Is Kenya’s ‘deep state’ a reality or scarecrow in its democracy?

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Tuesday, 5 October 2021 17:49, updated on Wednesday, 6 October 2021 10:14

Kenya Election
A registered voter casts his vote in a box during an election mock voting exercise organized by the IEBC and sponsored by the UNDP at the Marycliffe Primary School in Kibera, Kenya on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

Ahead of Kenya’s general election set for August 2022, the electoral commission is busy laying down a system for an elaborate electoral infrastructure governed by strict laws, rules and regulations. Presidential hopefuls have been crisscrossing the country, despite Covid-19 restrictions, in a bid to stay ahead of the competition. However, will the 2022 election be a democratic exercise where voters choose their leaders through the ballot or will it be a Trojan-horsed poll, where invisible powerful forces - informally referred to as 'the deep state' - have a hand?

During an interview with Citizen TV in December 2019, former vice president Kalonzo Musyoka sensationally alluded to the power of the ‘deep state’. “Kenyans must know that there is a ‘deep state’ government […] I don’t even need to name them… A country is never run by these politicians who shout [the] loudest.”

Then on 21 September 2021, Francis Kimemia – a former head of public service – told Citizen TV: “The state exists… I can assure you it is deeper than deep. If you have two candidates at the rate of 50-50, and the ‘deep state’ backs one, you can be sure [which] one will win.”

Kimemia is currently the governor of Nyandarua, a county within the Mount Kenya region. Before his election in August 2017, he had served in government for a long time, having risen up the ranks of the influential provincial administration. He had served as the permanent secretary in the internal security docket under then President Mwai Kibaki. He rose to the powerful seat of head of public service and secretary to the cabinet in the final years of the Kibaki administration.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta took over, he retained him as secretary to the cabinet – a senior official who coordinates government ministers – for two years under the new administration. Kimemia is a quiet unassuming figure who has kept state secrets and operational plans closely guarded.

Thus, when he confirmed the existence of the ‘deep state’, he sent tongues wagging and minds spinning.

Shocking…just shocking that a man of the stature, standing and experience of Governor Kimemia can say on TV that the ‘deep state’ and the ‘international community’ decide who wins presidential elections in Kenya.”

Following political reconciliation between Kenyatta and Raila Odinga (leader of the Orange Democratic Movement, ODM), the latter’s supporters appear to believe that should the former prime minister vie for the country’s top seat in 2022, he’d be sure to win.

Oburu Odinga, Raila’s elder brother and a legislator in the East African Legislative Assembly, told a meeting in August 2020: “… Now we are with Uhuru Kenyatta who is holding the system. If (we have) the system plus our votes, which are always more than the others, what else do we need?”

Fury against former state operative

“Shocking…just shocking that a man of the stature, standing and experience of Governor Kimemia can say on TV that the ‘deep state’ and the ‘international community’ decide who wins Presidential elections in Kenya…,” Ahmednasir Abdullahi, a Nairobi-based lawyer said on Twitter.

Ekuru Aukot, a former presidential contender in 2017, demanded that Kimemia explain how an “amorphous entity…at every election period, usurps the sovereign will of the Kenyan people…violating the Constitution of Kenya.” Aukot even threatened to sue Kimemia should he not come clean on his statement.

“This admission is, by itself, treasonous and calls for thorough investigations on the conduct of the so-called ‘deep state’,” Aukot’s letter says.

Kimemia had told Citizen TV that even though the ‘deep state’ decides who to back and influences their chances with the electorate, such a candidate must fit the bill. “The candidate must be credible and electable…even if the ‘deep state’ is to support [them]; but you are forgetting the international angle; this country has a lot of interests from [the] international [community]. “

Foreign influence on elections

Asked how the foreign influence impacts on the electoral process, he said: “[in] many ways that I cannot discuss. If they [international community] combine with ‘deep state’ you can be sure your goose is cooked.” Kimemia said any further details were a “no go zone”.

I can tell you from where I sat, [that] they [international community] influence a lot.”

Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, would later dismiss claims of existence of a ‘deep state’ saying: “They are threatening us that there’s a system, a ‘deep state’…that there are people who will rig us out even if you [Kenyans] vote in whatever manner […] We are waiting for those people, we are waiting for that ‘deep state’.”

However, if Kimemia’s words are to be taken as the confession of a man who was very influential in government, having observed and directed operations under Kibaki and Kenyatta’s administrations, then his statements raise crucial questions. Did the so-called ‘deep state’ have any influence on the election of Kenyatta and Ruto in 2013 and 2017? Is Ruto himself a beneficiary of that same system? And how will the same unregulated group influence the 2022 presidential election at a time when Ruto appears to have fallen out with the core of government?

State and elections

2022 will be the third transition election in Kenya’s post-independence history. The first was in 2002 when the country’s second president, Daniel Moi, handed over power to Kibaki.

In that election, Moi – who had ruled the country for 24 years – had handpicked Kenyatta, then a political-greenhorn, to succeed him through KANU, the independence party. This was met by hostile reaction by senior politicians who bolted, leaving Moi’s corner thin.

An alliance of former Moi allies, and then the opposition, gave Kibaki 62% of the national vote, double what Kenyatta garnered. The latter’s defeat was met with disbelief, as Kenyans had not known open democracy during the multiparty-era elections in 1992 and 1997.

Elections held after that, however, have been marred with controversy and popular belief that state operatives interfere with presidential electoral outcomes; an allegation peddled by opposition parties in the elections of 2007, 2013 and 2017.

2013 election dynamics

Aden Duale, an MP from Garissa Town – a constituency in North Eastern Kenya – served as the leader of majority in the National Assembly between 2013 and 2020. In a past interview, he revealed how the candidacy of Kenyatta and Ruto faced hurdles in the hands of the ‘deep state’.

“In 2013 they gave us hell… Those guys [‘deep state’] didn’t want Kenyatta to become president, they created a lot of fear…and they worked with foreign powers… You remember ‘choices have consequences’? The whole story of ICC was part of the ‘deep state’,” he said.

[With] a popular candidate backed by the state, it would be foolhardy to imagine you can defeat such a candidate.”

A month before the March 2013 general election, Kenyatta and Ruto were facing crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. When asked about Washington’s position on the candidature of the two leaders, the then US Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told journalists during a briefing: “We live in an interconnected world; and people should be thoughtful about the impact that their choices have on their nation […] and on the world in which they live. Choices have consequences.”

Kimemia vaguely confirmed this when he said: “I can tell you from where I sat, [that] they [international community] influence a lot.”

Ruto vs Raila?

A presidential candidate needs more than half of the total vote – loosely translated to 50% plus one vote – to win the presidency. At the moment, Ruto and Raila are perceived to be the front-runners. Raila’s friendship with Kenyatta depicts him as the ‘system-favoured’ candidate. Their respective parties have been working towards a pre-election coalition agreement.

The preferred candidate will ensure regime continuity, ideological continuity, material continuity or maintaining the status quo.”

Raila’s ODM party is expected to produce a presidential candidate, while Kenyatta’s Jubilee party could produce a running mate who would become the deputy president if elected. Kenyatta cannot run after finishing the two terms allowed by the constitution.

A coalition of Raila and a Kenyatta protégé would enjoy the support of the government machinery. “[With] a popular candidate backed by the state, it would be foolhardy to imagine you can defeat such a candidate,” Kimemia said.

Who is the ‘deep state’?

Duale described the ‘deep state’ as “well connected [individuals] to the state.” “You will find them doing business in [the] security sector and…government, they play [a] big role in [the] formation of government.”

According to him, the ‘deep state’ is more alert during a transitional election such as the 2022 one. “Every time there’s a transition they go into a panic [mode]. They want to be part of the next government…they choose candidates.”

“…The preferred candidate will ensure regime continuity, ideological continuity, material continuity or maintaining the status quo,” said Kimemia.

If that’s true, questions abound as to why in 2002, Kenyatta spectacularly lost to Kibaki despite Moi’s ‘deep state’, which at the time had more space to wiggle under the old, non-transparent constitution.

‘Deep state’ options

“The candidate has to be sellable and marketable…it would be foolhardy to point at someone not popular with the public. It is tricky for a sitting [retiring] president who may want this but the public prefers someone else,” said Kimemia.

The once powerful cabinet official confirmed that Kibaki also had a preferred successor who was not necessarily Musalia Mudavadi, as many had thought at the time. “Mzee (Elder) Kibaki had several options, whether it’s Uhuru Kenyatta or Musalia Mudavadi. He left it fairly open to the nation.”

If not investigated to its logical conclusion, is there any need for Kenyans to even think of voting next year?”

At Kenyatta’s inauguration on 9 April 2013, Kibaki described the new president and deputy as the ‘dynamic duo’. “I have no doubt in my mind that the country is in good hands,” he said.

 Will of the people or state?

As Aukot wrote in his letter: “If not investigated to its logical conclusion, is there any need for Kenyans to even think of voting next year?”

Mudavadi, a former vice president and a presidential hopeful in the 2022 elections, warns that the ‘deep state’ is a threat to democracy. “It is the process of free and fair election[s] that will guarantee stability and strengthen the democratic process of this country. Anything other than that should not be entertained.”

“All I can say is that it works…the thing is that it [‘deep state’] works. It goes all the way to [the] polling stations, it doesn’t necessarily mean rigging,” he says.

The electoral commission’s headache

The electoral commission, IEBC, has assured Kenyans that it will do its part to ensure credibility in the 2022 poll. “We have a robust system of getting the will of the people to be supreme…any form of interference becomes irrelevant,” Wafula Chebukati, the commission’s chairperson says.

He, however, acknowledges the possibility of interference.“We have done by-elections in the recent past and have seen what can happen in some areas; but so long as our staff are trained and remain committed to the oath office…then the commission [will] be able to deliver to Kenyans a free, fair and credible election,” Chebukati says.

For Karanja Kibicho, the current principal secretary at the interior ministry (a seat Kimemia once held), ‘deep state’ is “the product of fertile imagination…an explanation that nothing just happens.”

He says given Kenya’s “progressive constitution”, there is no place for state manipulation of key decisions, like those made during an election.

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