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ELECTION 2022

Ruto got it wrong, Kenya is notorious for killing political parties

NATIONAL
By Special Correspondent | Nov 7th 2021 | 7 min read

 

8-year-old Ryan Mwenda hugs President Uhuru Kenyatta while Deputy president William Ruto looks on after reciting a poem during the launch of the Jubilee Party on August 10, 2016 [Willis Awandu, Standard]

A visibly angry Deputy President William Ruto scoffs at news that the political party on whose ticket he is the second in command will soon expel him. He rhetorically dramatises the chaos that has overrun the ruling Jubilee Party.

“They say that they want to throw us out of the party. What party? We left that thing a long time ago... The thing is dead, except for a few people, we don’t even know what they are still doing there. Someday the history will be written, of a political party that united people. Then they mutilated and killed it. They sold it to the political opposition.”

In a sense, Ruto is wrong. It is not the history of a political party. It is the story of the failure of the political system in Kenya. Parties have come and gone in quick succession, since the restoration of multiparty political competition, in December 1991. Even those that have delivered presidential candidates to State House have died. Others have become pale shadows of their former selves. Presidents Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta have given the impression that they did not want the party organs to function beyond election day. There have been no meetings of the organs after the elections, and some of the parties have not even had the organs, for a start. 

Whether or not his former allies in Jubilee will throw Ruto and his brigade out of Jubilee remains to be seen. They have openly bayed for his political blood for some time now, beginning with the veiled declaration at the Vihiga Cultural Festival in Western region, on 26 December 2018. Jubilee Party national vice chairman David Murathe threw the first salvo, completely out of the blues. His party and his Mt. Kenya region was not going to support ‘a thief for the presidency’,” he said. 

The innuendo was rather obvious, and the target, too. But, for the avoidance of doubt, Murathe cut to the chase, “Don’t think that because you are the deputy president, we are going to vote for you.” 

The battle lines were drawn. The rest has been so much water under the bridge. The waters have seen the Jubilee Party go the way of all the other victorious parties, before it. The contestation is bigger than the simple question of the moral and ethical standing of the people we elect. It is about the failure to develop a political party agenda and to manage the political party system in Kenya, and with it the failure to manage ethnic diversity and to embrace the canons of multiparty democracy. 

 The converse is the creation of personality cults, usually with an ethnic kingpin at the centre. The active ingredient in the political party is a dominant individual. Next to this behemoth is a tribe. The third one is money. The three factors have defined the twists and turns in Kenya’s political pluralism. Writing on the political party as a platform for mass movement, Tom Mboya said in an essay published posthumously in Freedom and After, “When a leader feels himself weak on the national platform, he begins to calculate that the only support he may have will come from his own tribe; he starts to create an antagonism of this sort, so that he can at least entrench himself as a leader of his tribe.”

Mboya’s words half a century ago remain true today. If any one of the topmost politicians leaves one space for the other, the new space instantly becomes a political party. In 2005-2006, Uhuru was in Kanu and by virtue of the affiliation that was created by the 2005 constitutional referendum, he was also one of the principals in the newly formed Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). The movement morphed into the ODM-Kenya Party, with him still on board. He had two of the active ingredients – himself as a potentially dominant figure and the money. However, he lacked the tribe. President Kibaki had run away with it. 

Kibaki was dominating a different space, complete with the money and the tribe. To become complete, Uhuru had to jump ship. He carried Kanu into Kibaki’s newly formed PNU in 2007.

Once comfortably in the innermost sanctums of PNU, Uhuru abandoned Kanu altogether, to respond to the blows of unknown winds. He inherited PNU from Kibaki, but had yet to re-engineer both himself and the party. In name, PNU continued to exist – and it still does. But Uhuru, the new dominant figure in the Mountain after Kibaki, ran away with the people into The National Alliance in 2012. 

