When President Uhuru Kenyatta and his erstwhile arch-rival Raila Odinga shook hands in March last year, the country’s political status quo was thrown into disarray. With Kenyatta due to step down in 2022, the country’s top leadership seems to be up for grabs. A fascinating shuffling of alliances is already in full swing. Analysis by Tom Collins.
When two of Kenya’s great political adversaries – Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga – clashed in the country’s disputed 2017 general election, few would have imagined the pair would shake hands just months later.
In what has fast become known as the ‘March 9 handshake’, both leaders agreed to put aside their differences in the stated pursuit of national unity and inclusivity. As Kenya’s political machinery gears up towards the 2022 elections, this unexpected camaraderie has sent ripples through the political environment – uprooting old alliances and complicating the succession crisis after President Kenyatta steps down in three years’ time.
Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto saw his presidential bid frustrated in January after his executive powers were curbed when his boss decreed Interior Secretary Fred Matiang’i should oversee the Cabinet committee and thus the country’s development agenda.
Prior to that point Ruto had been canvassing up and down the country in the name of Kenyatta’s Big Four development agenda – food security, affordable housing, manufacturing and universal healthcare. His critics accused him of laying claim to large projects in an effort to bolster his 2022 credentials.
His replacement is the result of a growing rift within the ruling Jubilee party between the Deputy President, an ethnic Kalenjin, and a group of influential Kikuyu politicians known as the ‘Mount Kenya elite’ – led most vocally by the party’s former Vice Chairman David Murathe.
The President and his deputy formed an uneasy alliance in 2013 when Ruto offered his Kalenjin supporters – around 13% of the population – to Kenyatta in exchange for the President’s backing in the 2022 elections. This unofficial agreement appears to have soured as many in Kenyatta’s own camp refuse to support Ruto’s bid for the presidency – it also remaining unclear whether Kenyatta himself intends to do so.
The President, for his part, is keen to see his development agenda met as it will serve as a barometer for his time in office. After development had taken a backseat to election campaigning, Ruto was seen as contrary to these aims.
On the other hand, the Mount Kenya elite are concerned a Kalenjin President would offset their interests. Murathe even resigned from his post within the ruling party to work on a case in the Supreme Court which seeks to block Ruto from running.
“The Mount Kenya elite are not in favour of a William Ruto presidency and President Kenyatta has got every reason to listen to them and respect their views,” says Javas Bigambo, a Nairobi-based political analyst. “Kenyatta owes them a debt of gratitude. Some of them are shrewd businessmen; some of them are people who masterminded his presidential request.”
With Jubilee blocking his route to State House, Ruto will most likely break away and form his own party closer to 2022. Analysts are concerned that this fallout could reignite old tensions from the 2007 elections, when violence left up to 1,100 people dead.
At that time, Ruto and the Kalenjin supported Raila Odinga – a Luo – while Kenyatta sided with Kikuyu President Mwai Kibaki. Both Kenyatta and Ruto ended up at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague after being accused of inciting violence yet neither were convicted.
“With David Murathe saying things about Ruto and bringing up the election violence, it may stoke tensions between those groups again,” says Laura Hyde, Country Risk Analyst for intelligence firm Fitch Solutions, who are predicting a heightened risk of violence at the next elections. “With all the
shifting alliances, it will probably cause a lot more instability.”
No heir apparent
This concern is compounded by the fact Kenyatta is coming to the end of his second term, meaning the stability associated with a continuing administration during the last election does not stand this time round. Kenya is entering into new territory, which raises the possibility of disruption.
From the Kikuyu perspective, there is no obvious successor who can convincingly pick up where Kenyatta left off. This raises interesting questions for Kenyan politics as until now, the country has been ruled either by Kikuyu or Kalenjin Presidents.
With the lack of a Kikuyu flagbearer – although one may emerge – and a rift in the political axis which has spawned many of the country’s presidents, the top job is up for grabs. This gives space to Kenya’s other ethnic groups like, for instance, the Luo, Luhya and Kamba.
That said, as the largest ethnic group – around 22% – the Kikuyu vote remains important. The lack of a leading Kikuyu figure, however, does not necessarily mean this vote will go elsewhere.
While the handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga was perceived by some as a move away from Kenya’s ethnic-led politics due to the symbolic suggestion that the Kikuyu electorate could back a figurehead from another group, Bigambo disagrees.
“The handshake did not change the political structure: politics in Kenya is ethnically driven,” he states. “If we know anything by recorded history in this country it’s that unlike other communities such as the Luo and Luhya, persons of the Kikuyu extraction hardly vote for anyone who is not a Kikuyu.”
It therefore remains to be seen what both leaders will gain from the handshake – with the terms unclear and many doubting it was for the purposes of national unity.
Some see Odinga’s cozying up to the ruling party as the demise of Kenya’s last real opposition candidate. The National Super Alliance (NASA) opposition party which was formed to contend the 2017 election, and which Odinga heads, was left in disarray after the meeting with Kenyatta. Many of his top lieutenants vowed to break ranks.
Yet one distinct possibility has opened up in the aftermath of the handshake which may yet benefit both leaders. The biggest issue in Kenya at the moment is talk of a referendum to change the constitutional requirement from a presidential to a parliamentary system of governance, thereby introducing a prime minister as leader of government and moving the President to a ceremonial role.
The suggestion is presented by its supporters as a way to enhance inclusivity and bring an end to the cycle of divisive politics. It is argued that by expanding the executive, the government can offer top level positions to different groups. Prime ministers are also directly accountable to parliament and may be removed at any time by a simple majority vote.
While these points are no doubt true, any expansion of the executive cannot be disentangled from political objectives in 2022. Both Kenyatta and Odinga appear to back a referendum and it’s believed to be one of the main outcomes of their rapprochement. Both are rumoured to be eyeing the position.
While Kenyatta has routinely asked politicians to refrain from 2022 jockeying, it must be noted that if a new position were created, he is not constitutionally barred from taking it.
Ruto, on the other hand, has vocally opposed expanding the executive, arguing it is impractical and expensive. Holding a different position from Odinga has for the moment set his fate at odds with the opposition leader. The pair worked together in the 2007 election and together they have the ability to meaningfully contest the next election, especially if Ruto is looking for another party. Yet while the goodwill between Odinga and Kenyatta continues, this looks unlikely.
In terms of the referendum, Kenya is no stranger to a prime minister, with the post having been created and abolished twice before. Bigambo thinks a national vote will soon be on the cards – opening up even more possibilities and unknowns for 2022. “There is a very high possibility of the referendum running before the 2022 elections,” he says.