Coalition politics and the ICC in Kenya

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In this column for the Daily Nation, our co-editor Nic Cheeseman argues that President Kenyatta’s trip to the Hague told us as much about how he intends to handle domestic politics as about his intentions with regards to the ICC. His willingness to publicly state his faith in Deputy President William Ruto was an important signal of the importance of the Jubilee Alliance to both leaders.

When President Kenyatta went to the Hague, he took the unusual step of officially recusing himself from the presidency. This was something that he had not done on any of the previous occasions on which he has left the country. In making a public show of his willingness to transfer presidential authority to the Deputy President, William Ruto, Kenyatta killed two birds with one stone. By going as a private individual rather than the president, he made it clear that he does not believe that the ICC should have the right to interrogate sitting heads of state. According to the president, the ICC’s actions represent a continuation of western “exploitation and domination” and “It is for this reason that I chose not to put the sovereignty of more than 40 million Kenyans on trial since their democratic will should never be subject to another jurisdiction”.

What received less attention at the time, both in Kenya and abroad, was the fact that by vesting such great authority in Ruto, if only temporarily, he also sent an important message to Kenyans: the Jubilee Alliance is alive and well. This is significant, given the recent media coverage of what The Standard described as “behind-the-scene struggles pitting members of the two main parties; The National Alliance (TNA) and United Republican Party ( URP) against each other.”

 The experience elsewhere

Presidents are not always so willing to trust their Deputies. Zambian President has behaved very differently. When the president has left the country – which he has done frequently recently as a result of his deteriorating health, the president has refused to allow Vice President Guy Scott to take the reins as acting president. Instead, a variety of different cabinet leaders have been chosen. Initially, the president’s favorite was Finance Ministers Alex Chikwanda – his own uncle. Sata’s determination to keep power within the family suggests that he does not fully trust Scott to take over, even though the two men have worked side-by-side for some time now.

This is surprising, as one might have thought that Scott would be a relatively benign person to hand over temporary power to compared to Ruto, given that he is barred from becoming Zambia’s full-time president by a constitutional clause that bars individuals from the presidency if their parents were born outside of the country. Despite this, when President Sata had to leave the country for medical treatment on 20 October – meaning that he will miss Zambia’s 50th birthday celebrations – he put the Defense Minister, Edgar Lungu, in charge.

The Kenyatta-Ruto relationship

In the light of the Zambian experience, Kenyatta’s willingness to sign over authority to Ruto should not be treated lightly. Rather, it represents strong evidence that although there is a significant degree of sniping between the TNA and URP camps, the relationship between the two leaders remains strong. Let us reflect for a minute on the foundations of the Ruto-Kenyatta coalition. It seems to me that there are three good reasons to think that the Jubilee Alliance will now make it to the next election campaign.

The first is Kenyatta’s public show of trust in Ruto, and the remarkable absence of public disagreements between the two leaders in Jubilee’s first year and a half in power. Think back to the NaRC coalition – by this point, President Kibaki and Raila Odinga had already fallen out over the question of constitutional reform. Subsequently, Kibaki’s failure to create the post of Prime Minister for Odinga would ultimately result in ODM leaving the coalition and campaigning against the government in the constitutional referendum of 2005. For all of the squabbling between those lower down the Alliance, and Ruto’s concern that some TNA leaders may be supporting his namesake to undermine his authority in his own backyard, the relative harmony at the heart of the coalition is impressive by Kenyan standards.

It doesn’t look too bad from the point of view of international standards either. From the very beginning of the alliance between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in the UK there was public friction over issues such as health and education policy. Indeed, during the party conferences season last month the Liberal’s Nick Clegg and the Conservative’s David Cameron actively attacked each other. After the Home Secretary Theresa May claimed that the Lib Dems had put children at risk by blocking a proposal to give the government new data monitoring powers, Clegg hit back, claiming that it was “a level of outrageous information that I have not witnessed in the four and a half years that I have been in this government. Most commentators and leaders subsequently agreed with Clegg that the spat marked a “low point in coalition relations”.

