Kenya: the next 12 months…

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In his regular column for the Daily Nation our co-editor, Nic Cheeseman, looks into the political crystal ball and lays out his predictions for Kenya’s political and economic future. 

This year will be a particularly important one for Kenya.

The country stands at a crossroads. If the government can complete major infrastructure projects, get a handle on the terrorist threat, and rebuild confidence in the country’s political institutions, then Kenya can become one of Africa’s economic and democratic success stories. But if insecurity continues to rise and corruption undermines the performance of the government, the risk of political instability and economic downturn are all too real.

So what lies in store for Kenya in 2016? In part one of a two-part column, I look at the political prospects for the next twelve months.

The run-up to 2017 polls

Kenyan politics is notoriously unpredictable. The parties that contest one election may not even exist at the next, and the alliances that can take so long to put together can be rapidly reconfigured in a matter of months. One of the surprising features of the last two years has therefore been how stable the party system has been.

Despite many pundits predicting the imminent collapse of the Jubilee Alliance, it has survived far more effectively than former coalition governments, such as the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), which began to fall apart only months after coming to power in late 2002.

There are still political commentators who think the Jubilee Alliance will not make it through 2016 as a result of the political tensions that are likely to emerge in the run-up to the 2017 polls. According to the sceptics, either President Uhuru Kenyatta will seek to exert control and marginalise Deputy President William Ruto, or Mr Ruto will make a desperate bid for the presidency and abandon Mr Kenyatta.

However, a dispassionate look at the state of Kenyan politics suggests that neither development is likely. So far as President Kenyatta is concerned, keeping Mr Ruto within the Jubilee Alliance makes a great deal of sense. With Mr Ruto in the fold, Mr Kenyatta can provide security for Kikuyu voters living in the Rift Valley, and is the clear favourite to win the 2017 elections.

By contrast, excluding Mr Ruto would force one of Kenya’s most effective and hardworking leaders back into the opposition camp, creating the potential for the formation of a new coalition between Mr Ruto and Mr Raila Odinga – and thus a re-run of the 2007 elections. This is not something that is in the interests of President Kenyatta or his supporters, however much they may dislike Mr Ruto’s presence in government.

As far as Mr Ruto is concerned, leaving the government at this point would be a massive risk. Having worked at the heart of the election campaign in 2013, he knows how well funded and organised Mr Kenyatta’s political machine is, and he has only had one term as Deputy President to raise funds for his own bid for State House.

So long as President Kenyatta does not attempt to remove him, Mr Ruto’s best chance of landing the top job himself is to remain in the Jubilee Alliance and use a second term as Deputy President to raise more revenue and position himself as the president-in-waiting. Combined with the ongoing proceedings at the ICC, this gives the Deputy President a compelling reason to stay where he is.

Of course, nothing is impossible in Kenyan politics, which is why making predictions is such a dangerous game – but my sense is that 2016 will be marked not by the collapse of the coalition, but by a gradual strengthening of the Jubilee Alliance’s control over the political environment.

Assessing the strength of the Jubilee Alliance

Three developments in 2015 served to increase the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by the government and consolidate President Kenyatta’s hold on power. Taken together, they will make a Jubilee Alliance victory in 2017 much more likely.

First, Jubilee Alliance leaders have consolidated their positions since their electoral victory in 2013, using patronage to broaden their networks in areas such as the former Western and Coast provinces. This has both disrupted Mr Odinga’s efforts to challenge the Jubilee Alliance within the legislature, and has eaten into the support base of the opposition in key areas.

Second, the government has introduced repressive legislation and strengthened its grip over the media by using political pressure and advertising revenue to deter criticism. The combination of the Media Bill and the willingness of senior political figures to call up newspaper editors and demand that critical stories be removed or diluted has effectively tamed the press.

Third, the opposition is in its weakest position since the 2002 General Election. On the one hand, the expansion of the Jubilee Alliance threatens to undermine support for Mr Odinga outside of Nyanza. If the Jubilee Alliance stays together, Cord — or whatever coalition replaces it at the next elections — cannot win without overwhelming support in places such as Western and at the Coast.

On the other hand, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) appears to be facing a crisis of confidence within Nyanza. This is partly related to the fact that Mr Odinga is nearing the end of his political career, and it is unclear whether the party possesses a leader that can match his national profile.

