Uhuru is restless, Kagame and Museveni begin long walk

Saturday August 28 2021
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (2nd left) unveils a commemoration plaque at EquityBCDC’s Equity Centre in DRC with Equity Group Managing Director and CEO James Mwangi (left), Governor of Central Bank of Congo Déogratias Mutombo and other bank officials. PHOTO | POOL

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Read Part I: Covid-era E. Africa: Presidential shirts, workouts and eating with peasants


Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta used to have the largest following of any African leader on Twitter and Facebook. Then in March 2019 he hit the delete button and was gone. With the country still hunkered down to escape the sweep of Covid-19, in November last year, Uhuru explained that he had fled social media because of the abuses.

"You've seen I left because…It's just full of abuses…You sit there reading what people are writing and even lose sleep and start making phone calls,” he said.

Kenya has got easily the most ruthless social media warriors in Africa. Calling themselves #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter), you don’t want to provoke their wrath. Exploiting the possibilities offered by easily the most free-wheeling political space in East Africa, #KOT threw everything, including the kitchen sink, at Uhuru. If they had their way, they would have run him out of the presidency and country. He is still here. But he’s a different man.

Currently, there is internal warfare in the ruling Jubilee Party, with the President and his inner circle choking off Deputy President William Ruto, as the struggle to succeed him in 2022 intensifies. Much like Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo favoured a candidate than one from his party in 2019, Uhuru has a political pact with erstwhile rival, opposition veteran Raila Odinga.


Big headache

Haunted by the spectre of their dispossession of the Daniel arap Moi era, the fabulously wealthy Kenyatta family, a large swath of the Kenyan rich class, and the old elite, seem to think Odinga, or a politician from his political orbit who is less committed to dismantling old money, is a safer pair of hands than Ruto.

It is a Herculean task, and they suffered two resounding defeats in the High Court in May and the Court of Appeal on August 20, in their bid to push through constitutional amendments that would have enabled them to create a big tent government at the next election. But it would only be a political novice who considers them down for the count. They are still likely to win the fight.

However, it is a battle that has hobbled a government that was already, in the view of critics, hamstrung by corruption and a reputation for incompetence. In the melee, though, the Uhuru government has nevertheless presided over some dramatic expansions in infrastructure development; building the much-panned standard gauge railway, and nearly 10,000km of roads since 2013. The crown jewel of it will definitely be the $560 million 27.1km Nairobi Expressway, which cuts through East Africa’s richest city from its west side to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It is set to be complete before Uhuru says his goodbyes late next year.

For all that, Uhuru’s true legacy might be more East African than Kenyan. Two sets of data in early August pointed to a major shift that has happened in the Kenyan economy under Uhuru.

Uganda central bank data showed that Tanzania had replaced Kenya as Uganda’s biggest source of imports within the East African Community (EAC). Meanwhile, data from Kenya’s central bank reported that Tanzania’s exports to Kenya had exceeded its imports to its northern neighbour for the first time in decades.

Analysts attributed this to improved trade flows under President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s administration. The more pragmatic President Samia moved quickly to thaw relations with Kenya, which were often tumultuous under her volatile and dogmatic predecessor John Magufuli.

Economy takes new path

Nevertheless, it is likely because the flipside of Magufuli’s hamfisted rule is that Tanzania’s economy posted healthy growth rates, and the country has become considerably wealthier.

Kenya, on the other hand, has transitioned into a service economy, and its agriculture continues to shrivel. Kenyan capital and big business have also seen a dizzying expansion in the wider eastern African region.

In the latest round of earnings reports, Kenyan banks – especially the behemoths KCB and Equity – reported embarrassingly huge profits amid a pandemic. The profits are partly to be explained by their regional reach, where they have over the years spread tentacles all over the EAC, and lately DRC, and become dominant in countries like South Sudan.

A consortium led by Kenyan telco giant Safaricom, was recently awarded a licence to operate in the closed, but lucrative, Ethiopian market. They are set to also operate their cash cow, the mobile money service M-Pesa. Kenya is the seventh-largest producer of geothermal energy in the world, and far out the continental leader.

Its main power producer KenGen is drilling 12 geothermal wells in Ethiopia, and three in Djibouti. Ironically, then, Kenyan traditional exports to the EAC will likely continue to decline, because it is becoming a more advanced economy.

It has also opened new opportunities for regional partners. A once proud Kenya Airways is teetering on the edge; Ethiopian Airlines and RwandAir have swooped in and are picking up some of the pieces.

Last year, the Africa International Conference and Conventions Association country rankings, reported that Rwanda had also overtaken Kenya as the region’s meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions capital. Supplying food to Kenya will soon largely be taken over by Tanzania and Uganda.

Kenya will continue to grow rich, but a lot of it will be from playing outside its borders. Uhuru’s regional and global play has largely mirrored that shift.

Many flight miles

While Suluhu has travelled in the EAC more than any other regional leader in the six months since she became president (she’s gone to every EAC capital except Juba), Uhuru has traversed the world more than any other regional leader during the pandemic, as The Star newspaper, which has kept a tab on his flying mileage, noted.