Meanwhile, relations between Raila and Ruto deteriorated steadily in ODM, their fancy vehicle of 2007, over a cocktail of irreconcilable issues. They ranged from Ruto’s fate before the ICC to controversies about the Mau Forest and Kalenjin youth who were allegedly languishing in custody, “for fighting for Raila’s stolen election.” The discord went all the way to ego games, around who should be Raila’s deputy in ODM and deputy premier in the fabled Nusu Mkate Government of 2007 – 2013. Ruto and his ethnic squad left ODM for the United Republican Party (URP). 

In the fullness of time, URP got into a coalition with TNA, to win the 2013 election. The alliance became the Jubilee Party in 2016, swallowing up a number of smaller parties, in the process. And today that party is on the rocks. Ruto is for all purposes in the United Democratic Alliance (UDA). He is the dominant figure there. He has the ethnic community and the money. As a plus for him, he has a significant swathe of the Mt Kenya community, too, at least for now. If he moves out of UDA tomorrow, the outfit will die. The new space he occupies will become a party. 

It all speaks to the absence of any specific philosophy, or agenda, to rally diverse peoples around as the path to their dream of the ideal country. Additionally, it is a narrative of opportunistic ethnic followers assembled around personality cults. The party, hence, becomes a place of worship. When the leaders shift the shrine, they go with everyone. There are no questions on why they are moving. At its very best, then, the party is a vehicle of political convenience, a useful shopping basket for votes. Politicians join in because it is the hottest political outfit in their tribe, or region.

In the words of Kirinyaga Governor Ann Waiguru, while defecting to UDA from Jubilee two weeks ago, you either join the right outfit, or perish. When the next season of harvest comes, it will bring new vehicles and baskets. The vagaries of the day will define which one to go with. 

In December 2002, the National Rainbow Coalition euphorically romped home, making Mwai Kibaki the first president outside the independence Kanu party, of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. Kenyans pronounced themselves the happiest and most optimistic people in the world. The bad old days of one party dominance were over. People had proved that they could organise the management of power and their affairs in a different space from Kanu.

Yet, by the time the country was ready for the next election, five years later in 2007, NARC was a ragtag, left for Kitui Central Member of Parliament, Charity Ngilu to prance around with as with torn linen. She auctioned it now to President Mwai Kibaki, then to ODM leader, Raila Odinga. It eventually remained in the Raila corner, ahead of the disastrous election that took top Kenyans to the ICC.  

Meanwhile, Cabinet Minister Martha Karua had run away with a piece of the rag, christened Narc-Kenya. She took it to President Kibaki who now headed a new formation called Party of National Unity (PNU). Musikari Kombo and Mukhisa Kituyi, also in the Cabinet, took Ford-Kenya from NARC and carried it to PNU. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the raft on which Raila and his rebellious brigade had navigated their way from Kanu to NARC in October 2002, simply withered away. And President Kibaki’s own Democratic Party (DP), that was in 1992 one of the top four parties, besides Kanu, Ford Kenya and Ford Asili, went into atrophy and remains there today.

Kibaki remained ensconced in the innermost comfort zones of the new PNU. With support from others like Simeon Nyachae of Ford People he was ready to run for a second term on the PNU ticket. A surprise boost came from Uhuru, the leader of the official opposition in Parliament.

By the time Kenyans were running wild in the post-election violence of 2007/08 and its aftermath, the victorious Narc party of 2002 was no more than a footnote in the narratives. PNU and ODM were the new political fancy in town. Yet, quite early in President Kibaki’s second term, it was clear that PNU was also becoming history. The meeting that was styled as Limuru II, at the start of 2012, advised Uhuru to form a new party, on which platform his followers would vote for him. 

The political party in Kenya, then, remains the vehicle that will take desperate people to the safe habour of their self-focused agenda. Whether they are thrown out of one outfit or not, like Ruto and his team could suffer in Jubilee, counts for little. In reality, politicians abandon the ship the moment it sets anchor at the safe habour. They scatter into different directions, knowing that there will be another ship five years down the line, another dominant captain and s fresh set of seasonal electoral assets. 

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