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Rebels realise hell hath no fury like a president scorned

By Special Correspondent | May 24th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

President Uhuru Kenyatta.

When the history of today’s happenings in Jubilee Party is written, it will be a choice between two extremes. It will be cast either as the triumph of political party discipline over truancy, or an unfortunate rollback from democracy to dictatorship of the Executive through the political party. 

The ongoing purge in Jubilee comes in the wake of assertive intransigence by people previously seen as diehard party honchos. Senators Kipchumba Murkomen and Kithure Kindiki, who have been removed as Senate Leader of Majority and Deputy Speaker, respectively, gained the notoriety of party servility in the first five years of the Jubilee rule. 

Mr Murkomen and Prof Kindiki crisscrossed the country in the skies, preaching the Jubilee gospel, even in the most awkward and embarrassing moments. They led the squad that apologised most loudly for Jubilee during the Eurobond and NYS scams. They gained the tag of the Sky Team, reflecting their helter-skelter airborne movements. Everywhere they went, they lionised President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. They called for punishment, including removal from office of those who did not toe the party line.

It is the great irony of Jubilee Party history that they have been among the very first to bite the axe in a purge that appears set to bracket in some more people. Where this exercise ends up  will define it either as the start of instilling party discipline in the country, or as a purge of the kind that some of the worst regimes in world history have undertaken, every so often.

Wasted opportunity

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Political parties have suffered a serious discipline deficit across the board, ever since the Political Parties Act was legislated in 2011. The Act was meant to cure the malady of indiscipline. It instead turned out to be iatrogenic, like bad medicine, because of the very high bar it places on the disciplinary process. From internal dispute resolution, through the Political Parties Dispute Tribunal, all the way to appellate processes in the courts, it is extremely difficult for a political party to call errant members to order. Even more difficult is to eject them from the party.

The discipline challenges that have led Murkomen, Kindiki and Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika into trouble are not unique to Jubilee Party. ODM and ANC have each had kindred challenges with some of their legislators. Nominated MP Godfrey Osotsi has been a thorn in the ANC flesh for three years now.

The party expelled him last year, but the matter is still dragging through appellate processes in the courts, leaving the applicants and defendants in indefinite limbo. ANC also has a challenge with Kakamega Senator Cleophas Malala, whose expulsion from the party last year is still incomplete due to legal technicalities. 

ODM, on the other hand, has had issues with the late Msambweni MP Suleiman Dori and Malindi’s Aisha Jumwa, who showed open defiance towards their party leader Raila Odinga. Attempts to expel them from ODM, for defying the party and working with anti-Odinga elements in Jubilee, proved difficult.

ODM went on to eat the humble pie after Ms Jumwa petrified Secretary General Edwin Sifuna at a burial in Kilifi. Jumwa, who was the MC at the event, snatched the microphone from Mr Sifuna. She ordered him to sit down. Sifuna had tried to use the funeral to bring up the matter of her indiscipline.

The die is cast

The goings on in Jubilee are, therefore, test cases that other parties will be watching very keenly. At another level, Kenyans will be concerned that party discipline does not degenerate into Orwellian Inner Party purges. In history, these purges are selective and harmful removals of particular sections, or groups, and individuals, within the party, organisations and even from the community.

The Shanghai Purge of April 1927 is one of the most ill-famed party actions against dissenters. It was a violent suppression of elements of the opposition Chinese Communist Party in the reign of General Chiang Kai-Shek. Its agents were the military, working with conservative elements in Chiang’s Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang. But, apart from the Communist Party, the Nationalists extended the purge to their own members, flushing out perceived communists and eliminating them physically. The purges eventually split up the Kuomintang and China, until the Communist takeover in 1949, under Chairman Mao Tse Tung. 

Even societies that boast of democratic decency have had indecent purges of their own. In the Second Red Scare in the United States (1940s and 1950s), Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin led political repression against both real and perceived communists. Fear spread everywhere in the US. Hundreds of Americans fell afoul of McCarthyism, as it was called. Reputations were damaged and careers permanently destroyed.

Ironically, it was the iconic President Harry Truman (1945 – 1953)  who kicked off this process that steadily degenerated into open witch hunting. Truman’s official edict of 1947 was an order “to screen federal employees for association with organisations seen to be totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive.”

It also extended to persons seeking to change the form of American government through unconstitutional means. 

A purge that begins with what looks like noble intents has every potential of morphing into a monstrous movement. It is behind this background that Senator Kindiki’s parting words in the Senate last Friday must be understood. “We must decide whether we want to live in freedom or in fear,” he said. 

Kenyans’ questions

The Tharaka-Nithi Senator had other thoughtful messages for his colleagues and for the country. They all pointed to one thing – fear. Are Kenyan legislators afraid, as Senator Kindiki has suggested? If they are, what are they afraid of? What should this mean for the country, the rule of law and law making? Kenyans will be asking these questions, even as the Jubilee purge continues. 

It has been common knowledge that the purge in Jubilee is against Deputy President William Ruto, and his people in the party and in government. It has also been a common belief that the deputy president’s Tangatanga wing of Jubilee has more numbers in either House of Parliament than President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kieleweke.

Every so often, members of Tangatanga have literally brandished gloved iron fists, daring Kieleweke and their ODM friends to bring up, in Parliament, a Motion of impeachment against the DP, if they have the guts. “We have got the numbers,” has been the common refrain.

What could have happened to the Tangatanga numbers? Some 54 senators, against seven, voted for the removal of the Deputy Speaker. The element of fear cannot be ruled out.

Expedience vs principal

In February this year, close to 200 MPs from the combined Houses of Parliament gathered in Naivasha in a show of might, in support of the deputy president. Ruto was then under siege by promoters of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) effort.

