‘Insult’ arrest kicks off poll race in Kenya

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Two Kenyan MPs were arrested on charges of ethnic incitement and “insulting” the mother of President Uhuru Kenyatta. These arrests this month tell us two things about the state of Kenyan politics: that the election season is well and truly under way and, more troubling, that the president, who is supposed to be in his final term, is digging in rather than readying himself to leave.

Ever since the country reverted to a multiparty democratic system nearly three decades ago, and especially in the latter half of that period, electoral contests have been presaged by ugly, highly personalised political fights and mobilisation along ethnic lines. Politicians seek to consolidate their control of ethnic voting blocks in preparation for the coalition-making to come. Historical grievances that had been conveniently forgotten as the politicians got down to the business of “eating” are suddenly remembered and framed as electoral issues or bargaining chips.

For the past three elections, former prime minister Raila Odinga has led the opposition, styling himself as the anti-establishment candidate trying to unseat either the incumbent or the incumbent’s preferred successor. Branded as a dangerous, malevolent demagogue, he has borne the brunt of personal attacks and has lost out in highly irregular circumstances.

This time he has upset the apple cart by forming an alliance with Kenyatta in 2018, which may have secured him pole position for the 2022 vote. The loser here is Deputy President William Ruto. In return for backing his boss in the past two elections, Ruto had been promised Kenyatta’s backing for his own stab at the presidency. 

It is in this context that the two MPs, Johanna Ng’eno and Oscar Sudi, both allies of Ruto, spoke up, decrying the president’s betrayal. Telling him to prepare to go home when his term ends in 2022, they “reminded” him that Kenya is not his or his parents’ personal property. 

“You are not Kenya and Kenya is nor Kenyatta’s or Mama Ngina’s land. This land belongs to 47-million Kenyans. You cannot run it as you wish,” Ng’eno said.

While some of the charges against the MPs pertain to alleged incitement using coded language, much of the outrage in political and media circles has focused on references to the president’s mother — herself no wilting flower. She’s one of the wealthiest people in Kenya, an accused poacher and land grabber who was described by the CIA in the late 1970s as one of the country’s largest charcoal and ivory traders.

The famously prudish political and chattering classes have seized on the mention of her having “ordinary” breasts as an “insult” and an opportunity to attack Ruto, demanding he apologise on behalf of Ng’eno and Sudi. More ominously, the police have made it clear that “disrespecting the president” is one reason they have taken action against the MPs.

This fits into a pattern where the state has progressively attempted to recreate lèse-majesté restrictions to replace sedition laws that were abolished more than 20 years ago. Prior to that, it could be a crime to even write down words critical of the president and the former ruling party.

For example, in 1990 the Reverend Lawford Ndege Imunde was sentenced to six years imprisonment for “printing and possessing seditious publications exciting disaffection against the president or the government of Kenya”, after he noted in his desk diary that the politician Robert Ouko was murdered with the connivance of the government.

Public warnings against insulting the president have been supplemented by prosecutions. In 2015 a student was sentenced to two years in jail for Facebook posts that were said to “undermine the president’s authority as a public officer”. Three years ago, MP Babu Owino — who is today facing trial for shooting a DJ in a nightclub, and was recently photographed hobnobbing with Kenyatta — was also arrested for the nonexistent crime of insulting the president.

The arrests of Ng’eno and Sudi are significant given the context in which they are happening. Kenyatta and his current best friend, Odinga, are trying to ram through changes to the Constitution. This could open the way for Kenyatta to run for a third term in office — if recent comments from union boss and presidential cheerleader Francis Atwoli are to be believed. “Uhuru can use the envisioned changes to remain president beyond 2022. Once the Constitution is changed, we’ll begin from the default and nothing stops Kenyatta from running again,” he said. 

A prime minister position has been discussed and Kenyatta may use this as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev did, Atwoli said.

The importance Kenyatta and his cronies place on constitutional changes is evident from his willingness to defy Covid-19 injunctions to hold public rallies to campaign for them. The MPs’ arrests may signal a determination to silence dissent and to railroad the country into a constitutional referendum.

Kenyans should beware the agenda when politicians who have refused to implement constitutional requirements on gender inclusion suddenly set themselves up as defenders of the virtue of privileged women with dubious records. 

This column first appeared in Kenya’s The Star newspaper. Patrick Gathara is also an award-winning political cartoonist

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