On January 30, 2018, Raila Odinga was inaugurated as the people’s president in an event that was attended by thousands of his supporters. The government responded through use of hard power ranging from arbitrary arrests of prominent NASA luminaries, deportations, cancellation of passports and fire arm licenses of opposition figures, withdrawal of security among other acts of intimidation. The media houses were not spared as they were switched off for being sympathetic to the opposition. The western diplomats based in Nairobi were measured in their condemnation of state terror and authoritarian rule synonymous of the dark old days of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi KANU regime. The Uhuru Kenyatta regime since August 2017 fraudulent elections had increasingly relied on the state instruments of coercion to subdue and suppress the opposition who demanded fresh elections and electoral reforms after boycotting the re run elections on October 26, 2017. The August 8, 2017 elections were nullified by the Supreme Court which also gave orders to open the IEBC servers for verification, an order that was ignored by IEBC. Ordinarily, IEBC was to be held in contempt of court until the court was satisfied of full compliance. Why was the IEBC reluctant to open the servers even after they were ordered to do so by the court? Who was responsible for the organization of fraudulent elections? Why have they not been arrested and instead ordered to organize fresh elections? Why did the court find illegalities and irregularities yet order that the same body conduct fresh elections? How should the world interpret the Kenyan pre and post elections politics?
One way of understanding Kenya’s current political crises is to put what happened at the realm of international relations. The Obama administration deviated slightly from the traditional USA foreign policy goal of building democracy and democratic values, human rights and good governance when he reduced development support for organs of civil society in Africa. These gave confidence to the African despots and strongmen that their activities and politics would escape scrutiny, policing and monitoring. Indeed, they acquired the freedom to act with impunity as it were in the 1980s. When Barrack Obama visited Kenya at the tail end of his rule, he criticized the opposition and embraced Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto who were indicted by the international criminal court but acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. Key witnesses disappeared after the state machinery clamped hard on the witnesses. Obama stepped up the doctrine on war on terror that saw Uhuru Kenyatta emerge as the champion of USA strategic interests in the horn of Africa and aligned Jubilee governments’ security with those of the USA as a trade off against democracy. When Donald Trump came to power, notes Tendai Biti, a leading opposition figure in Zimbabwe, it was a gift to all tin pot dictators on the African continent.
The Trump administration reversed the little gains that Obama administration had registered in the continent. His foreign policy prefers a transactional approach whose central focus is short term gains through bilateral deals that seek to displace the significant inroads China has made in Africa and especially East Africa. The Trump administration has no long term development agenda to improve democracy and human rights globally nor does he have shared values even with the despots he so enthusiastically supports. Such policies and practices places hard power and militarism as central while soft power is regarded as less attractive and an obstacle to American national interests. As such, Trump views human rights, the media, international institutions and democracy as unnecessary burden not worth pursuing. The power budget has seen his administration cut the USAID budget by 30% in the current final year federal budget. Democracy has been narrowly defined and reduced to “regular holding of elections”. In the USA itself the media is regarded as the enemy of the people and civil liberties threatened at every move.
The democratization processes in Africa marked by second liberation movements and struggles in the 1980s are now on the retreat as despots employ forces of coercion, intimidation, suppression and manipulation of the electoral processes and outcomes. The media has not been spared either. Across the continent, the past remains the present. Fraudulent elections and the use of brutal force to suppress protests and strikes against electoral malpractices is the norm. In Kenya following the fraudulent elections in August 2017 and subsequent nullification of the same by the Supreme Court, hundreds of NASA followers were killed by the police before and after the nullification of the elections. In Gabon, the 2016 presidential elections saw parliament burnt down after protests and general strike was called by Jean Ping, the former African Union boss who claimed victory after Ali Bongo was fraudulently declared the winner. The latter inflated voter turnout in his home province of Haut-oogue was 99.9% against the national voter turnout of 59%. In Ethiopia and Zambia, the government used brutal force to suppress demonstrations while Edgar Lungu just remained in power after the death of Michael Sata and controversy surrounded his reelection in 2016. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni has fraudulently won four elections with the endorsement of the west and has conservative grip on the military to stay in power. In the DRC, Joseph Kabila remains in power notwithstanding that his term ended in 2016 and has used the state instruments of power to remain in office.
There are presidential elections scheduled for 2018 in Cameroon, DRC, Madagascar, Mali, Libya and perhaps Togo and South Sudan. However, despots have elaborate formal and informal networks, force, and resources that would ensure that the will of the people is compromised. They too have money and resources to buy political support while sabotaging state institutions. Furthermore, despots all over the world rely on similar strategies to stay in power-cooptation, meticulous use of propaganda and coercion, soft power and creation of imaginary enemies such as ethnic manipulation. Thus, the democratization processes in Africa are on the reverse gear and elections remain irrelevant as tools of seeking political reforms.
The naked and brutal suppression of NASA by Kenyatta regime therefore ought to be understood in the global context and prevailing Trump policies in Africa that promote authoritarian despots whose interest is to make resources readily available to the west on their terms regardless of what the people want. Kenyans in particular should brace for tougher times ahead as they fight a neocolonial regime that lacks legitimacy and seeks to get the same through naked use of force and intimidation of agencies and institutions of accountability. The fraudulent elections in Kenya exposed the hypocrisy of the west and their historical role of sabotaging democracy globally. What is more, their funding of electoral bodies exposed the strings attached especially after Dr Akombe resigned her post in the USA as IEBC commissioner and revealed threats to her life including threats by some diplomats in the event of her resignation. The 2016 elections in Gabon equally underscore the dangers of strategic elites doing nothing in the face of fraudulent elections. Jean Ping turned a blind eye on electoral fraud and injustices as the AU boss until he suffered similar fate. He like Raila Odinga declared himself as the president.
Whereas despots have a field day, the struggle for democracy will have the upper hand as the pressure is organic and justifiable. The Matiba factor and Kamkunji politics in the 1990s suggests that quest for democracy cannot be stopped through naked use of force by the state instruments of coercion. If anything, the struggle for democracy shall intensify amidst suppression. The lesson that one can draw similarly from Kenya and Cameroon is that nations can be reconfigured through both peaceful and violent means. Thus, violence has limits as to what it can achieve in the long term even though a necessary prerequisite for democracy and social change in Africa.
By Kisemei Mutisya
Eastern and Southern Africa Policy Research Institute, Nairobi