It would seem that Kenya is going into an election this August that’s largely about nothing. No big idea, no galvanizing issue. This hasn’t happened since the reintroduction of political pluralism in late 1991 and the elections that followed in 1992. That said, there are those who will be voting against either William S. Ruto or Raila A. Odinga come August. This group is committed and energized. It is seized by the election. Ironically, in the 2007 election Raila Odinga was the bogeyman of Kenyan politics—the man to fear, the master of chaos, etc. Today the very people who spewed that narrative are in wild reverse and the deputy president is the new bad guy in town. Unfortunately for him, Ruto has in the past seemed to embrace and project his darker side, to revel in the fear he engenders. As a bogeyman to the middle class, he has proven to be a good fit. That so many of his foes have met an untimely end adds to this dark myth.
Since 1992, and in 1997 and 2002 in particular, our elections have not lacked what some like to call “the vision thing”. We were voting against Moi’s authoritarianism and the one-party state, yes, but we were also voting for political pluralism, a new constitution and devolution. We were voting for good governance, anti-corruption, human rights, transparency and all those other nice woolly things that have created the open society we enjoy today. In the meantime, a host of new governance arrangements have come into being. In 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta and William S. Ruto sought the vote under a new constitution promulgated in 2010 and went to the polls under the heavy cloud of the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments. The “dynamic duo” promised to spend money, to spend on everything for everyone. They did the same in 2017—no big idea, just spending—but this time round, the 2017 election failed dramatically after the Supreme Court annulled it, leading to a legitimacy deficit for the Jubilee government.
Prior to these two polls, there were clearly articulated political forces forged by Moi arrayed against the grand issues of the day and those who defined themselves for them—a mixture of the political opposition, media, civil society, the religious sector, etc. In 2022 this clarity is gone—emphatically so! The latter are in disarray while the former are resurgent.
As we head into the August polls what is striking is that, beyond the avowedly populist but ultimately hollow “hustler” narrative, there is as yet no other game in town in the contest of political ideas. There is no other big narrative. More importantly, there is no other compelling hopeful narrative. The chattering classes are appalled that so vacuous a narrative as the “hustler” and the “wheelbarrow” has gained enough traction with a wide section of, in particular, the youthful population. Indeed, for the first time in Kenya’s history, the sitting head of state apparently doesn’t command the electoral numbers in his own political backyard as a result of this trend. This could yet change but it has never been like this so late in the day. In the dark days of KANU, these inconveniences were fixed by simply rigging the polls. This habit has of course continued since the rigged polls of 2007.
The truth is that we are going into an election believing in nothing, standing for nothing. At best, we are searching. All the leading political formations are born of each other and birthed by many profound compromises, and this in part explains the blankness. At a slightly lower political level, those consumed by making money off the state, cutting deals, winning contracts and fiddling tenders can barely contain their excitement as August approaches and new snouts can dip into the trough.
Kenyans love their politics. They obsess about it. Or rather they used to.
An entire generation below 35 years of age has grown up that finds watching our political leaders on the seven o’clock news boring and, some even argue, detrimental to mental health. They catch the outrageous highlights on Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram. The thundering statements of ministers, the head of state and his deputy have been reduced to fleeting minutes of entertainment to be taken as seriously as a Nollywood thriller.
This transformation is not too much unlike others we are witnessing around the world as younger citizens lose faith in their leaders and institutions. Still, I was struck that, with 150 or so days to the next election, our major political formations have split into two behemoths—Azimio, led by Raila Odinga and President Kenyatta, and UDA, led by Deputy President Ruto. Despite this, polls show the number of undecideds and those refusing to respond regarding whom they’ll vote for in August hovering around 30 per cent. Experts I spoke to this week also find this figure curious. Despite the giant political split, that a third of voters remain ambivalent should, on the face of it, be sufficiently polarising to seize the minds of most Kenyans.
Before the landmark election of 2002, about four months to the polls, the number of undecideds was under 10 percent. In 2013, five months before the polls, the undecideds were around 3 percent. Days before the 2017 polls, the undecideds and those who said they were not sure who they would vote for were at 8 percent. The question is: Why does the number of undecideds remain high even though we effectively have a two-horse race going into the August 2022 poll? When I asked experts, they responded that a little probing by pollsters yielded responses from undecideds such as “We’re waiting for their manifestos”, “We’re waiting to learn more about their policies”, etc. Clearly, neither Azimio nor UDA has caught the imagination of the vast majority of Kenyans, allowing them making a clear decision. Either that or they don’t want to share their true views.
For our sins, we therefore find ourselves in a twilight zone of the kind Putin’s Grey Cardinal—Vladislav Surkov—manufactured for him. A situation where nothing was real or true and what seemed true could change. Where there was no difference between the opposition and the ruling party because Surkov funded both. Where public life was reduced to theater, reality could be manufactured and all politics had become ornate thespianism and make-believe. Kenya is not Russia. We have a freer media and an even more widely open social media. Surkov, however, created a system that seemed open, engaged in campaigns and held elections but where the outcome was predetermined. Too much freedom, he argued, was destabilizing, so he manufactured a fake Truman Show type of freedom that Russians, especially those who watched state-controlled TV, could participate in.
And so, in our version of political Vitimbi theater, we are confronted with confusing choices. Raila Odinga, the repository of progressive politics for the last four decades, has partnered with his former political arch-enemy and one-party progeny, Uhuru Kenyatta, to create the Azimio formation. It is rallied against Deputy President Ruto’s UDA party that hit the campaign trail in 2017 with a brilliant populist narrative of “us versus them”, of “hustlers versus dynasties”. The latter, however, lacks even the pretense of dealing with the major issues of the day. Indeed, UDA’s spokespersons have said that they don’t plan to deal with corruption at all! Raila Odinga has progressive pedigree—and here I admit I am subjective—and is clearly counting on both that and the trust of those who remember all he has struggled for to win the presidency. This is tempered by profound fears among progressives that our political victories—such as the constitution—are about to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, that the eating machine that has pushed our public debt to US$100 billion is the most organized formation of our political reality. The defining issues of yesteryear, such as the constitution, corruption, the very essentials of democracy, deepening poverty and the cost of living, are being handled far more gingerly by the political class this time round.
This political mishmash and the lack of clarity could in part explain the resounding lack of genuine excitement in our politics among Kenyans. Add to this the impact of COVID-19, the dramatic deepening of economic inequality, increases in the cost of living and poverty, and it’s understandable that Kenyans seem just tired with it all. The con has been exposed as a con, an empty debe making noises that are incoherent and sometimes amusing, as they say. Still, it does not help that we have entered the most expensive campaign in the history of East and Central Africa with no grand issues to define it. The 2017 election cost US$1 billion and was a washout, shredding the legitimacy of the political elite. Now we find ourselves in the curious twilight zone of Putin’s Gray Cardinal—a lot money being spent, a lot of campaigning underway. For what? What’s the big change being promised beyond a reorganization of the elite on the deckchairs of the Titanic? Kenyans are no longer being inspired with ideas but with things—we’ll build a stadium, a hospital, a road, a school, an airport, etc. And of course, the elite has these contracts “under control”, as they say. But it seems we haven’t the faintest idea what will be taught in those schools and what kind of Kenyans they will produce. Where the roads lead to and why. The era of big ideas would seem to have been put on pause for now.