KENYA – The imperilled presidency

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This is the second piece from the members of our DiA Academy. Leonard Wanyama, a development and governance practitioner in Kenya, in this piece, gives a detailed account of Uhuru Kenyatta’s determination to be Kenya’s imperial president.


Kenyans are increasingly frustrated with the Jubilee administration. First, they expected President Uhuru Kenyatta to announce the sacking of corrupt officials in his government during his State of the Nation Address on 4 April 2019, but he did not. Secondly, the reported Chinese rejection of Uhuru’s request for financing for the second phase of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) resulted in speculation over revival of the meter gauge railway line. This elicited memories of previous ‘white elephant’ projects. Thirdly, there is general uneasiness with the government’s drive to coerce citizens to participate in the new National Integrated Identity Management System despite a court ruling barring the government from conducting mandatory registration. The new card, also known as Huduma Namba, is a ‘service number’ the government is issuing without which it is speculated, access to public services would be difficult to attain for unregistered Kenyans. 

With a foul public mood against the UhuRuto (a campaign moniker combining the names of the President and his deputy William Ruto) compact, is the Jubilee administration an imperilled presidency? The ‘imperilled presidency’ description comes from Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States of America (USA). He critiqued the theory of Imperial Presidency, which supposed that the Executive Office was an expanding bureaucracy of personnel, loyal only to the individual in office – hence not subject to any external controls or approvals.

An imperial presidency comprise of various advisory bodies, complementing the work of state departments or agencies, thereby degrading the influence of cabinet. Appointment to such entities is not subject to any legislative approval, oversight or control. This enables these units and their staff to act independently of, without regard for, and without accountability to parliament. The president then relies mostly on extra-constitutional powers and increased government secrecy in operations. Ultimately the executive becomes a plebiscitary institution only becoming accountable to the public during elections or in the face of impeachment, rather than in its daily rigmarole of engagements to parliament, the media or its citizens.

In Kenya, the imperial presidency manifested in the form of concentration of power in the Executive and the unlimited exercise of presidential authority by Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya and Daniel Arap Moi his successor. Dr Joshua Kivuva points out that under the two administrations there were no checks on executive action as other arms of government were either unwilling or incapable of doing so. This was also because the Executive purposely went out of its way to pre-emptively weaken these institutions to maintain its power. Secondly, decision-making was done by an inner circle of advisors including family, friends, technocrats and their relatives popularly referred to as the “Kitchen cabinet”. These entities constituted a parallel government trading in influence and access to power.

The imperial presidency was further enhanced by introduction of a single party system enabling technocratic and political consolidation of minority rule. The effect being it systematically entrenched a myriad of illegalities, abuse of office, unaccountability, nepotism, and arbitrary use of power which effected unfair distribution of resources and further cemented colonial foundations for marginalization in Kenya. The Jomo Kenyatta and Moi administrations heavily relied on the civil service bureaucracy plus provincial administration officers thereby transforming them into partisan actors who ignored parliamentary authority.

The status quo was challenged in 2002 when Mwai Kibaki was elected into office. He sought to reform the presidency based on good governance and multi-partyism. Multi-partyism had flourished through the 1990’s following repeal of Section 2A of the then 1963 Constitution dispelling random declarative powers amassed by the executive. However, due to political betrayals, machinations and major historical events, the psyche of various segments in Kenya’s political class and its populace seem to prefer unlimited executive checks on the presidency that allows for instances of arbitrary power. Major events of close to two decades in political skulduggery namely: the fractured National Rainbow Coalition Memorandum of Understanding (NARC-MOU), 2005 Kenyan constitutional referendum, the post-election violence of 2007/08, the 2010 Kenyan constitutional referendum leading to passage of a new constitution and the International Criminal Court (ICC) trials, allowed for reconstitution of these conservative ideals.

Election of the Uhuru-Ruto administration seemingly created opportunities to ‘update’ the imperial presidency and reimagine its existence. Capitalizing on loopholes in the 2010 Constitution of Kenya and commentaries extolling benevolent dictatorship or at least a version of it as exemplified by Dr. Fred Matiang’i, the ‘bullish’ interior cabinet secretary coordinating registration of the Huduma Namba. The Jubilee Party encouraged a push towards a form of unitary executive authority in which the Office of the President sought opportunities to arbitrarily increase Uhuru Kenyatta’s power, for example, the attempted refashioning of the National Youth Service (NYS), which was ultimately bogged down by corruption. Despite persistent undermining of constitutionalism, the establishment of “watchdog bureaucracies” exemplified by formation of independent commissions, and mandatory resource distribution mechanisms have limited the presidency’s anticipated excesses.

Furthermore, the Uhuru-Ruto pact seem to have been a poisoned chalice from the get go. The Jubilee consensus between the former The National Alliance (TNA) and United Republican Party (URP) parties is shaky. Both Kenyatta and Ruto entered into a series of pacts with a coterie of people who, although they had shared interests under the cloud of the ICC trials, maintained dual loyalties that have resulted in numerous State House clashes, mostly emanating from the purported “war against corruption”. The resultant squabbles have spilled over into the parliament, making it more like comical distraction than a house of reason. 

In addition, this has led to covert frustration of executive authority, which has resulted in Kenyatta’s constant public exasperation with, and his administration’s policy estrangement under the pressures of growing public debt obligations. Consequently, the government has increasingly faced bureaucratic protests through whistleblowing. Leaks of the government’s financial malfeasance and mismanagement of state affairs have increased leading to, further depreciation of public trust in the institutional authority of the executive and the president. However,the presidency’s budget, as pointed out by David Ndii, outstrips the combined budget of all independent commissions – this is a deliberate strategy to enhance Uhuru’s power. The administration is further staffed by and over reliant on technocrats who cannot stand up to the president. Maybe, Jubilee would have been safe if it had opened itself to discussions on how to invest in restructuring remnants of the provincial administration it so heavily relies on. Instead it ventured in propagating of counter-reform narratives that heightened political temperatures and reduced the degree of public trust in its ability to deliver especially when it intermittently attacked the same administrators it relies on, particularly chiefs, for political expediency.

Now post the 2017 election: imperilled by its lackadaisical service delivery performance in the face of high public expectations; paralysed by the promises of its pseudo-triumvirate political compromise following the handshake with opposition leader Raila Odinga; jittery over revolution as seen from the utterly unnecessary arrest of a political activist Boniface Mwangi; preoccupied by the next election; and, burdened by the tightening grip of debt around Kenya’s economy, the country awaits with bated breath for a concise way towards advancing the national prosperity.

Leonard Wanyama is a development, governance and international relations practitioner in Kenya. 

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