A season of hope – and fear

2017 Elections

President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto display winners' certificates at the Bomas of Kenya on October 30, 2017 after IEBC declared the presidential election results. A close election is contestable, especially in the street, but a shellacking isn’t.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

On January 31, 2022, iconic cartoon artist Godfrey Mwampembwa – popularly known as Gado – took his pen to my visage in The Standard.

His handiwork didn’t especially warm the cockles of my heart. But I suppose the cartoon would be pointless if it didn’t lampoon and mock me. That’s why free speech is a beautiful thing. I laughed out loud.

However, the brilliant cartoonist had swung, and landed a big punch. I wasn’t quite sure whose noggin took the hit. Clearly, Gado was having fun at both my expense and that of ODM’s Raila Odinga. But it was the fiendishly menacing face – part hidden – in the crystal ball that caught my attention. Gado feared a titanic, if utterly Armageddon-like, clash.

That’s why Gado’s cartoon of yours truly was a metaphor for what might – or might not – happen on August 9, Anno Domini 2022. Let’s hope this year won’t reprise 2007/2008, decidedly an annus horribilis.

A truly stinking year if ever there was one in Kenya’s history as a republic. In that year, Deputy President William Ruto and Mr Odinga were on the same side of the political pitch. Ranged against them was PNU’s Mwai Kibaki and Kanu’s Uhuru Kenyatta.

Neutral observers

They say Mr Kibaki prevailed, but Judge Johann Kriegler, the wily South African jurist, demurred.

Incredibly, against all available evidence, he said we would never know the winner. It was Solomonic, but bitter to neutral observers and supporters of Mr Odinga.

There’s no doubt Mr Odinga was robbed – in broad daylight. The man they call Agwambo made peace with Mr Kibaki for the sake of Kenya and joined him in a unity coalition government. In that moment, no one could deny Mr Odinga was a towering statesman.

Our country almost went to hell in a handbasket because of a stolen election. Some of our people summoned the devil in them and did unspeakable things. Countries and states can grow, or retard, from a cataclysm like that one.

I would like to think though Kenya is a very noisy – and messy – fledgling democracy, it’s still the beacon of East Africa. Our laundry is dirty, but we democratically wash it in public.

On August 9, Mr Odinga and Mr Ruto will be on opposite ends. The battle has been joined and the student has raised his scythe against his master. An intemperate and impudent understudy has threatened to upend those who know better.

Mr Ruto is clever, often by half. The man from Sugoi can look you in the eye and tell you the colour green is actually red. I often get the impression that he believes his own “alternative facts”.

The headline going into August 9 is that Mr Ruto is dying to kick his boss in you-know-where. In Kiambu, the backyard of Jubilee’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Mr Ruto called his boss a pathetic dismal failure and laggard.

I am dumbfounded that Mr Ruto has thrown all caution to the wind. He acts and talks as though he has nothing to lose. He seems to have a premonition that he’s going down.

That’s why the claws are out. I still don’t get his strategy. He wants to pull off a palace coup against his boss, albeit at the ballot. It’s never been done in Kenya. Mr Odinga, on the other hand, has taken the high road. He’s the international statesman. His allies have projected him as the safe hands. He has shied away from brawling with his junior pupil. But how long can Mr Odinga hold fire? My guess is not for long. And he shouldn’t.

A latent fuse

As the teacher, Mr Odinga should take his pupil back to the classroom and give him a 101 in whooping. It will be good for Mr Ruto and make him a better person.

But what Gado feared might also happen. August 9 could be a latent fuse. This is what I fear, and hope doesn’t happen. That’s why, even as Mr Odinga lacerates Mr Ruto going forward, he must do so with clean, if merciless, shots to the body. Nay, to the noggin.

By the time August 9 rolls around, Mr Odinga needs to make sure Mr Ruto is punch-drunk. He must punch again and again, over and over until he brings him to the point of political surrender.

What’s my point? My crystal ball calls for Mr Odinga to beat Mr Ruto with a convincing margin that any thoughts of lighting a deadly fuse akin to 2007-08 is unthinkable.

That’s why Mr Odinga needs a formidable coalition of democrats and reformers to deliver a fatal blow to the politics of skullduggery, looting, and hypocrisy.

A close election is contestable, especially in the streets. But a shellacking isn’t.

My view is that Mr Odinga is Kenya’s foremost liberator. His ascension to power would signal a huge step towards the maturation of our democracy.

A win by the other guy would take us back to the 1980s.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s chair of KHRC. @makaumutua