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Uhuru’s endorsement of Raila would be a breach of protocol

President Uhuru Kenyatta salutes ODM leader Raila Odinga during Jamuhuri Day celebrations at Uhuru Gardens.

A few years ago, as head of a business council, I accompanied my chairman to a meeting with the ambassador of a trading-partner nation. The purpose of our call was to smooth ruffled feathers. Apparently, a diplomatic gaffe had occurred earlier when a member of our organisation had failed to recognise the ambassador. Contrary to protocol they had also seated him among the rank and file.

The ambassador graciously accepted our profuse apologies and explained that as an individual, he took no umbrage at our etiquette breach. But as a representative of his country, our errors of omission ran the risk of being misconstrued as a slight against his president.

Protocol has been defined as the etiquette of diplomacy and affairs of state; unwritten guidelines which specify the proper and generally accepted behaviour in matters of state and diplomacy. In formal addresses, speakers are expected to open their remarks by showing appropriate respect to a head of state, ranking diplomats in chronological order of their accreditation, and all senior government functionaries in attendance.

Because the observation of protocol is nuanced, any departure from a set script gives rise to conjecture. It creates speculation over the intended message conveyed to whoever has been elevated and those leapfrogged. Apropos to his Jamhuri Day address last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s remarks, in his own words, were a breach of protocol.

First off, he started by circumventing the whole rigmarole that required him to recognise all guests present. He simply signed off his salutation by saying, “all protocol observed.” Experts in diplomatic-speak aver that where the phrase has been used, in fact, no protocol has been observed. Caroline Nderitu, in an article in the Public Image Africa, says “all protocols observed is just a claim that the necessary rules have been observed but we all know protocol was overlooked altogether.”

Second, the president, against the programme order, invited former PM Raila Odinga to speak after Deputy President Ruto had already made his remarks. In the pecking order of the country’s politics, it placed Odinga above Ruto. In both sharp and subtle ways, this protocol breach amplified the existing divide between the president and his deputy and may have sent signals to the effect that Odinga was his preferred successor in next year’s elections.

Mr Odinga started off with all appropriate salutations. Then going off on a tangent, he launched into polemics on illegal land acquisition. In mentioning a school and hotel associated with a leading political figure, he committed a protocol gaffe by implicating those robbed of the right to reply. He also conveniently forgot to mention that land issues have plagued the nation since independence and that the blame cannot be visited on an individual.

The body language and the vibes from these leading political figures offer a handy guide to the existential issues roiling them. They reveal political adversaries taking advantage of a national day to slug it out over a slew of knotty issues. Contention is over the perception that Ruto is insufficiently servile; that he has repackaged himself, to the detriment of the president, as anti-establishment and anti-elitist. This has helped him connect with rural and blue-collar types.

Raila, on the other hand, has shed his radical firebrand image and taken on a mature, more conciliatory mien complemented by the espousing of progressive policies. Yet, in his fifth stab for the presidency next year, he must get Uhuru’s crucial endorsement to make headway.

And therein lies the challenge; that such an endorsement would be a clear breach of protocol as it would expose Kenyatta as one whose word is not his bond. In the past, he has publicly promised to support a Ruto presidency. Going back on his word would add to the litany of unfilled promises, to wit, the sharing of the Standard Gauge Railway contract and a comprehensive statement on the Pandora papers. Raila’s endorsement is therefore silently implied rather than explicitly given. All protocol observed? I think not!

Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst