Weighed against the hype leading up to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s State of the Nation address, the outcome on Thursday was something of an anticlimax.
In the days and weeks leading to the address that took place before a joint session of the Senate and National Assembly, the media was saturated with news and analyses breathlessly predicting that the President would use the occasion to strike a decisive blow in the fight against corruption.
Expectation was high that he would demand a sizeable number of Cabinet secretaries and other senior officials who have been adversely mentioned in ongoing corruption investigations step aside, as a prelude to a wave of arrests and prosecutions.
RULE OF LAW
Such a move would have sent shock waves across the political system.
It would have accelerated schisms in the President’s governing Jubilee Party, where a powerful faction has been loudly protesting that the anti-corruption war targets Deputy President William Ruto and his close allies.
In the end, the President did nothing of the sort, dismissing talk of impending Cabinet dismissals as a narrative created by the media.
Though he did talk tough against corruption and vowed that there would be no relenting, he emphasised that there would be no “vigilante justice”.
He acknowledged public pressure and speculation on who would be sacked, but stressed that the corrupt would only be pursued within the remits of the law, that no one would be condemned unheard.
The President however promised that where an official is indicted, then he must be removed from office.
He recalled the pivotal State of the Nation address in 2015 where a large number of Cabinet secretaries mentioned in a various corruption investigations were forced to step aside, terming it a first-of-a-kind action in Kenya, though it seems he overlooked the fact that his predecessor, President Mwai Kibaki, had also done the same.
More germane however is that President Kenyatta has shifted the line on when officials mentioned in corruption are supposed to step aside.
In the famous 2015 address, he removed Cabinet secretaries, principal secretaries and heads of state corporations on information that they were under investigation by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission.
Insistence this time that arrests and prosecutions must come first might well indicate that the President is going back on his resolve, or does not have the guts for actions that could have major political ramifications around his relations with Deputy President Ruto.
For those who might have been waiting with bated breath, it will be another waiting game.
Attention will now shift from the President to the next moves to be made by Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti, Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission director Twalib Mbarak and Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji.
Though the President may have developed cold feet or generally decided not to act prematurely, it is also clear that he did not close the door on the possibility of Cabinet secretaries and other high-profile figures being paraded in courts of law and subsequently being forced to leave office.
Such a development would still bring political complications, but would at least offer him cover in that he is not the arresting or prosecuting authority, and it is the law which demands any public officer indicted on criminal charges step aside until cleared.
President Kenyatta’s prickly relations with Mr Ruto have also been accentuated by the latter’s open suspicion of the Building Bridges Initiative.
BIG FOUR AGENDA
The State of the Nation address also gave unqualified support for the “handshake” truce between the President and Opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Early on in the speech, the President signalled his unwavering resolve on both the anti-corruption war and Building Bridges, two initiatives whose mention is often akin to waving a red flag in front of Mr Ruto’s face.
But, after the introductory remarks, the President moved in a tangent away from the two hot-button political issues, going into a lengthy stump speech on his development agenda in very much the template seen every so often at national day celebrations.
It was mostly about enumerating his achievements with a rosy self-appraisal on the Big Four development agenda.
He trotted out data in key areas such as economic growth, infrastructural development, health, agriculture, education and other indicators.
It was a scorecard that ignored widespread citizen disaffection over the real economic conditions, and the myriad failures recorded on the Jubilee development agenda.
It was only towards the end of the address that the President went back to the issues which have dominated discourse in the weeks leading up to #SOTNke2019.
On both the Building Bridges and anti-corruption effort, he came out with fighting words, clearly sending the message that he considered them both issues of prime importance to Kenya’s very survival as a united, prosperous nation.
His talk of unity, national reconciliation, addressing of historical grievances, national values, justice and rule of law sounded more like what might come out of opposition or civil society rather than a president conditioned to unquestioning fidelity to the conservative status quo.
That might be indicative of how President Kenyatta’s thinking has evolved as he tries to craft an enduring legacy in is final term.
But it also signifies the growing rift, and might reinforce suspicion that President Kenyatta will not automatically remain faithful to the presumed promise to support Deputy President Ruto for continuation of Jubilee rule in 2022.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if the President’s tough words on corruption will be followed up with tough action.
He stated that citizens expect arrests and vowed to fight the war to the end, but then seemed to waver on actual action against suspects in his government.
Blaming the media for the Cabinet dismissals stories was quite ingenious when such leaks come directly from State House.
There are also juicy leaks from investigators that the media tends to splash without question, only to be left in the lurch when prosecution details fail to match the billions headlined.
Meanwhile, it seems, for the first time since he took office, President Kenyatta delivered a major speech without significant reference to the Jubilee agenda. It was ‘my government’ or ‘my administration’. That could be telling.