Call me Mr President

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

On 12 December, a “president” would have been inaugurated in Mombasa, Kenya. At least, that was the plan. But the president of where or what? Because just weeks before, one was sworn-in. His name is Uhuru Kenyatta. And he looks nothing like the one that could have taken another oath of “office” this week. I have been at my wits’ end trying to fathom what Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga was trying to achieve by committing what could on the face of it have been deemed a treasonable offence. Mr Odinga lost to President Kenyatta in the August elections which was annulled by the Supreme Court over irregularities. As he did not participate in the second one, which incidentally was validated by the court, it beggars belief on what legal basis his purported presidential inauguration would have stood upon. With some reflection and after reading commentaries here and there, I came around to an understanding of what he might have been trying to achieve. A man could call himself anything. If I wrote in this column that I am the “president” of this page, who is to query me? Some companies entitle their chief executive “president”, for instance. In Nigeria, the head of the Senate is what again? Mr. President. But is Bukola Saraki, the president of the Nigerian Senate, the president of Nigeria? Surely not. So Mr Odinga might actually be on to something I thought. Since he is almost assured of the support of about half the Kenyan population, designating himself as “president” of some assemblage, a “peoples’ assembly”, say, might just do the trick of getting on the nerves of his rival in the presidential palace. In a nutshell, what Mr Odinga had planned today may actually have passed the test of legal scrutiny. At least, so I thought; until a press release by his party over the weekend postponing the swearing-in stated he would have been inaugurated as “President of the Republic of Kenya.” Say we ignore this about-face. Let us also assume he was not about to be foolhardy to the point of actually declaring himself the President of Kenya. With some creativity, he could actually get away with something close to the real deal.

Much ado about a title
Going around the country as the “president” of “something” that everyone knows represents about half of Kenya could actually be the perfect revenge from the scion of a family forever at odds (and always at the losing end it seems) with the Kenyattas. A good analogy can be found in China a long time ago. While Deng Xiaoping was the de facto leader of China in the late 1970s and for most of the 1980s, he was never officially head of state. At one point, the only title he had was that of honorary chairman of the China Bridge Association. Even then, he was able to wield tremendous power. Mr Deng proved the point that power is not so much about the title as it is about legitimacy. It seems to me Mr Odinga’s plan should be to hold on to the half of Kenya that he is now almost sure would pledge fealty to him if he asked. That way, as he and his party “resist” and ask for electoral reforms, they would be able to sustain the current momentum until the next elections. Mr Kenyatta and his men are not likely to sit idly by while he does this, though. Opposition strategist, David Ndii, was recently arrested by the authorities, likely in the hope that incriminating evidence would be found against him, Mr Odinga and the other principals of the National Super Alliance (NASA). As Mr Ndii recounts after his release on bail, they did not succeed.

Catch-22
Had the “president” been sworn-in today as planned, the president (which one now?) would have had little choice but to arrest and prosecute him for treason. Until the postponement was announced, I came to the resolution that perhaps Mr Odinga reckoned it would not be such a bad idea to be in the news in that manner. After all, he has been in prison before. In the event, attention would be drawn from whatever potential good Mr Kenyatta might be doing for the people towards the likely spectacle of a treason trial. He could still do some sort of oath-taking within the confines of the freedoms of association, expression and so on. But when the swearing-in eventually takes place, if ever, how should Mr Kenyatta respond? If he arrests and prosecutes Mr Odinga, the subsequent drama would be a tremendous distraction. If he does nothing, Mr Odinga would increasingly look presidential. Maybe it should end with the postponement.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays)

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