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

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Monday, 28 September 2020 22:24

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.”

“Future is as clear as it is murky”

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.

Option A: Term extension

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.

Option B: Secession pact with Ruto

President Kenyatta’s original option of a successor was embedded in the 2012 pact that brought him to power with William Ruto as his running mate. While the two of them had moved up in politics under President Daniel Arap Moi’s ruling party in the 1990s, and worked together during Kenyatta’s failed presidential bid in 2002 and the 2005 referendum, they were on different sides in the 2007 polls. But they both ended up indicted by the International Criminal Court for their alleged roles in the post-election crisis that followed those polls.

The indictments, as well as then President Mwai Kibaki’s reluctance to openly pick a successor, drove Kenyatta, who was then Odinga’s deputy prime minister, into a pact with Ruto, who had fallen out with Odinga and the government in 2010-2011.

The January 2012 confirmation of their indictments along with those of four others made the ICC the central political issue of the 2013 elections. In their pact, Kenyatta promised to support Ruto’s bid at the end of his two terms in office in 2022.

Their eventual victory at the polls, and the cancellation of the charges at the Hague in 2014 (for Kenyatta) and 2016 (for Ruto) ended their base motivation for working together beyond the next elections.

READ MORE Kenyatta and Ruto claim vindication after collapse of ICC case

While they wrapped up their parties to form a singular ruling party shortly after Ruto’s case was withdrawn in August 2016, and saw two electoral victories – one short-lived and the other pyrrhic – the question of succession has broken their once public political ‘bromance’.

Part of it has to do with Kenyatta’s March 2018 rapprochement with Odinga, which had seemed unlikely after the latter had called protests and had himself been sworn in as “the people’s president.” But Odinga, who has run for the presidency in all but one election cycle since 1997, made similar truce deals with Kenyatta’s two immediate predecessors after they won their contested second terms.

Those deals effectively brought him and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) into government, but on Kenyatta’s side. It also marked the effective end of the Kenyatta-Ruto partnership.

The result of their truce deal, the Building Bridges Initiative, was expected to lay the groundwork for a constitutional change between now and the 2022 elections before COVID-19 and a September 2020 advisory by the Chief Justice for the President to dissolve Parliament.

READ MORE Kenya: Constitutional crisis after calls to dissolve parliament

At the heart of this bipartisan effort to map out a constitutional framework are post-2022 politics. In the BBI Taskforce report, the main headline-clinchers were proposals to change the structure of the executive, reintroduce the Prime Minister position (which has existed twice in independent Kenya’s history), and two deputy Prime Minister positions.

The new proposals also include reintroducing the position of Leader of Opposition.

But despite calls from some key Kenyatta allies for an Odinga candidacy in 2022, Odinga himself has avoided committing to a fifth run and instead has maintained calls for a plebiscite between now and 2022.

Option C: Support a new successor

While Odinga and Ruto are currently the most prominent of Kenyatta’s likely successors, other politicians are also laying groundwork for their presidential runs, and could upend whatever plan or support Kenyatta offers in the next 23 months.

They include former Vice-Presidents Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi, and at least three of the current county governors; one of whom is currently feuding with Mudavadi on Twitter over copycat political strategies in their presidential campaigns.

In mid 2020, the possibility of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Secretary General Mukhisa Kituyi making a presidential run begun appearing in the news cycle. In September, he told a local media house that he’d only consider it once his UN term ends in August 2021.

Bottom line

As the field of candidates grows and with it new parties and coalitions, it is likely that Kenyatta’s options will shrink, especially if the referendum question and the current constitutional crisis are not solved in good time.

Among the other key things he has to solve in the second half of his final term is Kenya’s unemployment rate, which doubled from 5.4% to 10.8% within the first three months of the pandemic. He’ll also have to deal with the country’s growing public debt, a limping economy, and other macroeconomic concerns. He will also want to close ongoing trade talks with the United States and the United Kingdom, and find some solutions to Kenya’s growing list of geopolitical mistakes in the Horn.

These same issues will likely be the main electoral platforms for those seeking to succeed him. If he fails to steady the ship before the end of his term, then his open support could be a poisoned chalice.

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