Beginning in the early 1990’s, a re-democratization movement began to sweep across the countries of sub-Sahara Africa many of which had turned to autocratic, authoritarian and dictatorial political regimes. This second “wind of change” was heralded as the triumph of democracy. Indeed, Francis Fukuyama declared enthusiastically, the end of history.
Even though African countries adopted a turn to multi-party competitive politics, more regular and open national elections, and two-term limits on African presidents, however, presidential power remained unaltered. This general pattern is particularly true of Kenya, where the executive remains the dominant political player despite both the reintroduction of multiparty politics and the introduction of a new constitution in 2010. My new book, Democracy Challenged in the 2022 Presidential Succession in Kenya: The African Imperial President, explores why there has been so much continuity, the succession politics this gave rise to in Kenya’s 2022 general elections, and what this means for Kenyan politics today.
Continuity and change in Kenyan politics
The roots of Kenya’s imperial presidency run deep. The colonial government constructed a powerful executive led by the Governor. He had a provincial administration which reached down from his office to grassroots Kenya which was supported by the creation of a separate police force known as the Administration Police (AP). This force would ensure the full implementation of every directive from the Governor without question.
At Independence, the new leader, then Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta moved quickly to create the position of president – for himself to occupy – which became head of government and head of state. This new executive office retained the powerful provincial administration whose officers would be presidential appointees who would report directly to the president on every issue, development and challenge in rural and urban Kenya. These officers had the advantage of unchallenged power based on the common expression, “orders from above”. This structure of administration became the foundation of the continuing Imperial President in Kenya. Successive Kenyan Presidents – Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki – all anchored their power on the provincial administration.
Even the new Kenya Constitution in 2010 which introduced a devolved system of government, with the creation of 47 new counties each with a directly elected Governor, and a strong call for the end of the provincial administration could not shake the determination of President Kibaki to retain his administrative chain of command. This institution plus the power of the president to shape the political careers and economic advance of his appointed ministers and assistant ministers continued despite democratic renewal and reform.
The 2022 elections and the succession struggle
Early in the second term of fourth President Uhuru Kenyatta, his Deputy President, William Ruto, began an early presidential campaign for 2022. Kenyatta had to step down in 2022 due to the two-term limit. Up until 2017, his succession seemed seamless as he had earlier agreed to support Ruto in 2022, as Ruto had done in mobilizing his Kalenjin community to support Kenyatta both in the 2013 and 2017 elections.
Yet despite these promises, the Deputy President’s early campaigning for 2022 incensed Kenyatta, who became determined to shape his succession to his preferred candidate – long-time opposition leader Raila Odinga – and deny Ruto the presidency. My book analyzes the evolution of the succession struggle from March 2018 through the August 2022 presidential election and beyond into 2023. Drawing on the highly developed electronic media in Kenya, I analyse the speeches, interviews, statements, and press conferences of the major political actors and their loyal allies.
The book also features the numerous Roadside Rallies held by the contending candidates for the presidency. Often, these rallies were spontaneous events whereby a candidate would stop in a market center or a bus or matatu stop or a school ground. The candidate would then stand up in a SUV through the open sunroof and with a microphone address the sudden gathering of Kenyans. Other times, a candidate’s schedule would be publicized beforehand naming the centers where a roadside rally would occur. Television stations, whether regional or national, would provide a full video of the event. Hence, it was possible for me to follow the campaigns very closely as they evolved.
The political culture of Kenya
In addition to covering the contours of the campaign, the book highlights the role of three normative values – loyalty, respect, and eldership – underlying political culture in Kenya. These values became important in the competitive political discourse during the elections. Three negative approbations in campaign discourse also became salient – to abuse someone, to diminish someone, and to finish someone – and these trends are also traced throughout the analysis.
In this regard, it is important to note the attempt by President Kenyatta, in association with Odinga, to amend the 2010 Kenya Constitution to expand the Executive with the creation of the positions of Prime Minister and two Deputy Prime Ministers. This effort, termed the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), also sought to expand the number of constituencies in the National Assembly and to create the post of Judicial Ombudsman to oversee the operations of the judiciary. The BBI process led to three critical court decisions which had the effect of also impacting the succession struggle, but ultimately left the constitution of Kenya unchanged.
The judiciary was also involved in the election outcome. Following Ruto’s narrow victory, Odinga rejected the results and claimed that they had been manipulated. The Supreme Court of Kenya therefore came to play a critical role, hearing petitions from the losing side but ultimately rejecting them and concluding that the polls had been credible.
Struggle turns to protest
Denied the court decision he desired, Odinga asked his supporters to take to the streets in protest, first at his election defeat and then later against the high cost of living. For his part, Kenyatta sustained Odinga’s efforts by declaring that Raila Odinga was his President. Odinga’s protests took a more determined turn in January 2023, which undermined his commitment to democracy as a losing candidate willing to accept any election outcome. Against the backdrop of these protests, I analyze the politics of presidential succession into 2023.
Critically, the book reveals the wide range of tools available to an Imperial President to impose his will. By analyzing the campaign over an extended period, we can now understand why the democratic “wind of change” can generate so much resistance within a country like Kenya. The democratic character of the Kenyan polity survived, but only just, and only after the president had attempt to deploy a wide variety of strategies to try and retain control once his own time in office had ended.
Jeffrey Steeves is Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.
You can order the book at: https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-3009-6. Readers ordering the book directly using this link can get a 25 per cent discount by using the code PROMO25.