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For his legacy's sake, President should retire silently next year

By Charles Onyango | July 13th 2021

President Uhuru Kenyatta when he unveiled a commemorative plaque at Mukuru Kwa Reuben Level 3 hospital.

Democracy imposes a number of tough requirements. It asks its leaders, among other things, to risk losing elections or to step down at the conclusion of a limited term — to follow rules even when they work against their interests.

However, even in the best of circumstances, this isn't a simple task, especially when centuries of experience have made it a routine. It is much more difficult in fledgling democracies like ours. As Shakespeare writes of the Thane of Cawdor, “nothing in his life so became him like the leaving of it”. I believe that the true test in a young democracy occurs, not with a peaceful election of a president, but when he has delivered enough results that he’s able to pass the torch to another freely elected leader.

Indeed, Vicente Fox, Mexico's first president elected in a genuinely competitive election, said in his memoirs that the most essential thing a [new] democracy's president does is to leave. He was quite accurate, except that, unlike the Thane of Cawdor, he lived to see another day and could look forward to a long and healthy life. 

In doing so, he faced the same problem that US President William Howard Taft confronted shortly after his re-election defeat in 1912. When asked what should be done with former presidents, he jokingly suggested “a dosage of chloroform” to protect his countrymen “from the troublesome fear that the occupant office could ever come back.”

Furthermore, he noted that doing so would free the former president of the stress of wondering about how he is going to sustain himself and his family, fix his position in history, and allow the public to pass on to new individuals and new measures.

But this expectation of the most "faithful" servants of democracy to be prepared to relinquish their roles presents enormous problems for both their polities and themselves. It’s an issue for many leaders throughout the world, as more and more are finding themselves in the same situation as Taft and Fox. 

In the roughly 190 countries that make up the world, about 1,160 people have served as heads of state or government since 1970. About 30 of them have been ruling monarchs, who are not required nor expected to leave office, another 85 or so have died in office, 115 have been deposed by military action; and 190 are still in power.

This means that, over the last five decades, at least 700 political leaders at the pinnacle of their careers have faced the decision of whether to leave office and, if so, how to fill their time afterward.

President Uhuru Kenyatta now finds himself the same situation. With the election only 15 months away, the president must decide if he wants a say in his successor or whether he wants to sustain himself, secure his legacy and ensure a smooth political transition by retiring silently next year.

There's no disputing that the president has hinted that he'll have a say in who succeeds him on several occasions. While our constitution grants him the right of association like any other Kenyan, history may not forgive him if he is successful in achieving his goal. Well, this may seem partial, unfair, a distortion: History always is.

Although he ran eight years ago on a plan that touted far-flung initiatives, history may not be interested in all of that, nor in his administration's confusion over many policy areas, nor in the galling flaws and shenanigans that have pushed his administration from authority to ridicule to pity and half way back again in the second term, but will be indifferent to all that he didn’t do, including the refusal to face up to the dimensions of a public debt problem and prescribe a credible remedy.

He, therefore, has a shot at a reputational redemption by refraining from interfering in the elections. Even if history is kind to incumbent presidents, the way in which they leave office has the potential to undo them.

How leaders comport themselves when their number is up can set the tone for their future memorialisation.

Mr Onyango, a Global Fellow at Moving Worlds Institute. [email protected]

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