Kenya Kwanza’s arrogance of power

President William Ruto, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi at State House

President William Ruto, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi and a host of Cabinet Secretaries during a Cabinet Meeting held at State House Nairobi on March 21, 2023.

Photo credit: PCS

Lord Acton, the British historian who died in 1902, once opined that “power tends to corrupt, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Simply put, a person’s sense of morality decreases in proportion to the power they acquire.

The more powerful a person, the more immoral they are bound to become. In statecraft, this means that the higher the pecking order of the official, the more disdain they have for their opponents, or general society.

That’s why constitutional devices to tame absolute power – concepts like democracy, the bill of rights, and checks and balances came out of the struggle between the citizen and the state. Political despotism is the petri-dish of the dictator. That’s why we fought for the 2010 Constitution.

Nowhere on the planet is power exercised in a coarser manner than in the post-colony. Here, the norms and dictates of the White European overlord still control political behaviour some 60 years after decolonisation. The rhythms of life and power are still those of colonial England.

The district commissioner, or the police, is still a law unto themselves. Many elected – and selected – officials with little common sense still rule their intellectual superiors. It’s the power of the state, and the connected ability to loot public coffers to enrich themselves that gives officials more cojones than the average native. In this universe, democracy itself is simply a path-dependent ritual to power, not a check or a limitation on it. 

This phenomenon of addiction to state power and its accoutrements isn’t new or genetic to anyone or an identity group. Rather, it’s socialised behaviour that’s then “naturalised.” To be candid, it can infect entire groups, even the least privileged in those groups.

You will often hear members of certain groups talk about “our” government. That’s of course false consciousness. But such gullible characters are useful to any regime because their survival may depend on their blind support. However, the higher up the food chain, the more arrogant those who wield the totems of power and authority. Thus MCAs, village chiefs, MPs, and other officials feel entitled to plunder society. Often, you question their power at your own peril. 

Historic day

That’s what we saw in the streets of Nairobi and other towns across Kenya on March 20, a date that Azimio La Umoja One Kenya had dubbed Date with Destiny. On that fateful day, the air was pregnant with anticipation, even though the streets were deserted. Everyone knew that day was historic.

As it turned out, it was the first day of actual accountability for the Ruto-UDA regime. Up until then, Mr Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza brigade had been able to run roughshod over many democratic and rule-of-law norms without consequence. We had even started to see the naked arrogance in some top officials, key among them Mr Ruto and his numero dos Rigathi Gachagua. 

Often, when Mr Ruto and Mr Gachagua speak, you would think they own Kenya. The spoken word, body language, and gestures say it all. They just stop short of flipping the bird. They forget that in the eyes of many Kenyans, perhaps a majority, they were not validly elected. Even if one were to take the contested Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission results, the country is divided 50-50 with a clear majority of 8 million who didn’t vote.

So, whence the arrogance? As I have said elsewhere, anyone who thinks they can willy-nilly rule a country where more than 50 per cent of the population is against them needs psychological care. All power in the state is vested in the people, not in an official.

Which brings me to the Azimio protests last Monday. When the state blockaded Nairobi’s Central Business District – and prevented citizens from meeting in the “People’s Square” I knew immediately that Mr Ruto didn’t have a clue on how to tame his own arrogance. Every part of this country, especially the public spaces, belongs to the people.

They should be able to access them without let or hindrance so long as they are peaceful and unarmed, as were the Azimio protestors. But once the city centre was blocked, Azimio made an impromptu visit to the Eastlands. Here, the people received Azimio with open arms. It was truly a sight to behold. I don’t think the crowd I saw can be stopped by tear gas, rubber or live bullet, or water cannon.

Finally, I note Azimio’s planned protests Mondays or Thursdays. The demands by Azimio can’t simply be brushed aside. The high cost of living, the free-falling economy, police brutality as we saw on Monday, electoral injustice, Mr Ruto’s push to destroy democracy by buying off Azimio legislators, the ethnicisation of the state and public service, the capture of the Judiciary and law enforcement institutions for political purposes, letting go scot-free criminal suspects allied to the state, profligate and wanton spending on luxury vehicles, and killing devolution through financial starvation will be Mr Ruto’s Waterloo. Mr Ruto’s arrogance of power won’t end well.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua.