‘People’s president’ phenomenon could have domino effect in East Africa

Sunday February 11 2018

On January 30,2018, Kenya opposition

On January 30,2018, Kenya opposition kingpin Raila Odinga was publicly 'sworn in' at Uhuru Park at a ceremony witnessed by a mammoth crowd. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG 

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We are witnessing a growing and disturbing trend in parts of East Africa of declarations of “people’s president” where there is a president of the republic.

This phenomenon originates in highly confrontational politics where a country holds presidential elections and the defeated candidate, instead of conceding defeat — as is the democratic norm in political cultures where constitutionalism is key — decides to swear himself in or is sworn-in by supporters.

This development is a new low and a scar on the body-politic and democratisation experiment in the region.

This happened in Uganda following the February 2016 presidential elections, where the defeated candidate, Kizza Besigye swore himself in secretly.

The same happened in Kenya on January 30 when opposition kingpin Raila Odinga was publicly 'sworn in' at Uhuru Park at a ceremony witnessed by a mammoth crowd.

Odinga lost in the August 2017 election, but he appealed and the Supreme Court annulled the polls on account of illegalities.

However, he boycotted the repeat polls of October 2017 saying that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission wasn’t capable of organising free and fair elections.

Divided opinions

As is often the case in these matters, opinion is divided on the value and constitutionality of this act.

Some supporters of the opposition hail the mock swearing-in claiming that it’s legitimate and that it will end electoral malpractices and impunity that perpetuate electoral injustice. Supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta claim it is treasonous.

Interestingly, even some individuals who claim to be pro-democracy activists perceive the move to be innocent and symbolical in demonstrating disgust at electoral malpractices and injustice.

Some dismiss the exercise, saying that without executive powers, it is inconsequential as happened in DR Congo with Etienne Tsesikede or Mashudi Abiola in Nigeria or Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast.

Contested legitimacy

Whatever the position, there is no denying that the act is an affront on democracy and constitutionalism; for there can’t be democracy or rule of law without respect for court decisions or those by electoral commissions that are constitutionally mandated to announce winners and losers in elections.

This also means that while the opposition accuses the ruling party of vote stealing, the opposition can’t claim to be democratic and law abiding when it swears in its candidate on the basis of electoral results that it appealed and were subsequently annulled by the Supreme Court.

Broadly though, this phenomenon tells us that whether authorities like it or not, the fact that the opposition decided to publicly swear in its leader and a multitude of supporters turned up demonstrates contested legitimacy.

Domino effect

Secondly, for East Africa, the move is bad news since, as happened with the “third term” phenomenon, it might have a domino effect with some opposition groups in other countries copying it.

Thirdly, clearly, today’s leaders aren’t teaching future generations a culture of democracy; for as Rwandans say, Uwiba ahetse aba yigisha uwo ahetse (meaning whoever steals while carrying a baby on his or her back is teaching him/her to do the same in future).

Finally, one could say that, with hindsight, we learnt something good from this episode, which is that unlike in the past, the Kenyan state seems to be becoming more humane; caring and reasoned.

For while there are some who have criticized authorities for not intervening to stop the event and arresting culprits on the spot, methinks it was wiser for the police to decline intervening in such an atmosphere; for without doubt, innocent lives would have been lost needlessly.

For as the military like to say, in some cases, Unakadiliya (you use imagination); you don’t merely follow orders or the law.

In pure dictatorships where human life is not valued, such an act would have invited overwhelming state use of force with unimaginable consequences.

That the Kenyan police didn’t intervene in the heat of the moment is a credit; especially that, once the waters are settled; it could easily apprehend law breakers without spilling innocent blood.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website:www.mgcconsult.com