Careful; Uhuru is no lame duck

President Uhuru Kenyatta takes part in a virtual meeting from State House, Nairobi.

Photo credit: File | PSCU

What you need to know:

  • A “lame duck” is a double whammy — a redundancy that emphasizes the futility of the subject of description.
  • Politically, it’s a reference to an elected politician who has entered his or her sunset, the twilight of their power and career.
  • Mr Kenyatta’s lame-duck status started as soon as they were sworn into office in 2013.

The words “lame” and “duck” aren’t flattering. “Lame”, when used in reference to a person or animal, denotes feebleness or inability to walk normally. “Duck” refers to the bird with “webbed” feet-like paddles that force it to “waddle” instead of being able to walk. It’s not a pretty sight.

A “lame duck” is a double whammy — a redundancy that emphasizes the futility of the subject of description. Politically, it’s a reference to an elected politician who has entered his or her sunset, the twilight of their power and career. It’s a term elected heads of state don’t want to hear. It’s often a fact of mathematics and term limits.

Question: Is Jubilee’s Uhuru Kenyatta a lame duck?

The etymology of “lame duck” goes back several centuries in imperial Britain. Originally, it described “dead beat” stockbrokers who defaulted on their debts. In the 19th Century, the term was transposed to politicians in trouble or in their decline. Today the term signifies one of the cruelties of democracy on powerful politicians. A head of state who once bestrode the earth like a colossus is reduced to a powerless figurehead.

Term limits

In Kenya, we first saw it with the late Daniel arap Moi. As the country watched him prepare to exit the stage by virtue of term limits, he laboured in futility to orchestrate his own succession. His attempt to willy-nilly impose Mr Kenyatta on Kanu misfired spectacularly.

Opposition politician Raila Odinga, with whom Mr Moi had entered a marriage of convenience to elongate Kanu’s stranglehold on power, expected the latter to name him successor. When Mr Moi settled on Mr Kenyatta — then a political novice and greenhorn — Mr Odinga bolted from Kanu.

He took with him former VP George Saitoti, Kanu’s blue-eyed boy Kalonzo Musyoka, and a host of aggrieved Kanu bigwigs. Mr Moi watched helplessly as Mr Musyoka and Prof Saitoti — his political children — publicly defied and humiliated him.

Mr Odinga took the old lion, the self-described “professor of politics”, back to school. He broke Mr Moi’s back and that of Kanu when he declared “Kibaki Tosha”, anointing him the prohibitive 2002 election favourite.

Kanu withered and died

Mr Kibaki went on to beat Mr Kenyatta like a drum, garnering almost two-thirds of the vote. Mr Moi went gently into that good night as Kanu withered and died a virtual death. In 2012, it was Mr Kibaki’s turn in the barrel as he, and State House Deep State courtiers, attempted to pick his successor.

The baritone-voiced Musalia Mudavadi, a gentle soul born with a silver spoon in his mouth, was the preferred choice over others, including Mr Kenyatta and Mr Musyoka, who had dutifully served as Mr Kibaki’s VP. Unfortunately for Mr Mudavadi, Mr Kibaki, like Mr Moi before him, failed to deliver the mantle of power. Mr Kenyatta was instead crowned.

Mr Kenyatta himself faces a similar dilemma. He’s desperate to orchestrate his own succession, but history teaches wary lessons. Mr Kenyatta’s task is doubly difficult. His lame-duck status — the period within two years of exit from power — is laden with minefields. DP William Ruto, his precocious deputy, has always thought of him a figurehead. To Mr Ruto, Mr Kenyatta’s lame-duck status started as soon as they were sworn into office in 2013.

That was the case until Mr Kenyatta used Mr Odinga to free himself from Mr Ruto’s chokehold through the Handshake on March 9, 2018. Caught between the devil, presumably Mr Ruto, and the deep blue sea, presumably Mr Odinga, Mr Kenyatta chose to go with Mr Odinga.

This is the riddle. It’s evident that Mr Kenyatta can’t contemplate life under a President Ruto. Mr Ruto’s machinations and the bile of his followers towards the man from Gatundu have amply demonstrated this ominous scenario. For Mr Kenyatta, stopping Mr Ruto is a do-or-die proposition. However, as a lame duck he has only one bullet in the chamber.

Historical reality

One history lesson is in his favour — no sitting deputy in Kenya has succeeded his boss through an election. Mr Moi only ascended to power because Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died suddenly. Therefore, Mr Ruto has to overcome that historical reality — usurping a living boss without his blessings. Mr Ruto’s only viable path is to win a “wave election” overwhelmingly.

While the lame duck status neuters an incumbent, it also frees them to act with abandon because they don’t need the favor of re-election. That’s why Mr Kenyatta can take many actions to debilitate Mr Ruto. Mr Ruto himself and his acolytes are giving Mr Kenyatta ample reasons to kill their push for power. The mouths of his key lieutenants are ungoverned.

They hurl juvenile and asinine insults at Mr Kenyatta simply because he won’t endorse Mr Ruto. This is unwise and counterproductive. Mr Ruto and his brigand are self-lacerating — taking razorblades to their faces uncoerced. This only gives Mr Kenyatta more oomph and delays his lame duck status.

@makaumutua

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