In 2017, I argued on a different platform that Kenya had rolled back democratic gains to pave the way for authoritarianism. Only a handful of readers appreciated the warning. Others, especially Kenyans in Kenya who believe they are more Kenyans and patriotic than their counterparts in the diaspora, chastised the article and argued that I echoed Western propaganda that caricatures Africa as a chaotic space. Six years later (2023), the media, intellectuals, and opposition parties have collectively expressed the same concern, with the former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, warning the present administration of President William Ruto that Kenyans won’t let him take the country back to the dark days of dictator Daniel Arap Moi (1978–2002).
For the uninitiated in Kenya’s politics of declension, Moi laid the foundation on which authoritarianism thrived during his tenure and beyond, first to Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration and now to William Ruto’s Presidency. It’s worth mentioning that Kenyatta and Ruto were Moi’s political protégés. Under Moi’s watchful eye, the two studied his political gamemanship that obliterated opposition parties and turned Kenya into a one-party state. In 1991, Moi, unable to endure local and international pressure to liberalize the political space, repealed Section 2A of the constitution and returned the country to a multi-party system. Because the constitution meant nothing to him, Moi scorned the freedom of speech, and those who dared to speak loudly when a whisper could get one to prison—like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ngugi wa Mirii, Raila Odinga, and Nobel laurete Wangari Maathae—were detained without trial, tortured, or forced into exile (the present writer was detained in July 1990 in Nakuru Town and charged with treason, a capital offense). Moi strengthened the executive and made it the most powerful branch of government, so powerful that it controlled both the legislature and judiciary.
Shortly after leaving office in 2002, his successor, Mwai Kibaki, stabilized the democratic space. Kenyans took advantage and crated a new Constitution that restored and protected basic rights. Kibaki separated the three branches of the government, restored their autonomy, and allowed other institutions to function independently. The country thrived for ten years, but the progress slowed shortly after Kenyatta assumed power. To be fair, Kenyatta was mild compared to his political mentor, but he antagonized the judiciary and encouraged extrajudicial killings. A son of the country’s first President, Kenyatta began by casting himself as a victim of judicial tyranny.
Convinced, as he was, that judges conspired against him, Kenyatta framed them as wakora (crooks/thugs) and threatened to nyorosha (straighten up) the Supreme Court justices. By vilifying the judiciary and its sympathizers, a strategy that he employed to expunge judges and flatly reject the appointment of others, Kenyatta effectively rolled back the judicial gains that Kenya had enjoyed under his predecessor.
William Ruto assumed power in 2022 following a nasty presidential campaign of insults, bickerings, and name-calling between himself and Raila Odinga. Ruto had served in Kenyatta’s administration as Deputy President but fell out with his boss after the latter struck a peace deal—the “handshake”—with Odinga in 2018. In less than eight months in office, Ruto has pointedly targeted the opposition by “buying” its elected officials in a move aimed at obliterating it. Perfecting the art of spending money to weaken the opposition, an art that informed Moi’s political philosophy, Ruto has truncated his opponents’ political lifeline. Kenya is witnessing what the country’s first Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, warned against in 1967.
In Not Yet Uhuru (freedom), Odinga cautioned against spending ‘money . . . not on essential administration and services, but on politics. On prestige spending.’ Moreover, Ruto is practicing the politics of intimidation, vengeance, and retaliation against former Cabinet Secretaries in Kenyatta’s administration who fell out with him. He recently raided Fred Matiangi’s home (former CS of the interior), a move that rattled Raila Odinga and the political establishment as a return to the old dark days. The media, which—in Ruto’s mind—has never treated him kindly, reacted by organizing multiple events aimed at understanding why Kenya’s Multiparty Democracy [is ] Under Threat (see the image below).
It is often said in Africa that the best way to eat an elephant in your path is to cut him up into little pieces, but it's only a fool who would think that the strength of a democratic society rests on fragments of democracy.
Gloria Steinem reminds us that however sugarcoated and ambiguous, every form of authoritarianism must start with a belief in some group’s greater right to power, whether that right is justfied by sex, race, religion, or all four. In the context of the present political landscape in Kenya, the justification is religion. A self-proclaimed humdinger and religious man, Ruto recently argued that religion will play a profound role in the government. He actualized this argument by holding Sunday services at the State House and also prayed in public for the rains to end the current drought. In this regard, and, as Ali Mubarak correctly points out, when religion and politics unite is in an attempt to monopolize political power. Mubarak frames this unity as ‘the integration and sharing model,’ which allows politicians to argue that they are divinely ordained and to question their authority and right to power is to question God. Once this phase is firmly secured, the public is expected to accept the government’s programs and policies, including those that encroach on basic rights.
Finally, authoritarians tend to control the supply of consumer goods, then pretend to be working around the clock to ensure steady supply and affordable prices. In recent months, the price of consumer goods in Kenya has skyrocketed, but the government maintains that it is working on a long-term solution and has asked Kenyans to mtupe muda (give us time).
During my last visit to Kenya in February, I visited multiple grocery stores to talk with store clerks and shoppers, rode on boda boda (motorcycles) and in Ubers to engage with the drivers, went nightclubs to listen to bouncers and watchmen, sat on roadsides to hear from mama mboga (vegetable vendors), and entertained conversations with my house help to understand the politics of control and food supply. My informants expressed frustration, with one revealing that he voted for Ruto but “hii serikali yake itatumaliza (his government will finish us). Tunataka chakula, sio maombi (we want food, not prayers).
It is clear that Kenya has assumed a dangerous path. What is unclear is the extent to which Kenyans will allow the country to slide back into authoritarianism.
Samson Kaunga Ndanyi
Assistant Professor of African History and Africana Studies
Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee.