The June 28, 2020 swearing-in of Malawian opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera as the country’s sixth president has created the false impression of a rising opposition in Africa’s emerging democracies.
The truth is different. Opposition parties, like liberal democracy itself, are on a recession globally. In Western democracies, a new bout of right-wing populism has turned the opposition into a hub of racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic blitzes and hate-mongering.
In emerging democracies like Kenya, the opposition is splintering, bedevilled with bickering, feuds, schisms and power tussles. In the wake of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s move to recompose the presidency to reassert its power and a raft of purges to enhance inclusivity and build a more cohesive and united polity, Kenya appears destined for a government without opposition – or a weak one at best.
Three landmark developments account for the tragic decline of the opposition in Kenya. First is the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution. While providing for a two-governments system – one in power, the other in waiting as opposition – the new supreme law excluded the leader of the opposition from Parliament.
Yet, the new law had redefined the opposition in a fundamental way, vesting the watchdog role over the Executive in Parliament. Article 108 provides for “a leader of the majority party” who leads the largest party or coalition of parties in the National Assembly and “a leader of the minority party” who heads the second largest party or coalition of parties.
From this exclusion emerged Kenya’s “uncivil opposition”, operating largely in the streets rather than in Parliament and propelled by populism rather than policy. As a product of systemic exclusion, Kenya’s opposition became a source of instability rather than unity and cohesion.
The opposition crisis in Kenya also reflects widespread disaffection with Kenya’s new American-style presidential model, fuelling the subsequent clamour for the country’s return to a parliamentary or semi-presidential system.
Evidently, the liberal doctrine of separation of powers among the three arms of government – the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary – has failed to take root on the Kenyan soil.
Far from entrenching accountability in governance, the tripartite system has resulted in unending public showdowns between the Judiciary and the Executive, intermittent tensions between the courts and the legislature and turf wars pitting the Senate against the National Assembly.
Not even the presidency has been spared of this anarchic order. Since 2018, President Kenyatta has faced a classic “presidential opposition”.
This opposition became public after the historic 2018 unity deal (“handshake”) between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga. At the one level, the unity pact undermined an already weak opposition. At another level, resistance to the peace deal within the ruling Jubilee party the new de facto opposition – a medley of Deputy President William Ruto’s allies and elements within the opposition.
In the wake of increasingly frosty relationship with President Kenyatta, falling-out and purges in the government, talks of a looming new-look unity Cabinet and new coalition agreements with major parliamentary parties, Ruto and his troops in Jubilee, widely parodied as Tangatanga, have become Kenya’s real opposition that is yet to find a new home.
Indeed, Ruto is assuming the mantle left by the Odingas – both Jaramogi and Raila – as opposition doyens and “People's Ombudsmen”.
However, as a charismatic workaholic known for his razor-sharp satire, Ruto has been working round the clock to push Jubilee and its new allies to the opposition. Ruto is shifting the axis of politics from ethnicity to ideology, tapping into the old well-springs of socialist thinking in Kenya.
Swamped with damaging allegations of corruption, Ruto has styled himself as the 21st century heir to the ideological vision of Kenya a socialist nation, coining the divide between ‘hustlers’ and ‘dynasties’.
He has pitched his 2022 campaign as a class struggle between ‘the dynasties’ and ‘the hustler nation’, effectively turning Kenya’s widening gap between the rich and the poor into a wedge issue in the 2022 race.
However, with his campaign limited by the Covid-19 restrictions on movement, Ruto has concentrated on winning the hearts and minds in the hustler nation in Nairobi. Refashioning himself as the champion of the majority poor, Ruto has doled out millions to small businesses, youth, women and faith-based groupings in the “hustler nation”.
He is reaching out directly to people through group meetings, the music industry and pulpits, giving out car wash, sewing, laundry and welding machines as well as motorcycles, shoe-shine stands, water tanks and animal feeds.
But it will take more than charisma and goodies to vanquish his rivals. Other opposition chiefs are circling the wagons around him, minimising his presidential chances. In his Rift Valley backyard, a resurgent Gideon Moi, buoyed by the recent political changes nationally spearheaded by President Uhuru Kenyatta, is rising from the periphery of Kalenjin leadership.
Moi’s allies now occupy strategic positions in Government and his party (Kanu) has entered into a cooperation deal with Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party. His goodies are becoming a poisoned chalice.
In May 2020, distribution of Ruto branded-bags of food donations was stopped when 12 people were admitted to hospital in Kiambu after consuming poisoned food.
In the past, Ruto has rallied support against the push for a referendum by President Kenyatta and Odinga under the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to shift from the pure presidential system with a President as the Head of State and government, a prime minister with two deputies and a mixed Cabinet.
A refurbished royal opposition with an enhanced Office of the Leader of Opposition built into the constitution, a Shadow Cabinet and the rigmaroles and privileges of power might be a safer landing place for 2022 losers.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and CEO of Africa Policy Institute