. Examples of outgoing presidents endorsing their preferred candidates are many.

Tanzania offers clear cases where successful presidents other than the current President 'Mama' (Samia Suluhu Hassan), received not just endorsements from sitting presidents but also from the ruling party, CCM, machinery. Barack Obama campaigned for his vice-president, Joe Biden. Daniel Moi campaigned for his preferred successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, but could not go beyond the strong Kanu party line at the time. I suspect when Uganda's president decides to call it a day, he will vigorously campaign for his successor.

The big deal about endorsements seems to hinge on two assumptions. First, that an outgoing president has no interest in who takes over power. Far from it, particularly in the African context, no outgoing president will just leave office without considerable anxieties on who takes over. Our leaders have investments and networks directly tied to government that they won’t just let go. Our own outgoing president is young and has a whole future ahead of him to influence the direction the country takes. To try persuading such a president to just carry his bags and drive out of the highest office as if they retired from the Civil Service is myopic.

Really, the panicky cries around endorsement of an office is another way of lamenting at someone’s campaign strategy. For a candidate to attract endorsement from an outgoing president, there must be some negotiations or arrangements that both parties agree to. Second, there is an underlying assumption that if the outgoing president does not endorse anyone, the election campaign will be 'neutral'. An endorsement does not necessarily amount to a win. Beyond being lame ducks, as it were, some outgoing presidents are so unpopular that serious candidates will not want to be associated with them lest they lose the goodwill they could otherwise benefit from. 

Endorsements are well within the rights of any voter, including an outgoing leader. A qualified voter has a right to vote and to be voted for, status notwithstanding.

An endorsement is an official backing of a candidate. Can any ordinary voter endorse? Yes, voting is a low form of endorsement. Low form because endorsements carry weight in terms of the influence they have over voter behaviour. Endorsements can swing votes but again not necessarily towards a win. For that to happen, endorsements from the who's who carry more weight than most of us appreciate.

Endorsements come with full campaign gear. The much-needed money and networks. For the voter, an endorsement signals who the real horses are. That is why it is given that while it is not impossible to have a serious contender in the two-horse race between William Ruto and Raila Odinga, it is going to be a stretch of the mind and resources at this time for a third horse to generate enough momentum. So far, we see where major endorsements have gone between the two front-runner candidates.

Of interest to a voter is not so much who has been endorsed or not, but rather what interests do candidates stand for. Those mourning that they have not been endorsed, those celebrating endorsements and those caught in between have two things in common: first, all want endorsements. The difference is that one gets and another does not. Secondly, the candidates must reach out to voters and sell their agenda. Particularly in contexts like ours here in Kenya, presidential election campaigns in the past two elections have tended to be too close to call. Candidates must go beyond endorsements to win an election.

-Dr Mokua is executive director, Loyola Centre for Media and Communications

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