Uhuru should now hew a post-presidency legacy

President Uhuru Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks at Uhuru Gardens during celebrations to mark Jamhuri Day in 2021.

Photo credit: Courtesy | PSCU

In less than three months, the curtain will fall on Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency. Evidently, Kenya’s fourth President has no intentions of exiting power soon.  Even after handing over the instruments of power to the winner of the August 9 presidential contest, he will stay on as leader of Jubilee Party.

He is the chairman of the powerful Council of the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition, which was officially registered as a coalition on April 13. Presciently, Central Organisation of Trade Unions secretary-general Francis Atwoli declared during this year’s Labour Day fete that Kenyatta can become president again after 10 years!

Kenyatta would not be the first former president to seek re-election after retirement. So far, six former US presidents have run again for office! Only one, Grover Cleveland, won in 1892 to become America’s 24th President. Twice Winston Churchill became United Kingdom’s prime minister from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955.

Why do leaders seek re-election after retirement? Because “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, the ‘Absolute Power Trap’ saw some sit-tight African presidents declare themselves  “president for life”. In the multi-party era, leaders are increasingly turning to “constitutional coups” to prolong their stay in power by getting the legislature, judiciary or organising national referenda to extend their terms in office.

With a global surge of authoritarianism, countries are reverting to removal of term limits. Some African leaders have used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to postpone or stage flawed elections and stifle opposition.

The “president for life” phenomenon has spurred corruption, instability, societal fractures and economic stagnation. It has also stifled the emergence of post-presidency culture and institutions as a guarantor of stability and continuity.

The concept of post-presidency in Africa is intertwined with the ‘wave of democracy’ after 1989. Since December 2002, Kenya has had two retired presidents.

In 2003, Kibaki signed into law the Presidential Retirement Benefits Act (No. 11, 2003), which was revised in April 2013. The law defined the send-off package as well as other retirement benefits that applied to Daniel Arap Moi, to Kibaki and which will apply to Uhuru after August.

Upon retiring, Kenyatta will have a historic mission to consolidate the post-presidency as an engine of national and continental  prosperity, progress and stability.

Kenyatta’s three predecessors left a divided legacy in the post-presidency. Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1978) died in office. Although his presidency enthroned the idea of peaceful transition, it never left a legacy of life after retirement. Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s longest ruler (1978-2002) and who served the longest as a retired president (2002-2020), had a mixed legacy of good counsel and controversy. Moi entrenched the doctrine of peaceful transition during the 2002 transfer of power. In sharp contrast, Mwai Kibaki lived a quiet post-presidential life. The are critical lessons for Kenya from other experiences.

Magisterial neutrality

First, transitions where the outgoing president shuns being mired in the murky politics of succession and adopts magisterial neutrality are likely to be peaceful and to guarantee post-election stability. On the other hand, meddling in succession politics can undermine stability and make for an ineffectual post-presidency where retired leaders are mired in politics and caught in cyclical conflicts.

In South Africa, an entrenched culture of forced resignation of incumbents by the ANC militants ahead of their time has marred life after retirement. President Jacob Zuma has had a very turbulent and ineffectual post-presidential life marred by violent protests.

Similarly, in Botswana, Ian Khama, the son of the country’s founding father, Seretse Khama, fell out with his Vice-President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Khama campaigned against Masisi, who won and was sworn in in April 2018. In retirement, Khama continued to fight Masisi who, in turn, has reversed many of Khama’s policies. Eventually, Khama left the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and joined the opposition Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), a newly formed breakaway from the BDP. As the two giants fight, Botswana groans.

The third scenario is the trend by exiting presidents to create ‘marionette successor regimes’ . In Angola, President José Eduardo dos Santos agreed to retire and hand over power to João Lourenço, his the Minister of Defense and Vice-President of the ruling MPLA.

Dos Santos remained president of the MPLA. His two scions, Isabel dos Santos and José Filomeno dos Santos held pivotal economic posts. After winning the 2017 election, Lourenço launched a series of reforms and declared war on corruption. Tensions flared with the Dos Santos family, particularly with Isabel dos Santos over seizure of her assets, leaving the ruling MPLA more divided than ever. In retirement, dos Santos has been forced to reunite his party and bring stability.

Fourth is the Medvedev-Putin ‘tandemocracy’. A reference to the joint leadership of Russia between 2008 and 2012, the idea of ‘tandemocracy’ enabled Vladimir Putin to become prime minister under President Dmitry Medvedev.

 In 2012, Putin was re-elected president and Medvedev became his prime minister. Before the Uhuru-Ruto ties grew frosty, Jubilee honchos courted the Medvedev-Putin tandemocracy as a model of retaining power after retirement.

“Nobody can give you advice wiser than yourself,” evinced the renowned Roman Senator, Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Our message is clear: in the short remaining time, the President should attend to the unfinished business of charting a post- presidency legacy blueprint. He should not risk getting mired in murky succession politics.

Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and currently the Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute.

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