In his 2017 New Year message, President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed confidence at being reelected. Indeed, polls showed him likely to win by over 50 percent if elections were called. But things have since changed, and President Kenyatta faces the possibility of being Kenya’s first one-term president. The latest polls released this week show a statistical dead heat against veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga. This would surprise most Africans. The youthful Kenyatta is among the most admired presidents in a continent teeming with ailing, octogenarian, corrupt heads of state given to clinging to power. The “dynamic duo” of President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, as former president Mwai Kibaki called them, brought something new to Kenya’s presidency. The coalescence of bountiful energy, youthful flair, and controversy was refreshing. Both Kenyatta and Ruto are charismatic politicians. The sights of Uhuru’s unrestrained bear hugs, an easy deportment, and an active social media presence were a complete departure from the hard, dour, “colonial” demeanor of his predecessors. Despite their immense wealth, both politicians have nearly succeeded in positioning themselves as commoners. Moreover, the narrative of development that Kenyatta’s Jubilee government has been parading materialized with several mega-infrastructure projects and improved service delivery. On June 1, 2017, Mr. Kenyatta launched the Chinese-built standard gauge railway, a project that was supposed to ease his path to a second term. But as polling day approaches, these achievements are not translating to much-needed political support. Should Kenyans reject him, President Kenyatta will only have himself to blame. Here’s why:
First, the elite consensus that swept Kenyatta to power, which predominantly involved a Kalenjin-Kikuyu alternating power succession plan, is structurally and discursively exclusionary. While it was crucial in winning power in 2013 in the context of International Criminal Court (ICC) crimes against humanity charges, it has struggled to attract other powerful political elites. In a country where ethnicity is a dominant fault line, Uhuru’s and Ruto’s pact is perceived as a close-ended, long- term “tiki-taka” between the two communities that, at its apex, leaves little room for “others” perceived to be outside the original agreement. The rigidly in-built structure of Jubilee has barely forged any significant alliances beyond its primary bases since 2013. Strangely, the coalition often points to its “predictable leadership” beyond 2017 as its strength. This fact is its major weakness. Thus, while Odinga’s numbers have risen consistently, Kenyatta’s poll figures have been stuck around 47 percent for months.
Second, Kenya’s grand coalition government in 2008, with all its quarrels, was inclusive and possibly one of Kenya’s most successful political dispensations. It is during this time that progress in national cohesion was made, the economy grew, and infrastructure was designed and expanded. Raila Odinga’s National Super Alliance (NASA) leads a coalition that borrows heavily from this experience and is perceived as more inclusive than the current government.
Third, the perception of large-scale corruption in the Jubilee government is likely to hurt its prospects for a second term. This view is hardly helped by the scale with which some of its leadership does business with the state. Even among its strongholds, there is a growing sense of concern. This—alongside fears of possible political betrayal in the Jubilee Party after 2017, the unintended outcome of an elite agreement with little grassroots participation—is likely to fragment sections of its support base. Meanwhile, Kenyatta’s government is plagued by unending industrial actions. Doctors, teachers, and university lecturers have all been on strike this year. As this article is written, nurses are on strike. Major industries are shutting down or scaling back operations. The strain this has had on President Kenyatta is demonstrated in angry outbursts and numerous faux pas. In a case of hubris, he has told voters from the Luhya, Akamba, and Turkana communities that he can win without their votes. Whether by design or default, President Kenyatta skipped an all-important presidential debate organized by all the major media houses, thus gifting his rival Mr. Odinga ninety minutes of uninterrupted primetime access to eight million viewers and listeners. For a man adored and feared with equal measure, Mr. Odinga used the moment to shed perceptions of abrasiveness. Additionally, the rise of the cost of living in a context of a growing economy complicates matters for President Kenyatta. The year 2017 saw Kenyans struggle to get “ugali” (a maize meal) on their dinner tables owing to poor planning and a devastating drought that affected maize output.
Instructively, the last few years have ushered in a political wave on the continent that either blew away or heavily shook incumbents. From the humiliation of the African National Congress (ANC) in municipal polls in South Africa, Gabon’s contested polls, and Ethiopia’s popular uprisings, to the recent losses by incumbent presidents in Gambia, Ghana, and Nigeria, the political momentum already created is likely to run its full course when Kenyans go to the polls next week. Like the clamor for pluralism in the early 1990s, political movements in Africa have contagion effects.
Still, the huge advantages of incumbency for Kenyatta cannot be ignored. This remains his greatest weapon. Mercifully, the last time an “incumbent”—the Kenya African National Union (KANU)—lost in 2002, the transfer of power was peaceful. At the time, it was Uhuru Kenyatta, flanked by a chubbier William Ruto, who read Kenya’s first televised speech conceding defeat to a united opposition.