Of course, the political temperature is rising in Britain because the political parties their can see the start of the next general election campaign coming into view. At the same point in the political calendar cracks may start emerging in the Jubilee Alliance too. But Kenyatta and Ruto have a good reason to try and downplay their differences. The most obvious is that they need each other. Without Kenyatta, Ruto does not have access to the wealth and power that is currently elevating him to be one of Kenya’s most powerful political operators. Even if Ruto does intend to go it alone and make a bid for the presidency one day, he will need more time in power to set himself up with the economic and political base required to make his dreams a reality. Moreover, Ruto knows that if he contests the next election with Kenyatta he will enjoy the full benefits of state support – which is just what he needs if he is to build his image as a national, rather than a regional, heavyweight.

Similarly, without Ruto, Kenyatta cannot govern. In the absence of Ruto’s MPs, Senators, and Governors, TNA would find itself outnumbered and vulnerable to legislative defeat. It is not just that the fragile peace that currently holds in the Rift Valley would be undermined – the very foundation of Kenyatta’s rule would be called into question. Of course, Kenyatta could look to replace Ruto and his supporters, but there are not many attractive ways of doing this. Raila Odinga is currently in combative mode, and none of Kenya’s other front line politicians – Musalia Mudavadi, Charity Ngilu, Kalonzo Musyoka, Peter Kenneth – has the popular base or the organizational capacity that Ruto brings to the table.

The referendum campaign

The campaigns of the ODM and many Governors to force a referendum on devolution have given Kenyatta another reason to keep Ruto close. Despite what some of the media coverage would have you think, there is a significant minority of Kenyans who back the idea of a referendum and would vote to defend and extend devolution – certainly enough to give the ODM the 1 million signatures it needs to initiate the process to hold a referendum.

At that point, the spotlight will turn to County Assemblies. A referendum will only be held if it is backed by a majority (24) of the 47 Assemblies. This is important, because TNA is particularly weak when it comes to control over Governors and County Assemblies. Without the support of URP – which has more Governors than TNA – the President would face an uphill struggle to control sufficient Governors and Assemblies to thwart the opposition. Even with the recently announced funds for County Assemblies, county representatives are unlikely to vote against their party leaders if they know that doing so may undermine their ability to sure the party ticket next time round.

Taken together, this means that Kenyatta has a number of compelling reasons to keep Ruto happy. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the coalition is set in stone: at some point the high level of internal sniping will take its toll, and it is clear that both leaders are being lobbied by groups who believe that their interests would be better served by a different political configuration. The ongoing success of the Alliance will depend on the ability of both leaders to discipline their rank-and-file. But when we think about the point at which the Alliance is most likely to breakdown, it is important to keep in mind that the most challenging stress point for the government does not fall during this parliament.

I am speaking, of course, of the Kenyatta succession. As a sitting president, Kenyatta will naturally expect to run again next time round. This will frustrate Ruto’s supporters and hardliners within URP, but it will not surprise the Deputy President, and he will not feel hard done by if he is asked to once again play the role of running mate. The real challenge for the coalition will come if the president wins a second term at the helm of the Jubilee Alliance, and TNA leaders subsequently reject Ruto’s right to follow in Kenyatta’s footsteps when he is forced to stand down by presidential term limits. It is hard to see how any government could survive this, but that will not be until around 2020…

So, while it is always risky to make predictions in the turbulent world of Kenyan politics, it looks like the Jubilee Alliance could be around for some time to come.

Nic Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University and is the founder of

2 thoughts on “Coalition politics and the ICC in Kenya

  1. Mister Cheeseman, you haven’t mentioned the political revolution in Zambia once on your website? What has happened? This is disgraceful, things are happening in Zambia – Colonialism is alive and thriving – How do ordinary Zambians tackle this? Matero and Mulungushi didn’t change anything, jobs are still scarce and people can’t obtain jobs – HELP US HELP US HELP US

    God Bless

  2. Prof Cheeseman, i very much admire your articles in the Daily Nation,Kenya.I wish i had an education beyond High School level.I could have participated actively towards the empowerment of the underprivileged like you in particular and other great men and women-Who have devoted their precious time for the good of humanity..Please pray for me that one day i secure a sponsor or a scholarship through which i can pursue my academic emancipation:Improve the lives of my peasant parents,my village and my community at large.
    At 26, i hope it’s not too late to dream.All is not lost,my undying spirit wont dwindle.
    Keep up the good work prof !

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