Last year, as everyone was still hiding from the coronavirus, in October he went to France, where he negotiated loans worth Ksh17.91 billion ($163 million) and signed a few other deals. In March, he was in Tanzania attending the funeral service of fallen president Magufuli. In April, he was in DRC. Among other things, he presided over the inauguration of the rebranded Equity Bank office block in Kinshasa, proclaiming significantly that, "It is a moment of rare regional and continental pride, as we witness our local enterprises coming together in the spirit of One Africa, One People." In May, he was in Uganda for the swearing-in of President Yoweri Museveni for an eighth term (two of them unelected). Then he was off to Djibouti to attend the swearing-in of President Ismail Omar Guelleh.

In early June 9, he was in Ethiopia to witness Safaricom collect its operator licence. Days later, he was Turkey-bound, and then off to Belgium and the European Union. He then returned to France, and at the start of July, he was in Lusaka for the funeral of Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda.

In most of these places, Kenyan companies have or are pursuing some interests. It also means that not only has he blown open the race for the East African leader who represents its collective face to the world that for long was cornered by Museveni, and is currently probably held by President Paul Kagame, but he has spotlighted the “Congo premium”.

Sun rises on Tshisekedi

Scandalously rich in natural resources but poor, corrupt, and long-suffering, Congo might be finally coming into its own. Everyone is courting it. DRC has asked for the EAC’s hand in marriage. We expect a wedding soon. DRC has won a second lottery with the green economy, as it is home to about 60 percent of the world’s known cobalt reserves. Cobalt is necessary for electric vehicle batteries, and any EV maker worth their salt has Kinshasa on speed dial.

DRC is also coming into play for a very left-field reason. As Ethiopia moves forward with its giant dam on River Nile, over the protests – and threats of war – from Egypt, in Cairo the strategic imperative to connect the Congo River with the Nile through one of the Nile’s tributaries in South Sudan, supplying almost 95 billion cubic metres of water, is gaining traction. In an overture that could have implications for that strategic initiative, Al Arabiya, an international Arabic television news channel based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, reported that a delegation from the Egyptian Armed Forces Engineering Authority has visited DRC to provide technical support to transfer the Congo River into a navigable pathway.

All these factors: the rise and rise of DRC global geo-economic value; the increasing investments by, especially, Kenyan firms in central Africa; the demographic explosion that has already made DRC the largest French-speaking country in the world, and its entrance into the EAC house could move the region’s centre of gravity from the eastern African coast to the Virunga ranges.

On top of all this, sits President Felix Tshekedi. In February 2020, the fourth Quadripartite Heads of State Summit seeking to normalise relations between Rwanda and DRC took place at the two countries’ Katuna border post.

A turning point

Presidents Museveni and Kagame were joined by Angola’s João Lourenço and Tshisekedi. Post-1997 DRC, following a Rwanda and Uganda-backed campaign that ousted its corrupt ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, had for years been little more than a playground for Kampala and Kigali national security games. To see a photo of Tshisekedi in attendance as a referee, and not a charge, represented a turning point.

Tshisekedi has proved to be an agile juggler, able to keep his relations with Nairobi, Kigali, and Kampala in good standing, while tenuously extending his political grip at home, in ways no one would have bet on when he controversially won power in 2019.

In the eastern borders, Rwanda and Uganda are building infrastructure to smooth trade with the 92 million-people market. At the end of June, over two days, Tshisekedi and Kagame visited each other across their border. On the first day, Fatshi (Tshisekedi’s nickname which is short for three of his names Felix Antoine Tshilombo) visited Rubavu, and the next day Kagame crossed the borderline to Goma. A trip to Rubavu or Goma will illustrate to a discerning visitor the myriad of contradictions of the post-colonial African state and its possibilities.

Museveni and Kagame’s fortunes

That offered a glimpse of what the future of the region holds, how it will be led, and the architecture on which that future will be built. At 58, Fatshi is now the region’s second-youngest leader after Burundi’s Évariste Ndayishimiye, 53.

Uhuru, 59, the third youngest, will leave office – at least as president – before the end of next year. Suluhu, 61, who hasn’t yet seen a year’s anniversary on the job, has only just started. It’s hard to know whether South Sudan’s 69-year-old Salva Kiir is coming or going.

The East Africa of the near future will likely be shaped by the seeds Museveni and Kagame have sown. Kagame, 63, who has been president since 2000, is coming up to the next election in 2024. It is a date that is being watched with equal intensity by his adversaries and the legion of his supporters.

President Museveni, at 76 the oldest incumbent in the region, and with nearly 36 years under his belt the longest-ruling leader in East Africa who isn’t a monarch, won a hotly contested and violent election early in the year, is also finally staring at the finishing line.

Rarely have two men being so similar, yet dissimilar. Both were guerrilla leaders, lauded as gifted military strategists. Both men are abstemious and don’t partake of absinthe. They were once bosom allies, Kagame having served in Museveni’s rebel National Resistance Army in the early 1980s, and in the intelligence service. Both men have strong views of state and nation-building. Museveni oversaw Africa’s most successful post-Cold War and post-conflict reconstruction based on a liberal economy. Kagame orchestrated one of the world’s most spectacular, and contested post-conflict nation-building projects.

But they set out on their separate paths. Museveni built a permissive, licentious, sometimes lawless, but lively and dynamic republic. Kagame built a puritanic, ordered, antiseptic, and coldly efficient one. In the telling of some, he is the student who surpassed the teacher. To keepers of Museveni’s order, he is an ungrateful graduate who won’t kiss the vice chancellor’s ring. Now, they are travelling the same road to the departure platform. It is a show that will be worth the front row seat.

Read Part III:  A region on the fly: Queen Samia and the five East African kings

Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected] Part 3 continues next week.