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Africa’s presidents wrongly stereotyped

Shrewd politician

Upon independence, Kenyatta knew he was surrounded by a deeply divided political elite. He was a shrewd politician and understood how to keep his enemies not only close to him, but also close to state resources by nominating them to important political positions. Besides, he had no other choice but to remain a discreet and distant president, to remain aloof from political tensions.

Kenyatta’s political rise, one made of unpredictability – and isolation – set the tone for future presidential power in Kenya. It showed that far from the myth of the omnipotent father of the nation, big man or dictator, the strength of the Kenyan presidential system was built on divisions and uncertainty.

This shows that presidential power has a more complex history than popular stereotypes would have us believe. It requires political intelligence, rather than irrationality or uncontrolled passions, for the president to understand and hold both his allies and enemies together.

Until today, the presidency in Kenya remains the sole institution that strongly resists attempts to decentralise the political system. Nevertheless, presidential rule is also evolving. While Kenyatta became an increasingly imperial leader, his successors – and his son and current President Uhuru Kenyatta in particular – further turned the presidency into an increasingly authoritarian and dynastic institution.

But one things remains: no matter how strong the presidential institution is, it was and is still built on profoundly fragile alliances.

Like father, like son

With the 2022 presidential contest approaching, the president’s party is profoundly divided between Uhuru’s camp and that of his former ally, Deputy President William Ruto. Uhuru’s new ally is his longtime adversary Raila Odinga. This signals not only that Uhuru is, just like his father, using his presidential privileges to turn his enemies into allies, temporarily at least, so as to remain in power in 2022.

In a context of political and economic insecurity created by the COVID-19 pandemic and continuous weakening of civil society, it might well be that Uhuru’s presidential powers will be stronger than ever.


A version of this article was recently published by Democracy in Africa.

Anaïs Angelo is Postdoctoral research fellow, Universität Wien

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