Why Africa Needs Stronger Opposition: Kenya’s 2022 General Election

Dr. William Ruto.

When President Barack Obama failed to have Hillary Clinton succeed him, he led a spirited opposition to his successor’s regime.

What the president failed to achieve while in office, he did it while in opposition.

Years after his enthusiasm played a pivotal role in President Biden’s victory, President Obama seems to have finally retired in peace.

The death of opposition politics in Africa is disappointing and costly to the poor nations.

Unlike in the United States, political parties in Africa move where the money is, not where the need is.

For his entire second term, for example, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta who is concluding his constitutional term limit later this year has run the country without active opposition.

In what could pass as a democratic dictatorship, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s handshake with the official opposition leader saw the pair run the country as a team.

The President disrobed his deputy while at the same time holding the hand of his erstwhile foe.

This way, President Uhuru Kenyatta transformed the limited president’s power to a completely new level.

While the president has a portfolio of awe-inspiring projects to brag about, such as in transport and communication, the people lost the voice of the opposition.

Natural justice bestows power to organized opposition to check the public system’s excesses. Without such opposition, public resources are jeopardized.

The epitome of freedom is the right to oppose or support without fear of retribution.

However, with the examples of Somalia and Libya, when the opposition itself is divided it may fail to liberate the people.

Unlike in President Obama’s case then, President Uhuru Kenyatta cannot afford to lose.

First, if he loses, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s influence after his presidency will fizzle out within days.

Unlike President Obama, opposition politics is too expensive for Uhuru Kenyatta’s business sense.

In any case, while Kenyatta’s background is in business, Obama was a community organizer. These backgrounds count their costs differently.

Secondly, if President Kenyatta’s candidate loses he will lead a fragmented opposition made up of a loose election-focused coalition of parties called Azimio.

A fragmented opposition will lead to a repeat of what is happening today, where the opposition conspires with the public system.

Thirdly and perhaps interesting, in the event that the president’s candidate wins, Kenya is likely to get the best opposition since independence in 1963.

While the first real opposition experienced in the early 1990s came with bloodshed, this time it will come with bottom-up ideology.

Led by the current Deputy President William Ruto, the bottom-up aims at providing incentives to the majority poor.

William Ruto’s shrewdness is evident in his cross-cutting demographic and ethnic appeal.

Even if he loses the election, Dr. William Ruto’s charisma coupled with the supporter’s base will be a major challenge to any system in power.

However, William Ruto’s rise to power is riddled with controversy. As a fresh graduate, he was a protégé of an autocratic regime president.

His first and most infamous political project was called YK92.

Although their task was to mobilize young voters, they were accused of acting as conduits of cleaning paper money that the then government printed to raise campaign funds.

While the effects of printed money have transcended generations, Ruto came out a wealthy man.

Although the public is not privy to William Ruto’s real estate portfolio, random media stories paint him as the richest among his peers.

Although he claims to be rags to riches, William Ruto is a product of ethnic patronage that was endemic in his time.

His prominence during YK92 can be attributed to his ethnic kinship to the then-president. People like him who belonged to the wrong tribes could not access the resources availed to him.

William Ruto is famous for right-wing political mobilization, Ph.D. in Botany, and background in Christian evangelism. He is a deft man who knows how to maneuver his way into privilege.

President Uhuru must have realized this when he chose William Ruto as his running mate two times.

However, President Uhuru only loses when he has to. His loss in 2002 enabled him to found a relatively stronger opposition that championed constitutional reforms.

His 2007 stepping down for President Mwai Kibaki enabled him to inherit Kibaki’s constituency, which he used to win in 2012 and 2017.

This time around, if the opposition is to survive, Uhuru Kenyatta may not have the luxury of losing.


The Fragmented Gikuyu Finally Caught Flat-Footed in Kenya

Jomo Kenyatta

The Gikuyu – commonly pronounced Kikuyu – people have traditionally been deprived of central political leadership. The resulting community’s fragmentation is responsible for the growth of chieftainship.

The Chief’s authority was limited to a geographical area such as a ridge, or a clan or group of clans. Only some non-political leaders’ authority, such as that of seers, transcended the fragmentations.

The British colonists, who have had the greatest recorded impact on the Gikuyu, took advantage of this fragmentation to penetrate the community’s territory as one chief after the other fell for the colonists’ deceptions and bribes in return for loyalty.

The Gikuyu leaders arguably sold their peoples’ freedom for a song. By the time they woke up from their nightmare, it was too late. With the freedom already gone, the community was awed by the muthung’u.

The white man’s immense efficient use of land for production was a far cry to what the native Gikuyu farmer had ever dreamt of. The Gikuyu’s admiration of the White man is evident in their subsequent adoption of the western culture up to this day.

Whereas some western practices – for example, the political empowerment of women such as the legendary dictator Wang’u wa Makeri who used to rule while seated on the back of men – were consonant with the Gikuyu culture, a lot more were not.

Essentially, the chief in the Gikuyu culture is a charismatic leader. In the absence of charisma, the Gikuyu community is deprived of leadership.

From Jomo and Uhuru, and Kibaki in the postcolonial era to Waiyaki wa Hinga and Wang’u wa Makeri in the pre-colonial era, the Gikuyu love their leaders charismatic.

The strong influence of the community’s social thread developed out of the desire for self-preservation from common enemies such as the Masai and later the British. 

As a result, and in the absence of centralized political leadership, the Gikuyu community’s pulse was – and is – open to charismatic influence.

History shows that no matter your economic muscle, the Gikuyu will not adorn you with the crown before you demonstrate charisma. 

Former president Daniel Moi’s attempt to push for Uhuru Kenyatta’s rise in the community failed until Uhuru demonstrated his charisma ten years later after the initial push in 2002.

On the other hand, the community readily supported economically-disadvantaged but charismatic leaders, such as Jomo Kenyatta, whose family of birth had no political influence. 

Currently, the leadership vacuum is evident by the fact that no Gikuyu individual has demonstrated the needed level of charisma to win the community’s universal backing. The few available are, well, chiefs.

My belief is that Kenya is better off with a non-Gikuyu leader. In the early to mid-nineties, as a student of Maseno University, then a constituent college of Moi University, I remember one senior colleague wondering at our indifference to campus politics.

“If you allow a non-Kikuyu to be elected student leader,” he cautioned, “you will cry with one eye.” Apparently, only Gikuyu student leaders had previously held the position. 

Two of my colleagues took the gauntlet and announced their candidatures. Their lack of preparation saw them lose terribly to a Luo candidate who went to perform so well that for the couple of terms he was in control, there was no single student strike.

I was impressed by the charismatic Luo candidate’s swagger – close to Obama’s – and genuine concern for student’s welfare. 

If my friends had won, I am pretty sure that it would have been a tumultuous one-term reign that would have been the fodder of the bar talk on the night of losing.

Think about that.