Kenya has been roiled by opposition protests against the high cost of living, and the election that last August saw President William Ruto defeat veteran politician and former prime minister Raila Odinga.
Last Monday, the protests took a new twist. Hundreds of what has variously been called “goons” and “thugs” armed with machetes invaded an expansive farm owned by former president Uhuru Kenyatta’s family. They cut trees, set them on fire, and looted goats and sheep. Dramatic photographs followed on social media, with the farm invaders lugging looted animals on their backs and displaying the ones they had slaughtered.
Kenyan media reported that the attacks were retaliation for Kenyatta’s alleged backing of the Raila-led protests. In the election, Kenyatta threw his lot with Raila against his deputy Ruto. The Daily Nation reported on Wednesday that it was a politically motivated attack, with some MPs and a musician mobilising youth from central Kenya paying each Ksh3,000 ($22) to trash the Kenyatta farm, handing them power saws to mow down trees at the estate. The police didn’t intervene.
In the Industrial Area of Nairobi, similar attacks were reported at gas cylinder maker Spectre East Africa, a company owned by the family of Raila. Some pro-government politicians had warned Raila that they would give him a taste of his own medicine, so he would understand the pain of those who had lost property in the weekly protests he has unleashed. Politicians linked to the ruling Kenya Kwanza have since denied inciting the attacks.
In another time and place, many an East African would have been content to put the Monday attacks on the Kenyatta and Raila properties down to Kenya’s never-ending high-octane politics. Not this time.
Many East Africans often see Kenyans as ill-mannered, too pushy and greedy, its politicians as too unprincipled and crooked. Other East Africans see those failings as Kenya’s greatest virtues. The greed and pushiness are ambition and drive, and its corrupt and amoral politics a high form of pragmatism and political common sense.
No permanent friends
The one question other Africans ask me most about Kenya is how its politicians are able to jump in and out of bed with others so energetically – i.e. why there seem to be no permanent friends and enemies in Kenyan politicians. Whenever a new dawn arrives, every politician has a chance to eat. Every deal is possible. No betrayal is unthinkable. It is pagan, transactional politics at its worst – and best.
Many Kenyans go about their business unaware that this amorality – and even immorality – of their politicians is admired by outsiders who think it has helped them avoid civil wars and the do-or-die politics that have ruined many an African country.
Inside all that, one of the most admired traits by outsiders is the great consensus among the Kenyan political class over property. You might imprison your political rivals, demonise them, and talk ill of their wives and children, but you don’t touch their property. When Daniel arap Moi took over from Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, he gave hell to many of the big names in his predecessor’s government but didn’t touch their property. The Kenyattas multiplied their wealth during Moi’s rule.
When Mwai Kibaki came in at the start of 2003, having defeated Moi’s KANU and his chosen successor (Uhuru Kenyatta), he did the same. He pampered Moi and catered to his whims and allowed him to enjoy his wealth in peace.
Uhuru Kenyatta did the same with Kibaki after he took over from him in 2013. President Ruto has committed to the same deal for Kenyatta and Raila. However, Monday suggested that on the margins of the ruling coalition, the Kenyan wealth consensus among its political class is beginning to fray.
It would be a regional tragedy if that came to pass. East Africa needs Kenyan politicians to remain conniving and unprincipled because unpleasant as it might be, it is the best example of how to prevent the house from being burnt down and everyone losing what the region has made so far.
Yet, we have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. If Kenya’s good-bad example goes up in smoke, which would be the next source of inspiration for deal-making politics in the region? Rwanda is out. Kigali is still too straight-backed for dirty money and dark alley politics.
Burundi and South Sudan have too many bread-and-butter issues to sort out before they get down to serious political wheel-dealing. The Democratic Republic of Congo once showed promise. However, the government in Kinshasa has recently failed to impose its authority on the entire country. The Kenyan-style amoral government needs full access to the political market; otherwise, there will be ethnic overlords and other power brokers you can’t reach.
Tanzania has potential, but there is still a lot of Julius Nyerere puritanism and ujamaa in the air. Besides, the ruling CCM is still too strong, so it generally pays below market price to win rival politicians over.
The best candidate, therefore, is Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni probably has a better record than any Kenyan leader in offering his foes a deal they can’t refuse for them to cross over into his dining room. However, because he is heavy-handed, he often messes things up.
For now, East Africa needs Kenya, the master of the political deal, to keep doing what it does best.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3