The imperial presidency is not dead and buried yet; watch the motorcade - Daily Nation

The imperial presidency is not dead and buried yet; watch the motorcade

Monday August 9 2010


My piece in the Sunday Nation about the death of the imperial presidency provoked varied reactions online. They ranged from comments that all those extensive motorcades are a waste of resources to observations that a strong presidency is a vital pillar of the nation.

But there were also those who felt that a new constitution, by itself, will not tame the shows of grandeur beloved of our leaders.

That is the angle I wish to follow up on. It is true that all the little trappings of power that define the Imperial Presidency remain untouched by the new Constitution, because they are matters of style rather than substance.

It is not the Constitution that says the President of Kenya must cause traffic gridlock every time he makes a routine drive from one place to another.

Both Presidents Kenyatta and Moi had motorcades nearly as long as President Kibaki’s, and they also enjoined the sirens, bells and whistles that cleared the hoi polloi off the roads for them.

But at least those largely unnecessary displays were handled with some efficiency and timekeeping so that disruptions were minimal. A road would be closed for only a few minutes before the presidential motorcade zoomed by. But these days, one would imagine they close the roads while the president is still in the shower.

Everything, of course, is relative. I remember, as a young reporter in 1989, covering a presidential junket to France. Kenyan embassy staff were given a proper telling off for providing an inappropriate car for President Moi.

The State House officials who had threatened to rain fire and brimstone on the hapless diplomatic staff could not believe it when they encountered President François Mitterrand’s motorcade on its way to the Palais de l’Élysée.

The French leader was in exactly the same make of humble Citroen provided for President Moi. No stretch limousine, only two motorcycle outriders and two escort cars.

They must have comforted themselves that Mitterand was a misguided socialist anyway.

One might recall that when Mr Moi came to power, he tried to fashion himself as the people’s president. When he sought to cut down the power of the wealthy oligarchs that had surrounded President Kenyatta, he famously declared that lying in a golden bed would not buy sound sleep.

But then he forgot his own dictum about a golden bed, designing a system meant to match and surpass the wealth of his foes even if that meant destroying the national economy through slash and burn policies.

The populist President, who delighted in shows of stopping his long motorcade to chat with ordinary folk, was also determined to match the mythical giant that was Kenyatta, both in wealth and in power.

Hence the frenzied building of a Mobutuesque personality cult where he was baba and everything of substance was named either Moi or Nyayo.

The exit of President Moi and the entry of President Kibaki started the slow death of the imperial presidency, but that was probably more a matter of style.

The new President was happy to inherit the show of grandeur typified by a gross motorcade, but with so much less efficiency and timekeeping.

At public functions, his security detail often comes out over-zealous and thuggish, especially when dealing with pesky journalists. Otherwise Mr Kibaki has avoided many of the outward displays of raw power exhibited by his predecessors.

He has given his ministers and PSs free rein to do their work, unlike Moi who tried to micromanage — with disastrous results — each and every government department.

If the Moi State House was like a noisy marketplace, corridors teeming the whole day with supplicants, wheeler-dealers and favour-seekers, the Kibaki State House is rather more genteel.

It is not a place for shadowy operators out for the presidential signature on land grants, and nor does he demand that everybody make it a habit to pass by as a sign of loyalty.

But still, his administration did happily inherit the Anglo Leasing scandal and went softly on the figures behind Goldenberg and other Moi-era scams, so perhaps it was merely an issue of greater discretion.