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Kenya’s succession politics sucks in Uganda causing fears of diplomatic row

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Tuesday, 24 August 2021 11:11

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta shakes hands with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Nairobi, Kenya on July 25, 2014. (Photo by Tom Maruko/Pacific Press/Sipa USA)

The fierce succession politics engulfing Kenya ahead of the general election next year has finally spilled beyond its borders sucking in its western neighbour, Uganda, and threatening to rock the cordial relations that the two East African countries have enjoyed for decades.

It all started with the aborted trip of the deputy president, William Ruto, to Uganda on 2 August after he was forced to wait for more than five hours at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport for travel clearance that was never issued.

Explaining the reasons for the cancellation the following day, Kenya’s internal security permanent secretary, Karanja Kibicho, said the deputy president was barred from travelling because he lacked the necessary documents.

Humiliation?

Earlier this year, the government released a circular instructing civil servants to seek authorisation from their seniors before travelling abroad. The measure was aimed at cutting down the ballooning expenditure and curbing the importation of different coronavirus variants.

However, Ruto dismissed the recent remarks by Kibicho as part of efforts to humiliate and make him appear useless in the eyes of Kenyans and its neighbours. “I have been DP for nine years. I have gone to many countries, at no point was I asked if there was a need for clearance. Which is this new law that has started working today?” he told a local radio station.

If it can be done to the deputy president of the Republic of Kenya what about you and me?

“For four years, people have heaped blame on me [alleging] that I am competing with the president, that I am disrespectful. I have rejected such insinuations,” he said. The cancelled trip was to be his second in less than a month after President Museveni hosted him on 6 July.

Bank loan

Commenting on the July trip, Ruto said Museveni invited him to witness the launch of the construction of a vaccine manufacturing facility whose Ugandan investor secured a KSh15bn loan ($137.4m) through his help. The investor promised to sell the vaccines to Kenya at a fair price – just like Uganda – because of [t]his help, said Ruto.

The deputy president maintained that the aborted trip on 2 August was a private one, aimed at observing how Uganda has successfully implemented the wealth fund. “I wanted to go and study how the wealth fund helps the Ugandan dairy farmer get feeds and fertiliser for maize farmers. This is because I have started a conversation in Kenya called ‘bottom-up’,” Ruto said.

However, his explanation did not convince his adversaries – allied to President Uhuru Kenyatta and former prime minister Raila Odinga – who view Uganda as a country interfering in Kenya’s succession politics.

NRM links

In a hard-hitting reply, some legislators in the Raila-led Orange Democratic (ODM) Party challenged the deputy president to come clean on his relations with Uganda’s ruling party: the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

The legislators accused Ruto, without evidence, of planning to employ guerilla tactics in his quest to seize the country’s leadership, including using top NRM strategists in next year’s general election.

“The NRM record on human rights is not worth borrowing from. The NRM record on democracy is not worth borrowing… Even worse, the NRM is a party of lifetime presidency,” said Junet Mohamed, who read a joint statement, terming Ruto’s embarrassing incident as a “sympathy seeking circus”.

The criticism angered Uganda’s government that vehemently denies interfering in Kenya’s internal affairs.

“Our foreign policy is very clear that we don’t interfere in the internal affairs of any country whatsoever. We have no authority, we have no power over Kenyan government. They have their own reasons why they prevented HE (His Excellency) Ruto from coming to Uganda and that should be channeled to the Kenyan High Commission,” says Okello Oryem, Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs.

How come it’s ok for Museveni to be friends [with] all these others and if it’s the deputy president there is a problem?

Uganda’s ruling party, NRM also waded in, terming Junet’s utterances as “unfortunate” and having “contravened the spirit of good neighbourliness.” Richard Todwong, the party’s secretary general, added they support “promotion of Pan-Africanism and brotherhood”.

“We don’t do this to undermine or ‘capture power’ in any country as you alleged. We neither stop any visitor from entering our country as long as such a visit is not [a] security risk to our people,” said Todwong.

“The assertion that Kenya doesn’t need to borrow from other countries’ political habits is very correct, and indeed you should never even think of it, just like we equally don’t. This is because our social, economic and political trajectories are premised on different core values and principle,” the party secretary general said.

Lawsuit

The diplomatic rift did not end there. A Ugandan businessman with strong ties to the NRM party and a friend to Ruto’s allies sued Kenya at the East African Court of Justice over the remarks made by the ODM legislator.

Paul Bamutaze said the statements by the legislators demeaned both the NRM and Uganda and contravened the provisions for the establishment of the East African Community (EAC) trade bloc of which Kenya is a member.

“The statements by the said MPs under Orange Democratic Party were intended to tarnish or cast a bad light on to my country’s image as well as the president of the Republic of Uganda because he is the chairman of the National Resistance Movement which is the ruling party,” said Bamutaze.

The businessman said Museveni’s contribution towards the integration of East Africa is well known hence the objective of uttering “such derogatory and demeaning” statements is to cause ridicule and disunity among member states. He wants the East African Court of Justice to declare the utterances unlawful.

