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Creating the UDA monolith: Will Ruto multi-pronged forays work?

UDA party symbol erected at Cheptais in Mt. Elgon, November 13, 2021. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

President William Ruto is applying a multi-pronged approach to achieve his cherished dream of making UDA a behemoth political party that will enable him to overrun other outfits in the 2027 presidential elections.

First, he wants UDA to be the biggest party not only in the country but in the region. He is also seeking to make it a fearsome all-conquering juggernaut styled along the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) model, known officially as the Communist Party of China (CPC) founded in 1921. The party remains among the world’s most well-organized political formations.

After several attempts to fold the 16 Kenya Kwanza Alliance party affiliates and merge them with UDA, Ruto has finally netted Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi, whose aides say he has agreed to wind up his ANC party and move to the president’s party.

The planned visit by UDA party officials to meet CPC leadership in Beijing in the coming week is, therefore, part of the plan in the new strategy to reposition the party for the 2027 elections.

“CPC has been in existence for over a century and UDA wants to learn from it as it plans to attain 20 million members in two years,” Secretary General Cleophas Malala was reported to have said at a past meeting.

Student of Moi

Being a student of former President Moi and having served as the Kanu Director of Elections, President Ruto is an experienced hand.

He is, therefore, approaching the current task with a lot of knowledge on grassroots mobilization, realignment manoeuvres, party mergers, arm-twisting tactics and where possible creation of political party coalitions.

But what are the pros and cons of having one giant party like the envisaged UDA?

On the negative, such a party will not only monopolise power and create room for dictatorial tendencies but will also gobble up almost all the money paid out from the Political Party’s Fund, thus impoverishing the rest unless a new payout formula is developed.

Studies show that in some cases, a dominant political party will only allow less dominant allies to barely exist without a voice, while also ensuring that the existing opposition parties grow weaker and weaker.

The scenario will almost be similar to a one-party state, where the dominant party operates in an authoritarian context.

Given a chance, such a monolith could return the country to the Kanu era, where a centralised form of governance was embraced that blurred the boundaries between government, the party and the Presidency.

As has been the case in the past, the president was in total control of the Executive arm and his office would oversee the defection of MPs from other parties to Kanu especially when the ruling party failed to garner a parliamentary majority in elections.

“Without strong political parties, poor governance, corruption, authoritarianism, total disregard of law, lack of merit and rewarding mediocrity, cronyism and blind loyalty will return,” says Philip Kisia, a politician.

Analysts further argue that such a party will be dangerous because the freedom of members of the legislature, interest groups and civil society and other avenues of public participation, including the media will be curtailed.

It is also feared that no real political competition will exist and debate even within the party itself will be minimal or may not be allowed for fear of being disciplined or denied a ticket to contest.

It is worth noting that before UDA came to power, the Jubilee Party, then under the chairmanship of Raphael Tuju, had also built a very strong relationship with CPC.

While receiving senior CPC officials, Tuju claimed that the party had effectively fought against corruption and it could be a big lesson for other African political parties.

“It becomes very difficult to eradicate corruption in a country when that discipline is not there, within the context of a party,” he said then.

Thereafter, some institutions that were promoting democratic ideals, among them the US-sponsored International Republican Institute (IRI), raised a red flag over the hobnobbing that emerged between the CPC and the Jubilee Party in October 2016.

“Jubilee Party, from the top down, has lavished praise on CPC’s development and governance strategy and ability to “unify” China. Jubilee’s Gung-ho China policy has granted CPC extensive access beyond the central elite to local party officials, holding workshops at every county level in Kenya,” said IRI.

Previous studies have detailed the CPC’s efforts to shape views and policy toward China, and the impact of those efforts on each country’s governance and relationship with Beijing.

Now that another love affair has emerged between UDA and CPC, it remains to be seen how the US pro-democracy campaign agencies will react especially now that President Ruto will be in Washington DC next week.

But scholars have also argued that there are lessons African countries can learn from CPC.

Prof Peter Kagwanja, Africa Policy Institute chief executive describes CPC as a powerful intellectual and policy machine, presiding over the modern world’s only ‘civilisational state’.

Lessons from China

He also writes that the CPC has united the country’s 56 ethnic nationalities and guaranteed regime safety and stability and therefore.

“The million-dollar question is: What can Africa, with the highest mortality rate of parties, learn from the CPC?” says Kagwanja 

Unlike UDA which is in its infantry, CPC was established on July 6, 1921, on the principles of Marxism-Leninism and successfully transitioned from a liberation movement to a governing party.

During the visit, the UDA officials will be told that the post-liberation CPC was forged on the anvil of two revolutionary moments. One is China’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966-1976) to ‘preserve Chinese Communism’.

Kagwanja says CPC policies shifted the axis of power from an entrenched party elite to a people-centred governance system.

“It is a hybrid party secured on socialist and Chinese values and traditions lasting over 5,000 years. Ideologically, it is organised along the Leninist principle of ‘democratic centralism’, which is anchored on the Confucian concept of Great Unity,” says Kagwanja.

However, according to Kagwanja,  political stability is another key milestone that CPC has achieved because, for over 75 years, it has united the country’s 56 ethnic nationalities and guaranteed regime safety and stability.

But CPC has also received a lot of criticism for allegedly trying to indoctrinate political parties in Africa with its political ideals, yet it has been noted for its dictatorship and lack of transparency in party elections and management.

Being the only party, all candidates seeking political office in China must belong to CPC, whose leader President Xi Jinping, has had a tight grip on the country and does not entertain rebels within party ranks.

In 2018, officials from CCP, among them Wang Yang, the chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) visited Kenya and met President Uhuru Kenyatta, where they promised him goodies among them 20 scholarships.

The following year, Jubilee Party officials visited China for a political conference that brought together 400 party officials invited by CPC from many third-world countries.

Political courses

Upon returning home, Tuju revealed that the party had planned to offer political courses in four local universities. He added that the courses, focusing on political education and ideals of the party would have targeted those seeking political offices.

At the State House meeting in 2018, Uhuru agreed with the CPC officials that Jubilee would take its members to China to learn skills in grassroots mobilization, democracy and party management.

Political analysts point out that CPC could be embarking on another attempt to push its ideological agenda through UDA, largely because they now have to go back to the drawing board.

“Relations between China and Kenya have not been very rosy. President Ruto has become a darling of the West, but China has not relented from pursuing its agenda,” says Ronald Simiyu of Masinde Muliro University.

Prof Kagwanja argues that under Xi, the scope of CPC’s anti-corruption campaign has been unprecedented, targeting some two million officials and netting both “tigers” (high-ranking offenders) and “flies” (petty ones).  

“As a result of the trinity of political stability, anti-corruption and green development, China has lifted more than 850 million people out of poverty since 1978, a milestone hailed by the World Bank as “one of the great stories in human history,” wrote Kagwanja.

But critics have also pointed out that many infrastructure projects undertaken by China in Africa have been shrouded in secrecy.

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