ONYANGO-OBBO: Making sense of the Uhuru, Abiy, Kagame ‘celebrity club’ - Daily Nation

Making sense of the Uhuru, Abiy, Kagame ‘celebrity club’

Thursday November 8 2018

G7, president Uhuru Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta (second, left) speaks with Seychelle’s Danny Faure (left), Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (second right) and Senegalese President Macky Sall (right) at the G7 summit in Canada, where the four African leaders attended as guests. PHOTO | PSCU 

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Last week’s World Bank Ease of Doing Business report gave Kigali and Nairobi a lot to smile about.

Among the East African Community (EAC) countries, Rwanda was at the top of the tree and ranked 29th globally, from last year’s 41st position. Kenya recorded the biggest jump, from last year’s 80th to 61st this year. Though the government spin made too big a fist of it, still one couldn’t scoff at the ranking.


Uganda fell five places to 127 from 122; Tanzania slumped to 144 from 137; Burundi could barely manage 168th, and in an index measuring 190 countries, South Sudan was bottom feeder at 185.

Rwanda and Kenya have improved two years in a row, and with the vast gap to the rest of the EAC states, they might as well be in another world.


However, if you look beyond business and economics to politics, something else has happened to the leaders of the two countries. Globally, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, and lately joined by Ethiopia’s newish Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, increasingly enjoy very good fortunes.


The most difficult to fully comprehend is Uhuru. In the first year of his presidency, with the International Criminal Court (ICC) charges hanging over his head, he looked set to become a hidebound Omar al-Bashir up in Khartoum. Even after the ICC dropped charges against Uhuru, it was not inevitable that he would emerge on the world stage. Before long, however, world leaders, including then-US President Barack Obama, who had dealt with Nairobi with a 10-metre-long pole, were knocking on his door. Uhuru was and still is being the Africa representative to global gatherings, even though he was not the EAC chairman, African Union chairman, or anything. He was in the first group of the African leaders to meet the volatile and probably racist US President Donald Trump.


Though Kenya is a player in the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia, Amisom, it is not the definitive actor and doesn’t have the largest contingent. So it’s not Kenya that has the most Somalia aces, nor is it the kingpin in the South Sudan madness.

Which diplomatic witchdoctor did Uhuru see? In reality, several forces gifted him. First, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, once the regional leader, veered in a more authoritarian direction from 2016, and then stunk up his standing further by removing the presidential age limit to allow him stand again in 2021, when he will have been in power for 35 years, much longer than any previous autocrat in the EAC region ever.


It seemed like Tanzania’s John Magufuli would steal the regional glory when he was elected in 2015, with the kind of crackdown on corruption many thought was no longer possible in Africa. But very quickly, Magufuli turned into a 1970s African big man; arbitrary, erratic, anti-intellectual, moody, and parochial.

In Ethiopia, unrest and a Medieval lockdown were dragging the country down.


Uhuru then offered not so much himself, but Kenya, portraying it as a regional economic “bedrock”, an innovation leader, and a country of “substance”. The point being that Kenya had a depth greater than its dysfunctional political system.    

Then the famous March 9 “handshake” with political rival Raila Odinga happened.


The world needed a Germany to the European Union, an Angela Merkel-like stabilising figure on the African east coast. Diplomats say Uhuru is a “likeable guy at a personal level”, and that might have helped, but in fitting the above bill, a place was made for him at the global table. Even if you don’t like him, but you have to give Uhuru that one.


But the world must always have a few leaders who are rock stars (Canada’s Justin Trudeau when he was elected in 2015, and Obama), and a celebrity (France’s Emmanuel Macron in his first year).

Abiy is the rock star, breaking all 1,000-years-old assumptions about what is possible in Ethiopia, driving through dizzying reforms in a land long-tormented by iron-fisted emperors, military dictators, and one-party autocrats. And he’s brought women into leadership in ways that have not been seen in a country that hasn’t gone through a period, even brief, of enlightenment.


But Kagame, on the other hand, is Africa’s answer to a celebrity president. It seemed at one point Senegal’s Macky Sall might challenge him (he turned out to be shy), and then South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa (he got bogged down with impossible problems).

Kagame and Rwanda wrap themselves in futuristic garbs, layered over a narrative of having brought back to life a country left half-dead by a genocide that killed nearly one million; a trailblazer in next frontier and “unAfrican” things — from smart cities, universal healthcare, to other Twitter-worthy stuff.

The author is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]