Scrap the deputy president post

DP William Ruto, former Uganda vice president Edward SSekandi

DP William Ruto (right) chats with former Uganda vice president Edward SSekandi at a past event.  In the years to come, it might do well to just scrap the deputy presidency.

Photo credit: File | DPPS

All eyes were on Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the presumed frontrunners in the August 9 presidential election, as they made to announce their running mates.

Coming after the extremely rocky relationship and souring of camaraderie between Ruto and his boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is backing Raila, many were looking out for how their choices solved the “UhuRuto problem”. Would they pick someone who is safely pliant, hence unlikely to kick them in the teeth in future?

Ruto chose Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua, a businessman and first-term legislator. Raila chose feisty “Iron Lady” Martha Karua, who, like him, is a veteran of the 1990s pro-democracy struggle, was an MP, minister and 2013 presidential candidate.

Gachagua is Ruto’s political junior but not exactly a featherweight. Martha is meatier, has her political stall, and the seniority distance between her and Raila is smaller. She could bring a bigger piece of bread to the political table than Gachagua.

First President Jomo Kenyatta didn’t have much trouble with his vice-presidents—except, perhaps, the independent-minded Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. So did his successor, Daniel arap Moi. Mwai Kibaki had an amicable relationship with Moody Awori but endured a few sleepless nights when Raila became Prime Minister in the Grand Coalition Government following the 2007/8 post-election violence.

The fact that Ruto and Raila couldn’t pick bag carriers for their running mates says more about the political context they operate in than anything else.

Next door, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni enjoyed an extremely trouble-free run when the proud and reclining senior lawyer Edward Ssekandi was his VP in 2011-2021. Fewer men have shown a lack of appetite for power and the trappings of office than Ssekandi. A year could go by without hearing about him. When he popped up to read Museveni’s condolence at some funeral, he would put on a proforma show.  An occasional photograph of him fondling a beer or dancing at some pub or wedding would emerge, and that would be the most exciting news about him. He went on to enjoy the longest stint as Museveni’s VP in the man’s so far 36-year rule. The joke goes that Ssekandi will be missed at his funeral.

In Tanzania, VPs have also lived unthreateningly in the shadow of the president. When the mercurial John Magufuli died in March last year and his VP Samia Suluhu Hassan sworn in, many outside Tanzania didn’t know it had a female VP.

Acrimonious relationship

To understand whether or not a country will have a conflicting relationship between the president and VP, one needs to look, of all places, to Somalia.

Just-exited President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmaajo’ had an extremely acrimonious relationship with PM Mohamed Hussein Roble. And he fared as badly with former deputy Mahdi Mohamed Guled. In August 2020, a video circulated purporting to show Farmaajo and Guled attempting to strangle each other after a fight broke out between them at a joint press conference.

The story went wild around the world. And it seemed credible; their dislike for each other was well-known. In the end, the truth spoiled the juicy tale. The video was from an older political scuffle in Somalia and had been massaged a little bit.

Somalia, however, has some similar characteristics to Kenya: The absence of a domineering single ruling party and a fundamental national refusal to accept that the president is an absolute monarch in republican clothes. A strong party will menace a VP into subservience to the president. A weak one won’t. A national culture against absolute leaders will always embolden a deputy to stand up to the boss.

So, those two conditions seem to be the main predictor of how much a deputy will stare back at the president. Military rulers also enjoy similar blessings as strong ruling parties; their deputies know better than to stick their heads out.

You might think other factors, like having a near-age-mate as with Uhuru and Ruto is potentially risky. However, having a large difference between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma or Robert Mugabe and current President Emmerson Mnangagwa didn’t work out for the incumbents either—even though South Africa was far more democratic than Zimbabwe.

An extravagant show of meekness from either Gachagua or Karua, or a Jesus Christ-level of graciousness from Ruto or Raila, depending on which ticket wins, might give Kenya a less divided executive. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

A good old-fashioned pecking order in the Kenyan presidency is probably no longer possible. You might have the pecking but not the order. In the years to come, it might do well to just scrap the deputy presidency. It actually is already an anachronism in the kind of polity Kenya is.


Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3

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