President must stay on frontline as he leads cabinet against virus

Friday March 27 2020
Uhuru

President Uhuru Kenyatta addressing journalists at Harambee House in Nairobi on March 15, 2020 following confirmation of two more coronavirus cases in Kenya. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By KWENDO OPANGA

In a swift and decisive move, President Uhuru Kenyatta put in place sweeping measures to check the spread of coronavirus, and protect Kenyans against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The speed of intervention and range of social distancing measures showed the urgency with which Nairobi rallied to confront an existential crisis. At the time, only one case of Covid-19 had been confirmed in Kenya.

Unveiled last Sunday afternoon, the plan reflected the President's ambition to keep Kenya a step ahead of the infection, and to follow proceedings as Head of State, and as comforter-in-chief for fearful citizens and anxious boardrooms.

The President seized the opportunity to show off his dutiful members of Cabinet led by his enforcer, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i, and the newly-installed safe pair of hands at Health, Mutahi Kagwe.

RESPONSIBLE

The event encapsulated focus and teamship in government, culminating in the precis presented to the nation by the President. The unambiguous message was two-fold: One, the government is at work 24/7 because it is responsible and cares.

Two, the government is planning ahead and is, therefore, prepared to deal head on with the crisis facing the citizenry. And with this move President Kenyatta put the government firmly at the centre of Kenyans' lives.

The toxic chest-beating and false prophecies — a staple of the politics of Building Bridges Initiative — exited stage left pronto. High-minded politics of crisis and management of a global health crisis, and what's next, took centre stage.

Entering stage right was Nairobi, in sync with Pretoria, Kigali and most First World capitals, but well ahead of bumbling Washington and fumbling London before they rallied. Nevertheless, expect a politician to spoil a good thing.

As the President carefully persuaded Kenyans to put their faith in the government's plan for their safety, all became aware of a conspicuous absence. Deputy President William Ruto was a no-show in a time of a global crisis.

CRISES

A leader's stock rises or falls with his handling of a crisis. Crises bring out the best or worst in leaders.

Citizens look for direction, hope and comfort from their leaders in times of crisis. They expect a united leadership that stands in solidarity with them.

President Kenyatta passed the test with distinction. The same goes for his Cabinet. But Dr Ruto had a huge haircut. In my mind's eye flashed pictures of Vice President Mike Pence twice last week at President Trump's side as he addressed the Covid-19 crisis at the White House.

Then I recalled something else. When Elgeyo-Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen, Dr Ruto’s sidekick, recently alleged that the DP had no work to do because all his duties had been taken away from him, a typed and signed letter from 1966 hit social media.

It was the resignation missive from independent Kenya's first Vice President Oginga Odinga to founding President Kenyatta. Odinga quit government because, he said, he had no duties and therefore felt he was a fraud, drawing a salary he did not work for.

QUARANTINE

The DP was being invited to emulate Odinga. At a time of an existential threat, we are host to Kenya's most rotten relationship ever between President and Number Two. But I digress.

For now, as the DP is mocked as having self-quarantined, more will be expected from President Kenyatta, Mr Kagwe and Dr Matiang'i. On Wednesday, the grapevine was abuzz with speculation that the military will soon be brought on board to enforce a lockdown.

Whatever shape, form or way the lockdown takes, President Kenyatta and the government must remain firmly on the frontline of a pandemic that none expected and all want to halt and contain.

A lockdown portends uncertainty, fear, frazzled nerves, frayed tempers, anger and hunger, among frustrated citizens that could explode into good or bad or both.

PATIENCE

The emptying of supermarket shelves, despite assurances by retailers that there's enough for everyone, is an ominous sign and fault line: If the poor will be hungry in a lockdown they will eat the rich.

A patient President and Cabinet will need to instil patience in the populace and those enforcing the lockdown. Yes, a health emergency brings political, economic and social crises in its wake.

The President had his finger on the citizens' collective pulse when he met the Central Bank governor and business leaders on Wednesday to consider both fiscal matters arising from Covid-19.

But he must do more: Cushioning the poor and ensuring Kenya's financial health in case of a lockdown must be on his agenda.

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