#BookClub: Power and the Presidency in Kenya

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In the latest in our popular #BookClub feature, Anaïs Angelo reveals the most significant lessons of her fascinating new book Power and the Presidency: The Jomo Kenyatta Years. To see all of our #BookClub blogs, click here.

African presidents are an essential part of a Western stereotypical representation of African politics controlled by a few individuals, not by institutions. This vision has its roots in a colonial perception of the African continent as dominated by emotions that leave no space for more complex politics. It has been reinforced by a literary tradition sanctifying the biographies of “great men” while demonizing more troubled political figures. Yet, it eluded an important question: why did, upon independence, almost all African states adopt a presidential system of rule? Put differently: what are the historical origins of presidential power in postcolonial African countries? This is the question my book, Power and the Presidency in Kenya: The Jomo Kenyatta Years (1958-1978), sought to answer.

The academic discourse has for a long time reproduced these stereotypical biases, interpreting African politics as the playground of a few prophets, tyrants and princes (to paraphrase Robert H. Jackson and Carl G. Roseberg), and minimizing the role of so-called “weak” institutions. Since the 1990s, the role and importance of African institutions are no longer questioned, but caricatures of African presidents have persisted in popular culture. The success of the British film The Last King of Scotland (2006) about Idi Amin Dada, Uganda’s dictator from 1970 to 1979, shows a fascination with the African dictator pictured as a dangerous and eccentric figure, yet never as a serious political actor. One could also cite humorist Trevor Noah’s sketch declaring Donald Trump the real first African president of the United States and comparing him to various African presidents (Idi Amin Dada once again, but also the South African and Gambian presidents, Jacob Zuma and Yaya Jammeh). The sketch is funny only insofar as it transfers the stereotypical representation of African dictators as megalomaniac, hyper-masculine and on the verge of madness, to Trump himself.

More recently, however, scholars have emphasized that African presidents’ purportedly excessive personalities must be considered as serious political strategies. Alicia Decker has shown, for example, that Amin’s hyper-masculinity was a political strategy. Others have shown that behind this show, autocrats strategically use the power of ideas to legitimize their rule. These arguments are necessary to challenge the stereotypical representation of African presidents. Still, one must ask how can one man come to personify a whole political system? Writing a different narrative on African presidential history first required the deconstruction of a notion that has been increasingly criticized: that of the “father of the nation”.

Why, when and how did Kenyatta became the “father” of the Kenyan nation? By the time the independence negotiations had started (early 1960s), Kenyatta was living under restriction: he had been (falsely) convicted by British colonial authorities for being the leader of the Mau Mau, a movement that emerged in the early 1950s in protest over colonial land alienation, economic inequalities and political oppression and was crushed in a brutal counter-insurgency war. Though the sentence turned Kenyatta into a (Mau Mau) martyr, his relationship to the movement was much more ambiguous, since he always publicly denounced Mau Mau fighters as “terrorists”, and the movement as a “disease”. There was, however, little consensus among the Kenyan political elite as to whether he should become father of the nation: as a moderate politician, defendant of a centralized state, his leadership aroused much opposition. Yet no other leader could claim to be both a friend and an enemy of the Mau Mau: Kenyatta was the only politician who could embody reconciliation in a country torn apart by colonial rule and the Mau Mau war.

Until Kenya became formally independent in 1963, the negotiations focused on land decolonization and whether the future state apparatus should be centralized or decentralized. As Kenyatta and his party, the Kenya National African Union, formally took over the government, the debate took an unexpected turn: what would be the limit of executive powers within a centralized government? Only a few wanted Kenyatta to become president, and fewer wanted him to be granted extensive executive powers. The question created much tension among the Kenyan elite, to the point that Kenya’s transition to becoming a republic was delayed by one year. Parliamentarians specifically contested the provisions made by the draft independence constitutions that “the President has power to make any appointment or make any order or do any other thing” (my emphasis). Yet these debates had come too late in the independence period to negotiate. The British government saw Kenyatta as politically indispensable to hold a divided country together – and so he was indeed. He had no stake in compromising his political plans, or softening his ambitions. No one could resist the extended (almost limitless) and ill-defined executive powers he was granted.

Upon independence, Kenyatta knew he was surrounded by a deeply divided political elite. He was a shrewd politician however, and understood how to keep his enemies not only close to him, but also close to state resources (he almost completely controlled) by nominating them to important political positions. Besides, he had no other choice but to remain a discreet and distant president, to remain aloof from political tensions. As such, he was never interested in the daily politics of bread and butter and was largely ignorant of bureaucratic intricacies. His role was to hold a fragile presidential system together (Nic Cheeseman and Jonathan Fisher speak of “fragile authoritarianism”). He built a system where popular discontent could never reach him and would be rerouted towards provincial or regional administrators, parliamentarians and sometimes, ministers – who had but little political leeway in a system highly dependent on presidential decision making, as Kara Moskowitz has brilliantly shown.

Far from the myth of the omnipotent father of the nation, big man or dictator, the strength of the Kenyan presidential system was built on divisions and uncertainty. Presidential power has a more complex history than stereotypes want us to believe. It requires political intelligence, rather than irrationality or uncontrolled passions, for the president to understand and hold both his allies and enemies together. Until today, the presidency in Kenya remains the sole institution that resists (desperate) attempts to decentralize the political system. Nevertheless, presidential rule is also evolving. While Kenyatta became an increasingly imperial leader, his successors, and his son and current President Uhuru Kenyatta in particular, further turned the presidency into an increasingly authoritarian and dynastic institution.

But one things remains: no matter how strong the presidential institution is, it was and is still built on profoundly fragile alliances. Kenyatta established a system of rule where there is no place for political friendship – it is not surprising that, already by 1938, in the preface of his book Facing Mount Kenya he thanked his enemies “for the stimulating discouragement” and wished them “Long life and health to them to go on with the good work!” With the 2022 presidential campaign looming, the presidential team is profoundly divided between Uhuru’s camp and that of his former ally, Deputy President William Ruto. The recent handshake between Uhuru and his long-time adversary Raila Odinga signals not only that Uhuru is, just like his father, using his presidential privileges to turn his enemies into allies, temporarily at least, so as to remain in power in 2022. In a context of political and economic insecurity created by the Covid-19 pandemic and continuous weakening of civil society, it might well be that Uhuru’s presidential powers will be stronger than ever.


Anaïs Angelo is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of African Studies, University of Vienna (Austria).

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