Kibaki on a slippery slide

The resounding rejection by Kenyans of a draft constitution in a referendum backs President Mwai Kibaki into an awkward political corner and raises the spectre of a premature lame-duck presidency. Kibaki dangerously staked his credibility on the draft, which many Kenyans saw as perpetuating the post-colonial legacy of a strong presidency.

What is perhaps most striking is that Kenya’s 40 or so ethnic groups appear to have ganged up against Kibaki’s Kikuyu community. Six of the eight provinces rejected the constitution.
Only the Kikuyu-dominated Central province and the Eastern province of the culturally and politically proximal Embu and Meru returned a yes vote. This forcefully throws up long-standing, anti-Kikuyu sentiment that harks back to the days of Kenya’s first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

He oversaw the emergence of a rich and power-ful Kikuyu elite that still holds sway in the economy. His successor, Daniel arap Moi, watered down their influence in politics by galvanising smaller ethnic groups, even as he fervently preached against tribalism.

Since assuming power in 2002, Kibaki has unwittingly given new life to this anti-Kikuyu sentiment by surrounding himself with a cabal of rich, conservative septuagenarians from his Mount Kenya home region.

Derisively referred to in the Kenyan media as the “Mt Kenya Mafia”, this clique is widely seen to have captured Kibaki’s presidency to advance their business interests. The president’s opponents accuse them of hijacking the constitutional process, leaving intact an “imperial presidency” that would institutionalise Kikuyu hegemony in Kenyan politics.

Although the leaders of opposition parties the Kenyan African National Union (Kanu) and the Liberal Demo-cratic Party (LDP)—a government coalition partner that had six mini-sters in Cabinet—argue that their short-term, strategic alliance was to deliver a “people-driven” constitution, the glue that binds them is a groundswell of anti-Kikuyu sentiment. The rapprochement is likely to persist and may culminate in a common platform in the 2007 elections.

Last week turned out to be turbulent in Kenyan politics. On Monday, Kibaki lost the referendum. On Wednesday, he fired his Cabinet and, a day later, he suspended Parliament. At a rally on Saturday, his opponents called for a snap election, to which Kibaki responded on Sunday by banning public meetings. Few would vouch for Kibaki’s fortitude to take such decisive action. During his presidency, Kibaki has, perhaps inadvertently, projected himself as a hesitant armchair autocrat captive to golf, beer and an overbearing wife.

The decision to sack the entire Cabi-net nevertheless looks like a well-calculated move to buy time and to refocus. The suspension of the legislature is no doubt intended to pre-empt an onslaught in Parliament, while the banning of public rallies is an attempt to slow down rising discontent.

Although a vote of no confidence is unlikely to succeed, a legislative stalemate is a stark possibility. Between them, Kanu and the LDP have 131 MPs in a 220-strong legislature.

Kibaki’s political survival now depends on his ability to co-opt his adversaries and rein in his closest allies who are seen as the faces of the Mt Kenya Mafia. Most importantly, a new Cabinet can only save Kibaki if it is representative of the country’s ethnic diversity. If Kibaki fails, he will lay himself open to a full onslaught from the Kanu-LDP alliance that will reduce him to a lame-duck presi-dent. And he will be to blame for being swept aside by mounting Kikuyu-phobia.

Godfrey Chesang is a PhD Fellow at the centre for Africa’s international relations at Wits University

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