The decline of the opposition is unlikely to be reversed unless the ODM leadership is willing to hold open and transparent internal party elections to revitalise the organisation — and unless viable replacements for Mr Odinga can be found to lead the opposition in the future.

The danger for Kenyan democracy in 2016 is, therefore, that the government becomes more powerful while the opposition becomes weaker. Should this come to pass, it will reduce the pressure on President Kenyatta to respect the Constitution and to improve his performance in key areas, with negative consequences for all Kenyans.

The fight against corruption

Reducing corruption is one of the biggest challenges facing the government. Corruption eats into all areas of public life, undermining everything from the provision of education to the anti-terror operations of the security forces.

On a recent trip to Kenya towards the end of 2015, I was struck by how often people talked of a fresh ‘corruption crisis’. In the space of two days, three well-connected people from very different walks of life said to me that corruption was as bad as it had ever been. This is a remarkable state of affairs, when you consider how dysfunctional the Kenyan state became in the dying days of President Daniel arap Moi’s government.

Before the 2013 elections many of my friends who intended to vote for Mr Kenyatta argued that one of the positive aspects of his leadership was that he was so rich that he would face less temptation to be corrupt. Even today, many of the people I talk to about corruption believe the President is sincere when he says that he wants to bring graft under control.

If that is true, why is President Kenyatta finding it so hard to create a clean and transparent government? As I have written before, one of the greatest barriers to anti-corruption efforts in Kenya is the nature of coalition politics. With two factions in the coalition, Mr Kenyatta cannot cut off the ability of one faction to enrich itself without being accused of favouritism.

This means an effective anti-corruption drive would need to target both the Kenyatta and Ruto camps simultaneously. However, reducing corruption opportunities for all would generate widespread dissatisfaction within the Alliance, and is therefore a very risky strategy to pursue in the run up to a General Election.

Forcing through meaningful anti-corruption reforms will therefore require great political will and a willingness to put the national interest before the interests of the party, and so far there has been little evidence that Jubilee’s leadership has the stomach for this particular fight.

If this analysis is correct, then 2016 is likely to be very much like 2015 so far as corruption is concerned. There will be a lot of discussion and a number of new initiatives will be announced to curb graft, which will probably involve the clever use of new technology, but there will be little — if any — fundamental change. Real reform would require a more effective opposition, a more courageous media, and a more unified government, none of which seems likely in the next 12 months.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Where would this leave Kenya at the end of 2016? The impact of the trends I have sketched would not be that visible on the surface, creating the impression that nothing much had changed. After all, a stable government and growing economy are not going to raise any eyebrows in a region that contains Burundi and South Sudan.

However, the deeper underlying shift in the political system and economic context would be very worrying. Rising corruption would eat away at the confidence of the public and investors alike, undermining economic growth. This, in turn, will make it harder for the government to create sustainable jobs — and hence to accommodate the growing number of young people looking for work.

Tighter government control of civil society and the media will create the impression that the opposition cannot win by keeping to the rules of the democratic game, which will delegitimise the political system and encourage disgruntled and marginalised groups to look for other ways to fight for power.

The combination of constrained economic growth, censorship and political stagnation is not a recipe for dynamic and effective government, or for a happy and unified citizenry. The implications of current trends for the quality of democracy and political stability in Kenya are therefore extremely troubling.

This is, therefore, one time that I very much hope I am wrong.

One thought on “Kenya: the next 12 months…

  1. Great analysis.

    How I wish you were wrong Nic! Sadly, this is the true state of affairs. With a very disorganised opposition, the Jubilee Alliance is sure to sail home with a clear win (not my ideal situation). The voters may not necessarily like these coalitions, but there is no alternative in sight.

    I’d like to note that chances of Ruto leaving the government are very slim. So are the chances of him getting support from the Kikuyu voters in 2022. So what does he do? Stay on (whether he is happy or not), and amass as much wealth as he can. Knowing fully well that that is the closest he will get to the presidency. And like you mentioned, any anti-corruption fight must target both sides, and Uhuru can’t afford to lose Ruto. At least not now.

    We also won’t expect to see corruption tamed. As we are nearing an election year, everybody is trying to ‘steal the much they can’, to finance their campaigns. We’ve almost lost count of the number of corruption cases that keep popping up every single day. I think we need an app to keep track.

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