Trade relations

Kenyans hope the accusations and counter-accusations from leaders in the two countries do not morph into a full-blown diplomatic war, similar to the one witnessed in 1987 when the two countries almost fought following accusations of interference.

Fortunately, the diplomatic row was resolved after a meeting between then Kenyan President Daniel Moi, and Museveni, after appeals for calm by the Organisation of African Unity. However, this came after the two countries’ security officers had exchanged fire at the common border, leading to casualties.

Since then, relations between the two countries have remained strong, with their heads of state and ministers frequently visiting each other to discuss regional issues. Trade has been a beneficiary of the strong ties, having grown tremendously since the signing of the East African Common Market Protocol  in 2010.

This has allowed free movement of goods, people, labour, services, and capital between EAC member states. In fact, Uganda is Kenya’s leading export destination in Africa, accounting for 28.6% of the country’s total exports on the continent in 2019. Key Kenyan exports to Uganda include refined petroleum, palm oil, iron, and salt among others.

According to the United Nations International Trade Statistics Database (UN COMTRADE), Kenya’s exports to Uganda were worth $673.66m in 2020. During the same period, Uganda’s exports to Kenya totalled $465.55m, driven by increased exports of maize, milk, and sugar.

ICC politics

Relations on the political front have also remained strong. When President Kenyatta and his deputy were hauled to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of crimes against humanity following the 2007 post-election violence, Museveni rallied behind the two leaders accusing the Hague-based court of bias against Africans.

At the inauguration of Kenyatta and his deputy on 9 April 2013, Museveni hailed Kenyans for “rejection of blackmail by [the] ICC” by electing the two leaders into office.

The Ugandan president even threatened that African countries would pull out of the ICC if it continued to target leaders in the continent, arguing that Africans were capable of solving their own problems. The case against the two Kenyan leaders collapsed for lack of evidence and alleged witness tampering.

Museveni has also on several occasions invited Kenyan leaders to accompany him on the campaign trail in Uganda, in what many political analysts view as a calculated move to boost his image as a powerful and influential leader not only at home but also in the East Africa region.

  • In 2011, for example, opposition leaders led by Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka trooped to Uganda to campaign for Museveni ahead of country’s general election. This was after Ruto, whose case at the ICC was still active, attended the launch of the Ugandan president’s campaign manifesto the previous year.
  • Ruto went back to Uganda in 2015, this time as the deputy president of Kenya, to campaign for Museveni in Kapchorwa district near the Kenyan border. Ruto, who was accompanied by a delegation of other Kenyan leaders, used both English and his native language to drive home the importance of electing leaders who will guarantee peace and stability and expand opportunities for young people to rid the region of poverty.
  • In return, Museveni showered Ruto with praise saying: “When the deputy president comes here he is supporting the ideology of NRM which is nationalism in Uganda and Pan Africanism in Africa.”

Having been denied permission to visit Uganda was thus deemed hypocritical and political by Ruto, given that all top Kenyan leaders have worked closely with Museveni in the past.

“People are saying I have a relationship with Museveni. Museveni is a friend to the Kenyan president. Museveni is my friend. I have campaigned for him in Uganda. All these Nasa (National Super Alliance) leaders have campaigned for him… How come it’s ok for Museveni to be friends [with] all these others and if it’s the deputy president there is a problem?” said Ruto.

Cooling down political temperatures

Knowing very well the benefits of good neighbourliness and the dangers of high-octane political rhetoric, Kenyans and the diplomatic community are urging politicians to cool down political temperatures and avoid actions that might endanger the country’s relations with its neighbours.

“It is unfortunate that a respectable state like ours finds itself in a diplomatic row with its neighbour Uganda because of succession politics,” said Javas Bigambo, a political analyst. “It’s unfortunate that the bad relation[ship] between the president and his deputy should make a respectable nation like ours face this kind of unpleasant scenario.”

The Wilson Airport incident might be a sign of a weakening relationship between Kenyatta and Museveni, said Duncan Ojwang of the Africa Nazarene University Law School.

“We all know how cordial the relationship between President Kenyatta and President Museveni used to be. For example, Museveni used to come to every national event in Kenya and he would be allowed to speak and we know at some point that stopped,” Ojwang told the Kenya Television News (KTN).

According to Ojwang, it is worth noting that Museveni chose to invite the deputy president to launch the construction of the vaccine manufacturing facility. It’s thus unfortunate that Kenyatta opted to react to his weakening relationship with the Ugandan president by blocking his deputy from travelling to Uganda.

Bottom line

Divergent views aside, lawyer Jack Okula, says Kenyans must be concerned about two issues following the embarrassing incident.

“One, is the existence of the East African Community and its sustainability based on this kind of relationship. That boils down to our diplomatic relations with our neighbours Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda and others,” Okula says.

He adds that Kenyans should also be very worried about failure to uphold and apply the rule of law on matters of free movement.

“Today you might decide to take your family to Tanzania or any other country and you are told you cannot go. If it can be done to the deputy president of the Republic of Kenya what about you and me? These are issues that need to really worry us.”

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