Let’s respect the besieged presidency, it is all that Kenya has

Sunday May 19 2019

PRESIDENCY

President Uhuru Kenyatta gives a statement on the Huduma Namba registration, at State House, Nairobi, on May 17, 2019. As the first President under the new constitution, Kenyatta enjoys a set of formal executive powers. PHOTO | COURTESY 

PETER KAGWANJA
By PETER KAGWANJA
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Certainly, Michael Foley’s book, The British Presidency (2000), came as a shock to those who have always associated Britain with the Westminster parliamentary system.

After examining Tony Blair’s leadership style, concepts and perspectives — more commonly associated with the American presidency — Foley unveiled “an emergent British Presidency” in the twilight of the 20th century.

Foley’s book is a fitting tribute to the global appeal of the American presidential brand, and a must-read for Kenyan wonks hyping the parliamentary system as a cure for the ills of the presidential system.

Arguably, Kenya’s 2010 Constitution is Africa’s boldest experiment with the “Washington Model”.

But as the adage goes, “when America sneezes, the world catches cold”. America has caught a debilitating cold.

RESPECT

The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 threw America’s presidential brand into disarray! This has stoked a vexed debate on the “respect for the presidency”.

For some — like former CIA Director Michael Hayden — President Trump deserves the same respect that has been given to his predecessors.

But naysayers question the logic of respecting America’s 45th President — plausibly the most histrionic and melodramatic of them all — simply because he is the president.

But America’s presidency started losing its shine long before Trump came along.

Watergate, where President Richard Nixon was personally involved in the most egregious political corruption in White House history, was a shattering blow to public trust.

SUCCESSION POLITICS

Scholars have, however, weighed in, reminding us that Watergate was a temporary stain and querying the wisdom of fusing the fate of the office together with the disgrace of one flawed person.

The presidency has intrinsic worth, and its occupant deserves unequivocal respect.

Faced with the most audacious and barefaced assault ever, Kenya’s presidency is sliding towards a post-Watergate moment.

The America’s “president-deserves-respect” debate is having echoes in the Kenyan public sphere.

A series of recent media headlines and social media posts have exposed the vulnerability of the presidency to the mucky Kenyatta succession politics.

One weekly carried a screaming headline - ‘Toothless President’ - in a full-page article that read like an unflattering epitaph of the Uhuru Presidency - never mind it has more than 1,175 days to go!

DIGITAL REVOLUTION

Even nastier and acerbic was a post where cyber revellers went to town with an “advert” on a “Missing President”.

One of my nephews told me it was a ‘comic relief’. But in the corridors of power it was a handshake gone beyond the elbow, and gone awry.

The presidency is, peculiarly, a victim of two forces of progress. The first is the impact of technological innovations.

Kenya is riding the crest of a seismic ‘digital revolution’. Last year, its active mobile subscribers hit the 46.6 million mark.

This year, it joined Morocco, Namibia and Tunisia in a few African countries where mobile phone penetration has surpassed the 100 per cent milestone.

The ‘digital revolution’ has opened new frontiers of development. But it has also radically tilted the axis of power towards non-state sectors.

Significantly, the digital revolution has thrown up a new class, the Twitterati, as the emergent Fifth Estate.

FIFTH ESTATE

As a techno-savvy and youthful class wielding the power of a mobile phone and plying the new social media platforms, the Twitterati is the undisputed heir to the “Fourth Estate” — the press and news media that has framed political issues since Edmund Burke popularised it in 1787.

They are the white knights of our age — the movers and shakers in the public sphere, wielding significant indirect social influence and now framing the politics of Kenyatta succession.

But the Fifth Estate faces a real moral dilemma: balancing between the right of expression and respect for the existing ‘order of things’ (including the Presidency).

Worse still, in what is unfolding as an anarchic digital age, the Fifth Estate has to make enlightened choices.

Kenya has its fair share of anarchists who, like the joker from The Dark Knight, “just want to see the world burn”.

VULNERABILITY

The second force is what Samuel Huntington theorised as the “Third Wave” of democratisation, with new liberal constitutions as its main emblems.

Despite a searing campaign against what was parodied as “imperial presidency” during the ‘second liberation’, a vital presidency has emerged as an indispensable bulwark against chaos and decline, and a force for national security and prosperity.

It emerged from “quiet revolution” (2002-2013) as the fulcrum of the new order.

But why is the Presidency so vulnerable to political revellers? When asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi quipped: “I think it would be a good idea.”

In the same vein, Baron Montesquieu’s idea of separation of powers that props up the post-2013 Presidential system is unsafe.

POWERS

Back to Foley’s “British Presidency” thesis. “If there is one thing that is quite clear about the American Presidency”, Foley wrote, “it is the fundamental ambiguity of its powers”.

In Kenya, this ambiguity of the presidency’s powers has given more headaches to Kenyatta than to any of his predecessors.

As the first President under the new constitution, Kenyatta enjoys a set of formal executive powers.

But he is forced to operate “in a scheme of government fragmented into multiple centres of power, whose divisiveness is supported and promoted by the constitutional checks and balances”.

UHURU'S OPTIONS

As rival political factions chip into the presidency, edging Kenyatta towards an early lame duck phase, Kenya has two options.

It can either look West to America, which has invested in strong parties as arenas of contestation to insulate the presidency from succession battles, or look East to China, which has abolished presidential term limits to shield the presidency from power wrangles over the Xi Jinping succession.

Ultimately, we must respect the presidency, it is all we have.

Prof Peter Kagwanja is Former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy institute (Kenya).

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