third mandate club?

Kenya: Ahead of the 2022 polls, what options does Kenyatta really have?

By Morris Kiruga

Posted on September 28, 2020 20:24

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Aug. 27, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

When Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta was asked back in October 2018 by CNN if he would extend his term beyond 2020, he replied with an emphatic “No”. When asked if he would consider so after a constitutional change, he also responded with a clear “No”.

The renewed clamour for constitutional reform, Kenyatta insisted, was not about his possible future on the seat he has held since 2013, but about other issues with the 2010 constitution such as “the costs of running this new constitution, et cetera.”

For Kenya’s fourth president, the future is as clear as it is murky.

While on the one hand he has insisted that a pre-2022 constitutional change that he and his three-time opponent at the polls, Raila Odinga, are working on is not about extending his term, some of his most vocal supporters have kept it in the news as a nuclear option.

However his opponents on the issue, led by his deputy, argue that the constitutional referendum is a sinister plot to water down the imperial presidency by adding new positions, ensuring that Kenyatta and Odinga have a firmer hand on the former’s succession.

Or even possibly a way for Kenyatta to stay in some position of power after the end of his term.

Both sides agree on one thing though, that the clamour for constitutional change is at its core about who succeeds Kenyatta as the fifth President of Kenya after the 9 August 2022 polls. And as that date approaches, plans for holding the plebiscite in 2020 hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and a recent judicial move that could trigger new parliamentary elections, could all potentially go up in smoke, thereby derailing Kenyatta’s plans for the next two years.

His options at this point include:

  • A. Going for a third term
  • B. Falling back on his 2013 succession pact with Deputy President William Ruto, (both of these two options are improbable but not impossible.)
  • C. End up supporting someone else to succeed him, which would be a break from his predecessors who mostly let the succession chips fall where the wind takes them.

The question of a possible third term, in a continent where such actions by incumbents have become more the rule than the exception, has come up several times before and since. While Kenyatta himself has maintained that he would handover power to whoever wins the August 2022 polls, at least two of his most vocal allies have kept the third term issue in the news.

READ MORE The rise of Africa’s new ‘old men’

In mid-September 2020, for example, one of Kenya’s leading newspapers headlined with an interview with the influential trade unionist Francis Atwoli, who spoke of a likely third mandate outcome. Though soon after, he backtracked on his initial  statements, saying he’d been speaking as an individual, and not on behalf of any group.

Another frequent commentator on Kenyatta’s choices has been the ruling party’s deputy chairman, David Murathe. A close Kenyatta ally who is constantly in the news, Murathe is seen in Nairobi as the president’s political cat’s paw in his schism with his deputy.

Despite being an outsider in governance structures, save for one ruling party post (from which he tried to resign in January 2019), Murathe is a frequent commentator on the President’s options. Succession was the reason Murathe tried to resign, specifically in relation to his open war with Deputy President William Ruto, who has lost control within the ruling party, and the bicameral legislature, to Kenyatta’s men.

To Murathe and other diehard Kenyatta supporters, the 2012 deal that brought the two to victory on the promise that Kenyatta would support Ruto’s own presidential bid in 2022 is now void.

READ MORE Fallout with Kenyatta: Door closed on succession for Ruto 

In an interview with a local media house on 1 September, 2020, Murathe said that the question of whether Kenyatta is too young to retire is: “Not about age, it’s about Kenyans; it’s about if he has had enough time – uninterrupted – to finish his vision, mission and promise to Kenyans.” He also added that former opposition leader and now close Kenyatta ally Odinga was the preferred choice of a successor to Kenyatta, and not Ruto.