A few weeks later, about 170 MPs assembled again to air their support for him, when ODM and Kieleweke told a Press gathering that they would impeach him. Pundits will be pondering what seems to be diffusing the Tangatanga solidarity.

The puzzle is added to by the great irony that before removing him, one senator after the other stood up to literally eulogise Kindiki in the Senate. They would then go on to regret that he must go. They indicated that their hands were tied and that it was expedient that he must fall.

It was, indeed, instructive that the new Majority Whip, the soft spoken Senator Irungu Kang’ata of Murang’a, was openly apologetic. Without any indication of intended sarcasm, Mr Kang’ata referred to Kindiki several times as “my friend” and regretted his then imminent fall.

“I have nothing personal against you. I am only doing what the party has instructed me to do,” he said, more than once.

The pointers are ominous. They speak of a legislature that is steadily falling into the grip of fear. It is this fear that scattered the numbers that Tangatanga often flaunts in the face of Kieleweke. Going forward, Tangatanga MPs will be walking on egg shells. They will be cautious, lest they rub the centre of power the wrong way. A bigger question for the country is about the quality of legislation a frightened legislature can make. Such a House risks sinking into a ready rubber stamp for the Executive. 

One question remains, however. What would cower the Legislature in a multiparty democracy, to the extent that members vote against their will and better judgement? Even in the one party era, Parliament had mavericks who stuck by their guns, regardless of the risk of expulsion from the party and loss of their seats. Detention without trial was also an option. Indeed, others like JM Kariuki were eliminated altogether. What is it then, that would make Parliament captive to the Executive in a modern multiparty Kenya? Only time will tell.

Going forward, however, the ruling party has, at one level,  asserted itself. It has underscored the import of party discipline. The Jubilee clampdown, moreover, has enjoyed a jab in the arm, by the Judiciary. The Judiciary moved with uncommon speed to provide some degree of relief to the party on matters that had spilled into its jurisdiction. Ahead of the removal of Senator Kindiki and earlier that of Murkomen as Majority Leader, and Ms Kihika as Majority Whip, the party made controversial changes in its National Management Committee (NMC), last month.

A number of officials, led by National Assembly Majority Whip Benjamin Washiali of Mumias East, took the matter before the Political Parties Dispute Tribunal (PPDT). They contested the manner in which the changes had been made, suggesting that due process had not been followed. The PPDT has 90 days within which it should resolve such matters. The matter was, however, speedily returned to the party, “to exhaust its internal dispute resolution mechanisms” around the dispute. 

On a different level, President Uhuru has possibly just woken up to the promise made through his friend and confidant David Murathe, who is also Jubilee’s national vice chairman. Mr Murathe is too often perceived to act as the president’s sounding board.  Towards the end of Uhuru’s first term, Murathe stated on KTN that Uhuru would be more assertive and ruthless in his second term. Kenyans are probably just beginning to witness that side of their metamorphosed president. 

It is not clear, however, how far presidential fiat of a purgative nature could go outside Jubilee circles, in the age of political pluralism. In the past the Independence party Kanu, as the only party in the country, brought many politicians down to their knees.

Their knees trembled with fear, tears flowing freely on their humiliated cheeks. You toed the line, or faced the music. In extreme cases, you ended up in detention without trial. You did not cross the party. Might made right. It is possible that Kenya could be experimenting, once again, on the edges of a political theatre in which might makes right.

History repeats itself

It has been three decades since that brand of Executive might and right was exercised in Kenya. Yet it is instructive that both under President Jomo Kenyatta and President Daniel arap Moi, the clampdown on dissent began with Parliament, as seems to be happening today. In 1964, the opposition in Parliament was cornered into submission. Under the stewardship of Tom Mboya, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Charles Njonjo and Mwai Kibaki, opposition parties in Parliament dissolved themselves. 

Opposition MPs crossed the floor to join the Kanu benches, with Butere MP Martin Shikuku as the last member of Kadu to cross over. Moi, Ronald Ngala and Masinde Muliro were rewarded with cabinet positions. A similar whiff is in the air, with a number of opposition parties looking restless to go into a coalition arrangement with Jubilee, following Kanu’s recent covenant with the ruling party. Wiper Democratic Movement has now asked party leader Kalonzo Musyoka, “to move urgently,” to firm up a post-election alliance with Jubilee.

National unity card

Under Mzee Kenyatta, the card of national unity was played to get rid of the Opposition, with Jaramogi’s Kenya’s People’s Union (KPU) serving as the only short-lived opposition between 1966 and 1969. For the rest of the days, up to November 1991, Kanu was the only party in the country. The Independence party used its monopoly of political space to purge and even incarcerate dissenters. Tragically, some of those who had created the Kanu behemoth became its victims as well. Among them were Jaramogi and Njonjo. 

While Jaramogi was key to neutralisation of the Opposition in 1963 – 64, Njonjo and Kibaki sponsored the 1982 Motion that made Kenya a one party State by law. Njonjo was purged from the system in 1983, while Kibaki was steadily pushed to the fringes of power from 1983, climaxing in his removal as Vice President in 1988. The purged power brokers of yesteryear marked their time patiently outside the circle of power. Kibaki would have a second life as an opposition chief, who went on to become president in 2002 to 2013. Njonjo and Jaramogi oscillated outside the power axis after their purges. 

It is also instructive that the Jubilee purges are taking place concurrently with efforts to bring other parties into both the Jubilee ring and shadow. How far this will go remains to be seen. These things are happening in changed multiparty democracy times, however, and the chances of going back to 1964 –1966 look remote. The galaxy of political stars in the emerging political mosaic around Jubilee and their appetites for power could complicate the game, going forward.

It is mostly a wait-and-see affair, however.

Kipchumba Murkomen Kithure Kindiki Jubilee President Uhuru Kenyatta
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