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Vol 55 No 6

Published 21st March 2014


A year of living precariously

The ICC’s case against President Kenyatta is in disarray but so are his own political forces and the managers of his grandiose public spending plans

At the presidential inauguration of Uhuru Kenyatta last April, few would have predicted the chaotic current state of the Jubilee Alliance government. Then, almost his sole preoccupation was to avoid trial at the International Criminal Court. The government has since expended so much energy on the ICC case that the business of running the country has suffered.

One year on, the ICC case, which Kenyatta once described as ‘a personal challenge’, is all but over, say political sources in Nairobi. Witnesses, one of whom was scheduled to give extensive testimony on the meetings at State House that preceded some of the 2007-08 election violence, have recanted or disappeared. There have been indications that the Office of the Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has been looking for the right moment to announce that the trial cannot go forward.

Yet Kenyatta’s government is now deep in a war with an unexpected foe – itself. The President and his allies are fighting battles against the bureaucracy inherited from the previous government but are not prevailing. The conflicts are whittling away at the President’s authority and preventing his government from carrying out even some of its basic functions.

Crime, inflation and grand corruption have risen sharply in the last year. Expectations of an economic take-off have dimmed since the cheers that greeted Kenyatta’s disputed election victory. The government has incurred new debt and inflated the public wage bill against a background of falling tourism revenue – the result of the Westgate terrorist attack and Islamist activity on the coast. Beside concern about loans from China and elsewhere, mostly for infrastructure expansion, there are worries about the growing cost of the new, devolved counties (AC Vol 55 No 4, No way to run a railway & AC Vol 55 No 5, Jubilee lays into America, too & Warning shot or loose cannon?).

Presidential pay cut
The public sector pay crisis has most starkly revealed the tensions within the government. On leaving a cabinet retreat a fortnight ago, Kenyatta announced that he and his deputy, William Ruto, would take a 20% pay cut, along with their cabinet. The reason: the public wage bill was fast becoming unsustainable. For the President himself, scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families and with numerous perks and privileges of office, the salary reduction was little more than a gesture. Wags in the media pointed out that the cost of his accommodation during the four-day retreat exceeded the pay cut he had taken.

The presidency did not get the joke. State House officials summoned senior executives of the offending newspaper, The Standard, and forced them into a humiliating public apology for inflating the cost of the retreat.

There appeared to be something more to the State House encounter than a mere flexing of authoritarian muscle – a habit that Kenyatta displays with increasing frequency. When, in an ostensible initiative to confront the public pay crisis Jubilee members of parliament tabled a bill proposing that the 47 counties be cut to ten, it was clear a full-blown assault on devolution was under way. The bill also proposed to eliminate all nominated MPs and women’s representatives, as well as reduce the county representatives from ten per county to three.

The Jubilee government’s first year has been characterised by an impatience with the new constitution and a disregard for other arms of the state, notably the judiciary, which until recently was widely considered an independent champion of the new constitution. Kenyatta and Ruto have maintained a rhetorical enthusiasm for the constitution but neither supported it in the 2010 referendum.

The President’s troops in Parliament began an assault on devolution almost as soon as they had been sworn in. They first rejected Senate proposals last May to increase subsidies to the counties. The case was heard by the Supreme Court and dismissed. Displaying its now established tendency to go rogue, Parliament – where Jubilee enjoys an unrivalled majority – then took on the judiciary, attempting to curtail its budget and dismantle the Judicial Service Commission late last year. Both the Speaker, Justin Muturi, and the leader of government business, Aden Bare Duale, are unashamed presidential loyalists. With the politics of sycophancy reminiscent of President Daniel arap Moi’s era now in full flow, it is hard not to see these assaults as coming directly from State House.

The swift and irregular impeachment of Embu County Governor Martin Wambora looked to be part of the same campaign. A Jubilee man and a district administrator known for his closeness to Moi, Wambora was impeached by the county legislature based on corruption claims. He went to court, at which point the Senate, at odds with the Council of Governors, ignored a court order staying his impeachment and enforced his dismissal. Muturi remarked that he would not enforce what he termed idiotic orders from the courts.

In rapid succession, Parliament has now tabled bills limiting the authority of the governors and threatened to reduce sharply subsidies to the counties. If the attack on the constitution is part of a slide back to authoritarian rule, the contest between divergent factions of the executive appears connected to controlling resources.

Kenyatta has admitted that corruption cartels have touched his own office but he blames the Deep State, the cabals of top securocrats who were so powerful during Moi’s rule. The most recent scandal concerns procurement for school computers, a US$300 million pledge high on Jubilee’s manifesto which is now stuck in the mud of corruption claims at the Education Ministry. Tellingly, the President has been unable to act, an indication that the Deep State may be tying his hands.

Both securocrats and the judiciary angrily deny claims that senior civil servants leaned on the Supreme Court last March to reject ex-Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s petition against the election results. Yet the influence of the likes of former civil service head Francis Kimemia remains undiminished (AC Vol 55 No 5, Warning shot or loose cannon?). Demoted for unexplained reasons during the Westgate attack and its embarrassing aftermath, Kimemia continues to be a key figure in the administration. Similarly, it escapes no one that no senior military official, including the Chief of Defence Forces, General Julius Waweru Karangi, has been punished for their handling of Westgate (AC Vol 55 No 1, Chickens come home to roost). Moreover, while Ruto’s supporters demanded the dismissal of several key State House officials for allegedly coaching ICC witnesses to testify against Ruto, Kenyatta emphatically defended them.

Many believe that Kenyatta is beholden to the securocrats for trying to get him off the hook at the Hague but does not like it. Key securocrats continue to wield significant influence but he is only biding his time, say State House observers, until he can move against them.

Meanwhile, accountants are delivering their litany of bad news about out-of-control public spending. The debt portfolio is being pushed towards a crisis point by grand infrastructure projects, like the new railway project. Devolution is making the public wage bill balloon and former President Mwai Kibaki’s tax-and-spend policies are still feeding through the economy.

One year ago, the threats were all external. It was the ICC and the challenge of Odinga on the rostrums. Out of Parliament and government, Odinga is a much-reduced figure although he presents a potential threat to Kenyatta in 2017. It is the enemy within that is Kenyatta’s main concern. 

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