This election year could not have begun more ominously for the government: Hungry voters, a never-ending doctors’ strike, and both within months of a yet-to-be-resolved teachers’ crisis.
This seems like a brutal mockery of Deputy President William Ruto’s statement made in 2013 when he promised that if the Jubilee Coalition won, no Kenyan would die of hunger; that doctors and teachers “would be properly paid” and that strikes would end.
“In five years,” – meaning 2017 – he bragged that Jubilee would ask voters to judge the government by its “performance” not vitendawili (riddles), a jibe at Raila Odinga’s folksy attacks on government. He will not want voters to remember this, much less desire to be judged against any of these promises. Yet, the unravelling of the government’s “contract with Kenya” masks a more subtle reality: President Kenyatta’s real difficulties arise from the three fundamental ways in which the new Constitution has eroded the traditional logic of Kenya’s electoral politics.
First, the shift from the old system – combining parliamentary and presidential features – to a presidential system has destroyed the ‘political contract’ between the President and Parliament. The old system tied the fate of MPs to that of the President. The MPs had powerful incentives to campaign for the President: he could reward them with Cabinet seats, a key reason why President Daniel arap Moi had bloated Cabinets, which often topped 30-odd ministers with twice as many assistants.
The President cannot reward MPs who support him with Cabinet seats any more. The quickest route to Cabinet now is to work on the campaign, prove one’s worth and wangle a ministerial seat along the way. It would be irrational to pursue a Cabinet place through a parliamentary seat: the votes in one constituency are not enough to bargain with and the campaign costs are too high a price to pay for a Cabinet seat that the President may not offer.
Moreover, if an MP wins and then resigns to join Cabinet, she learns, as Joseph ole Nkaissery surely has, that she has traded in political influence for administrative power and yet, in an election year, it is political influence that a would-be president needs.
The old system supported presidential patronage in another way: ministers straddled the legislature – that votes money – and the Executive – that implements the budget. This gave them the means to buy local political influence for the President.
Second, it used to be said that all politics is local, devolution has made that rhetoric a constitutional fact. National politicians – senators and MPs – have no budgets. MPs lost their budget when the High Court ruled the CDF Act unconstitutional. Senators lost the budget power they craved when the court told them that the County Development Boards, CDB, were – like the CDF – also unconstitutional. In contrast, local politicians – governors and MCAs – have budgets and the power to direct these to the needs of their constituents. Each county controls, on average, about Sh6 billion a year, Sh30 billion in five years. If queues at Parliament building have shrunk, it is because the public has seen the cash: more people now look to their MCAs and the county executive than to MPs and senators. Meaning that though the President may exhort his senators and MPs to support him, they aren’t much help. Unfortunately, counties – meaning governors and MCAs – will not be useful to the President in this election either, first because he has done little to court them and second, because his interests and theirs are not congruent.
Let’s begin with why President Uhuru’s handling of counties, especially governors, has hurt him. Since he was elected, the President has done little to court and done much to antagonise the Council of Governors. Last year, he confirmed but failed to turn up at Annual Devolution Conference, the CoG’s annual networking opportunity. A smarter strategy, say a monthly ‘Breakfast with Governors’, might even have won over a few opposition governors. Mostly, the President ignores Jubilee governors; treats Cord’s governors as if they were his competitors and both as if they should be his minions. On the podium, he is often heard hectoring ‘wasteful’ governors – as he condones the profligacy of his government – and when he breezes into town, he seems to expect obeisance. The result is that Jubilee governors are often lukewarm and Opposition ones usually hostile.
A little reflection would have shown President Kenyatta – and anyone else running for president – that he needs governors more than they need him. To win an election, a governor must run on his personal record, not that of his party or of the government. Voters will judge MCAs and governors based on whether they have met their expectations.
Even if the government had done better over the last five years, the President has nothing to bargain with. What could he possibly offer Jubilee governors, politically speaking? If jubilee governors think that voters will punish the government in August – say because it has antagonised critical constituencies – teachers, for instance – they have an incentive to dissociate their campaigns from the President’s, even if they still share a party.
But the Constitution has thrown the President a fiscal curveball, too. The old system gave the President discretion over money to local projects. The new system relies on earmarks – 15 per cent of national revenues – and independent institutions – such as the Commission on Revenue Allocation, CRA. What counties get doesn’t depend on party affiliation. Pre-election promises and threats have not power any more. Not able to reward a county that supports him or punish one that opposes him, a President on the stumps will be a forlorn figure indeed, just interesting enough to meet but not important enough to invest time in. County headquarters, not State House, is now the go-to place.
The President might think that allies who – like Senator Kiraitu Murungi – want gubernatorial seats could help his campaigns in the counties. Unlikely. National issues do not resonate in counties. Those who mix the local and the national risk losing county support without gaining anything nationally. The Nairobi political elite seems oblivious to this. The fights between CORD and Jubilee in Nairobi have had little purchase at the county level, which is, perhaps, why governors seem less divided politically than MPs and senators. In counties with multi-party assemblies – that is both Jubilee and Cord – the sharpest conflicts are usually local and the deepest divisions often arise from clan politics, not party politics. Where splits between Cord and Jubilee are salient – as in Bungoma sometimes back – it is over status, like who should be majority leader.
Finally, devolution is undermining the coalition that Uhuru and Ruto rode to power on. Jubilee’s core base has been Kikuyu and the Kalenjin smallholders, a holdover from the alliance that Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi put together when Kanu and Kadu merged in the 1960s.
Taken together, the interests of the Kipsigis and Nandi are closer to those of the Kikuyu and Meru than political rhetoric makes out.
Their political rivalry arises from competition over the same resources, land and its produce, not from a difference in interests.
As Robert Bates has argued in his ever-relevant study of Kenya, Beyond the Miracle of the Market, at independence, Kanu and Kadu’s disagreement was about land and, collaterally, access to earnings from farming.
The Majimbo Constitution gave regional assemblies power to vet settlers. Moi, then president of the Rift Valley Regional Assembly, could scuttle Kenyatta’s plans to settle Kikuyus on the former White Highlands.
Kenyatta offered Moi the vice-presidency to pacify the Kalenjin opposed to Kikuyu settlement. Kikuyu and Kalenjin farmers – large and small – benefited from this truce. New agricultural institutions were created to support the new settlements.
Agriculture boomed, driving the impressive economic growth of the 1960s and early 1970s. Farmers prospered. When their interests – higher earnings – clashed with the those of wage earners in urban centres – who wanted lower food prices – agencies such as the National Cereals and Produce Board, NCPB, intervened: often buying maize at artificially high prices and selling it to millers at a much lower price, at a cost to Treasury, so as to keep down the price of unga. This kept farmers – in the Jubilee base of the Rift Valley and Mount Kenya – happy and forestalled wage unrest in the towns, usually the base of opposition politics.
Agriculture has now been devolved. Going forward, farmers need governors and MCAs more than they need the President. The government still has some control through parastatals, but inevitably this will also ebb away.
Uhuru’s coalition lost power over agriculture, the historical tool that is used to manage and mobilise smallholder farmers in the Rift Valley and Mount Kenya into politics.
Here is the point: the President might think that his government is in a fight with doctors, teachers, judges, non-governmental organisations and even the starving. He would be wrong. The fight he is in – and is gradually losing – is with the Constitution and the radical ways in which it is changing Kenyan politics.
Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer.