Kenya’s January 6 moment a wake-up call on risk of self-coups

Donald Trump supporters

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces, as they storm the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski | AFP

This week, Kenyans were shell-shocked by President William Ruto’s revelation that the state planned to abduct and murder the chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Mr Wafula Chebukati, as he prepared to announce the results of the August 9, 2022, presidential elections.

The idea was to paralyse the commission or allow a compliant team to take over and subvert the people’s sovereignty. The President placed the blame squarely on the doorsteps of a political syndicate charged with managing the presidential succession, which, he said, was behind the scheme to force their preferred candidate on Kenyans. 

In this context, the future of Kenya’s democracy depends on how Dr Ruto’s government will deal with the aftermath of its ‘January 6 moment’.

Dr Ruto made these remarks as the world marked the second anniversary of the assault on the United States Capitol, the supreme symbol of democracy, by far-right extremists allied to former President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021.

What took place in the United States and Kenya was not just ‘domestic terrorism’ or ‘an insurrection’ but a perfect ‘self-coup’ that went awry. As a form of a coup d’état, a self-coup takes place when a country’s topmost leader who came to power through legal means tries to stay in power through illegal means. 

Self-coups are as old as democracy itself. But they have increased significantly with the surge of right-wing extremism. Between 1946 and 2022, 148 self-coup attempts took place, compared to 486 attempted or successful military coups around the world during the same period. 

Responses to the self-coup attempt in the US and more recently in Brazil, which have experienced their own ‘January 6, moment’, carry key lessons for Kenya. 

The storyline of the attack on the capitol is clear. Former President Donald Trump disputed election results, made false claims of fraud and said he would not concede defeat in the 2020 presidential election. A mob supporting the incumbent who lost to Biden invaded and vandalised Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. 

Overturn the election 

The rioters were seeking to prevent a joint session of Congress from counting the electoral college votes and formalising the victory of President-elect Biden. The plan was to press Congress and Vice-President Mike Pence to overturn the election of Biden and to keep Trump in power.

America’s mayhem inspired Brazil’s ‘January 6 moment’, which occurred on January 8, 2023. A riotous mob of supporters of the defeated former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, the loser in the 2022 Brazilian general election, invaded and ransacked Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices in the capital, Brasília.

Rioters who were ferried by hundreds of buses to Brasília on January 7 outnumbered and overwhelmed the police. Like Trump, Bolsonaro and his allies promoted false allegations of electoral fraud. Bolsonaro’s attempted self-coup had two purposes. 

First to violently overthrow the democratically elected president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had been inaugurated on January 1, 2023. 

Second, to spur military leaders to commit a coup d’état and disrupt the democratic transition of power and reinstate Bolsonaro as President.

The assault on Brasilia revealed far-right extremism as an existential threat to Latin America’s largest democracy. 

Kenya’s ‘January 6 moment’ unfolded with the broad canvas growing number of incumbents masterminding self-coups. On August 15, 2022, violence erupted as the IEBC chairman, Mr Chebukati, and two other commissioners made their way into the Bomas of Kenya auditorium. A section of security officers escorted IEBC staff to safety before quelling the riots. After calm returned, the IEBC boss announced the results, naming Dr Ruto as the president-elect.

Four IEBC commissioners largely aligned to the Azimio coalition of the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and the party’s presidential candidate Raila Odinga broke ranks.

They organised a series of high-profile press conferences where they claimed electoral fraud even as independent local and international election observers gave the results a clean bill of health. Mr Chebukati, who retired this month, has made two main claims that capture the self-coup in Kenya. 

First, he accused the four dissenting commissioners of trying to force a re-run of the election. 

Ensure a run-off 

Second, in his affidavit filed at the Supreme Court, he stated that members of the powerful National Security Advisory Council (NSAC) had asked him to ensure a runoff if he couldn’t declare Raila Odinga the outright winner. The NSAC called for the moderation of presidential election results to favour Azimio candidate Raila Odinga, he states. The NSAC has denied the claims. 

President Ruto added three dimensions to Kenya’s self-shock. First, he revealed an attempt by the state to assassinate Chebukati before he announced the results. The idea was to paralyses the commission or allow a compliant commission to take over.

Second, the team created by law to help manage the presidential succession was behind the scheme to force their preferred candidate on Kenyans. Finally, attempts were made to bribe IEBC to change the outcome of the election. 

Mr Chebukati has called on President Ruto to open a public inquiry on the allegations of state interference in last year’s elections. However, an inquiry alone may not be adequate to deal with the multi-faceted challenge of self-coups. 

Public inquiries oftentimes have no teeth but simply end up perpetuating impunity. In the aftermath of the attacks on the Capitol and Brasilia, both America and Brazil have used multiple responses aimed at ensuring peaceful democratic transitions in the future. 

First, the US established a House Select Committee to investigate the incident. Second, a multi-agency team has been investigating and charging rioters and organisers of the attack. Of the estimated 2,000 people who were involved in the assault on the Capitol, at least 978 had been charged with federal crimes by the second anniversary of the attack. 

Third, both America and Brazil have effectively used their domestic terrorism system to screen rioters. 

Fourth, both administrations have been scrutinising police responses to their respective attacks. 

Finally, both governments have moved to regain control over social media platforms that played a key role in the storming of the Capitol and Brasilia. 

However, Nairobi should be prepared to deal with the withering politics relating to the Bomas attack and the aftermath. In the US, Trump is using pardon as a campaign issue in rallies, promising to let all jailed rioters go if he is re-elected in 2024. 

Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and now Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University, Kenya.