To succeed, Uhuru must look and act like a Prince.

Facebook Twitter Email

Nic Cheeseman


In this column  for the Daily Nation our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman uses Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg’s work on leadership in Africa to ask:  what kind of ruler will Uhuru Kenyatta be? And, what can Kenyatta learn from those who went before him?





People who know nothing about Africa often assume that all African leaders are all the same — arrogant, uncaring and selfish. Once I was being interviewed on BBC radio about Robert Mugabe’s brutal repression of MDC supporters in Zimbabwe and the highly respected presenter asked whether we could expect any better in Africa.

The implication was that Africa had no good leaders; that Mugabe was little more than a manifestation of a general trend. Of course, this is nonsense. From philosopher kings such as Senegal’s Léopold Sédar Senghor to former military leaders like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and on to committed democrats such as Sir Seewoosagur Rangaloom of Mauritius, Africa features as many variations in leadership styles as any other continent. But what kind of leader will Uhuru Kenyatta be?

Two of the most influential writers on leadership in African, Robert H. Jackson and Carl G. Rosberg, placed presidents into four categories: prince, autocrat, prophet, tyrant. Princes are shrewd, flexible and accommodating — willing to be more inclusive than they need to be in the short-term in order to maintain peace and stability. The real genius of the prince lies in their ability to realise that what is good for the country can also be good for them.

Jackson and Rosberg saw Jomo Kenyatta as a classic ‘prince’ for precisely this reason. Kenyatta allowed his ministers to get on with their jobs without constantly micro-managing them, while under the “harambee” model of development the State pledged to meet the running cost of schools and health clinics for whichever communities were able to build them.

The second category of African leader is the autocrat, who is less willing to share power with others and more determined to dominate the State. In contrast to princes, autocrats are not prepared to allow their ministers to do what they want and instead seek to control all aspects of political and economic life.

Such figures are unwilling to accept constraints on their power, and rule like absolute monarchs. They are also keen to promote stability as a means to ensure their own longevity, but often achieve this through repression rather than inclusion. Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi and Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast are two examples of this kind of leadership.

In terms of Kenyan history, Daniel arap Moi’s leadership in the late 1980s most closely conformed to this ideal type. Figures who disagreed with Moi were systematically removed from power as he sought to secure unlimited control over both the party and the State.

Prophets are different — although they may use authoritarian means, they do so because they are optimistic transformers of society. While princes are typically concerned to preserve the status quo, prophets attempt to use their control over the State to “pursue an ideological vision of a better world”. Such leaders are often seen as teachers, redeemers or messiahs and excite great devotion from their people, but also place great demands on them.

African socialists such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere come closest to fitting this profile. It is striking that Kenya has never had a “prophet” president. Jomo Kenyatta was against the redistribution of wealth, while Mwai Kibaki concentrated on kick-starting the economy and paid little attention to society. Daniel arap Moi was perhaps the leader who came closest to challenging the status quo, but even he never sought to tackle inequality, build a stronger sense of Kenyan identity, or reorganise rural and urban life.

Of course, some leaders have proposed more radical ideas, such as Oginga Odinga, Martin Shikuku and JM Kariuki, who warned against Kenya becoming a country of 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars. But precisely because these figures threatened the interests of those with wealth and power, they were never allowed to ascend to the presidency.

The final category of leader identified by Jackson and Rosberg is the tyrant, whose rule is characterised by oppression, despotism, fear and amorality. Presidents such as Francisco Macias Nguema Biyogo of Equatorial Guinea and Idi Amin of Uganda, were cruel and unjust, willing to abuse their populations to get their own way. What unites them is that they rejected any kind of check or balance on their power and instead ruled in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

The difference between a tyrant and an autocrat is that tyrants are far more willing to destroy institutions and instigate terror in the pursuit of absolute power. For this reason, the rule of tyrants often gives rise to pervasive social and political instability. The period of Kenyan history that most obviously resembles this description is the second decade of the Moi presidency. In the dying years of the one-party state and the early multiparty period, Moi’s government engaged in increasingly desperate strategies to stay in power. As a result, the State was progressively weakened, corruption increased, and inter-ethnic relations deteriorated, sowing the seeds of the 2007 post-election crisis. Kenya can ill-afford another tyrant.

So what kind of president will Uhuru Kenyatta be? He is clearly not a prophet — Uhuru is known to be a conservative thinker and has a personal interest in preserving the status quo. His government may well increase economic growth, but it is unlikely to be too concerned about whether or not it benefits the poor. Social transformation may happen if a stronger economy raises living standards, but it will take a very long time for these benefits to trickle down. The Jubilee Alliance election campaign promised to make Kenya work better, not to change the way that it works.

Many Kenyans seem to be expecting Uhuru to follow in his father’s footsteps and rule like a prince: to recognise that what is good for the country is also good for him. There is no doubt there is some truth to this: if he can deliver high levels of economic growth and preside over an efficient government, his popularity will rise and so will his chances of re-election. The announcement of a more technocratic cabinet that — with the exception of Najib Balala and Charity Ngilu — appears to signal a step in this direction. Kenyatta’s carefully thought-out message is clear: “give us a chance and we will get things done.” In a country in which millions still live below the poverty line this has the makings of an attractive political platform, and one that is likely to go down well with foreign donors.

Optimists argue that Uhuru is less likely to develop into an autocrat or a tyrant because he already has high status and vast wealth. Time will tell, but a term in office with fewer corruption scandals would go a long way to repairing the reputation of the government at home and abroad. However, while Uhuru has made all of the right noises since taking over the presidency it is important to be cautious, because the more open style adopted by princes often obscures the fact that they employ many of the same strategies as autocrats and tyrants.

Consider the styles of leadership of his father and Moi. The latter no doubt used intimidation and coercion more systematically and brutally, but most of the major assassinations in Kenyan political history — Pio Pinto, Tom Mboya, JM Kariuki — happened on Kenyatta’s watch. It is also important to remember that Kanu’s hegemony in the 1970s under Kenyatta was underpinned by a similar combination of carrot and stick that Moi used to retain control in the 1980s. The Kenya People’s Union, for example, was first prevented from effectively contesting the “Little General Elections” of 1966 and later banned in 1969.

In other words, while princes appear to be more democratic and responsible leaders, they often use the same tactics as autocrats when push comes to shove. But precisely because they present themselves as being more responsible and inclusive, this reality is often overlooked. There are already good reasons to doubt Uhuru’s democratic and reformist credentials given his association with Moi in 2002 and the role that he played during the 2007 post-election violence. To prove the doubters wrong he needs not just to look like a prince but to act like one too, in hard times as well as good.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Nation.

The Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in East Africa with a daily circulation of around 205,000.

One thought on “To succeed, Uhuru must look and act like a Prince.

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading