Kenya's addiction to scandal-prone leaders

Kenyans placed their vote on August 8, 2017.

Kenyans placed their vote on August 8, 2017.

NEWS ANALYSIS

If last week’s elections are anything to go by, a juicy scandal doesn’t hurt the prospects of an aspiring Kenyan politician. If anything, Kenyans have proved again that they have an affinity for scandal-prone leaders — and they are not afraid to vote them into power.

The controversies that swirl around the men at the very top are well known. President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto were charged by the International Criminal Court for complicity in Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence. The charges were dropped after the Kenyan government refused to co-operate fully with the investigation.

Further down the pecking order, many others with questionable backgrounds have found their way into senior government positions.

Among the elected is the new governor of Kirinyaga, Ann Mumbi Waiguru, who was accused of complicity in a corruption scandal, which cost the ministry of devolution and planning more than 791-million Kenyan shillings (R102-million). Waiguru was the ministry’s Cabinet secretary and was forced to resign. Although she maintains her innocence, a parliamentary investigation recommended that she be barred from running for office. That recommendation was not implemented.

Another new governor is Kajiado County’s Joseph Ole Lenku. As Cabinet secretary for internal security in 2013, Lenku was thrust into the spotlight for his botched handling of the Westgate Mall attack, in which 69 people were killed by al-Shabab. Lenku himself was harshly criticised for releasing sensitive information that may have endangered the hostages, and the security forces supposedly under his command were accused of looting shops instead of confronting the attackers.

Then there’s Mike Sonko, who is as shady as the fancy sunglasses he likes to wear. He is infamous for insulting and sometimes threatening his political opponents, and often for using vulgar language. He is never far from controversy. Just a few examples: in 2013, he became a figure of fun after photoshopping a blurry image of Nelson Mandela into a photograph with him. Last year, he unilaterally proclaimed himself president while Kenyatta and Ruto were out of the country, disrupting a burial service in the process. This year, just weeks before the elections, his bodyguards were accused of opening fire on supporters of a rival in a Nairobi suburb, injuring two people.

None of this was enough to preclude his election as the governor of Nairobi. He was inaugurated on Tuesday.

The list of dodgy politicians goes on and on. Hassan Joho, re-elected as the governor of Mombasa, was found in March to have forged his secondary school qualifications. The offices of the Nyamira governor, John Nyagarama, were raided in February in connection with a recruiting scam. Gladys Boss Shollei, the Uasin Gishu women’s new representative, was charged again in May in connection with a 150-million shilling fraud case (R19-million).

So why aren’t Kenyan voters deterred by scandal? It might be because, as the old cliché goes, there’s no such thing as bad news, and scandals get politicians into the headlines.

“Kenyans vote along popularity strands and do not try to make sense of why you were on the news. As long as you are mentioned on TV on several occasions, you are popular enough to lead them,” said Susan Waweru, a political analyst. “Kenyans are yet to mature and elect leaders who actually fit the role they seek to serve.”

Kimani wa Nyoike, a human rights activist, said the voting patterns are a reflection of broader ills in society. “We vote for such leaders because Kenyans are equally scandalous, easy to corrupt, and easy to demand that they be corrupted. They have allowed their country to be plundered and corrupted to the point where they think corruption should be normal,” he said.

Kenyans, in others words, vote for the leaders they deserve.

If that’s true, then there is some cause for optimism — the 2017 elections also threw up a few elected officials with more impressive track records, such as Kimani Ichung’wa, the re-elected MP for the Kikuyu constituency, who is known for his integrity — and his good looks.

Most exciting of all is the new MP for Igembe South, in the Mount Kenya region. John Mwirigi is a 23-year-old student from a poor background. He had little previous political experience and started his campaign by walking from homestead to homestead. Eventually, as word spread of his campaign, motorcycle taxi drivers started to give him lifts for free.

“Since I come from a humble background, I understand the issues that affect the residents. My key agenda will be to transform the lives of the people,” he said. He defeated several seasoned politicians to become Kenya’s youngest-ever parliamentarian.

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