Kenya’s political theatrics now akin to North Korea’s

Tuesday February 25 2020

President Uhuru Kenyatta shakes hands with Deputy President William Ruto at AIC Milimani Church in Nairobi on January 26, 2020. There seems to be a rift between the two. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG


Kenya is going through one of its strangest political phases and biggest contradictions for years. While, warts and all, it’s still far more free country than it was just two decades ago, in mainstream media it speaks like the dictatorship it was in the 1980s.

At that time, like in many parts of Africa, journalists couldn’t report freely on many “sensitive” issues, and didn’t have access to information the way they do today. Those who wanted to make sense of political goings-on were reduced to some kind of Kreminology or Sovietology.

As a Wikipedia definition puts it, the two terms “were synonymous until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In popular culture used to mean any attempt to understand a secretive organisation or process, such as plans for upcoming products or events, by interpreting indirect clues.

“During the Cold War, lack of reliable information about the country forced Western analysts to ‘read between the lines’ and to use the tiniest tidbits, such as the removal of portraits, the rearranging of chairs, positions at the reviewing stand for parades in Red Square, the choice of capital or small initial letters in phrases such as ‘First Secretary’, the arrangement of articles on the pages of the party newspaper Pravda and other indirect signs to try to understand what was happening in internal Soviet politics”.

Political alliance

There seems to be a rift between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto. In the political alliance that brought them to power in 2013, it was understood that Uhuru undertook to support Ruto as his successor. The time to make good is coming up in 2022, but signs are that there has been a major fallout between the two.


Their allies are at each other’s throats. Ruto’s foot soldiers criticise Uhuru, and Uhuru’s troops savage Ruto.

Ruto has endured quite a few snubs, including being locked out of key events and the occasional dodge by the president to shake his hands.

Beyond that, Uhuru and Ruto most times get on well for the cameras. Because the two camps will not speak directly on the record, although they spill a lot of beans anonymously, Kenya media and political analysts have fallen to the methods of the Kreminologists.

Daily there is an outpouring in print and TV and radio, about the significance in the distance between Uhuru and Ruto’s chairs at a public function. Which of the leading men and women in the two camps are sitting on which row at a politically-charged funeral, who reads the president’s message at a burial and hands out his cash-filled envelope to the bereaved, is supposed to give us a rare insight into State House strategy.

It seems Kenya became more open, in order to become opaquer.

One analyst says precisely the country and its political landscape is more open, victory is more likely to come to those who are more successful at being secretive.

Cabinet reshuffle

If you can’t understand the intonations of its proverbs, the significance of the kind of hat a power broker has chosen to wear, or what it means when the president speaks in English, Kiswahili or Kikuyu, then you cannot predict the coming cabinet reshuffle.

For a non-Kenyan, this complex Kenyology or Nairobology is turning the country back into something akin to North Korea.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site [email protected]