It seems Kenya's politics needs enemies, or else it will be lost
County assemblies have treated us to dramatic punch-ups, scratched faces, weaves and wigs ripped off, jackets torn and many swollen faces.
During the sugar wars in mid year, Jubilee heavies were going against one another, Nasa politicians were butting heads and unlikely alliances were forming across party lines.
The week in Nairobi opened with members of the Nairobi County Assembly forcing out Speaker Beatrice Elachi, having impeached her the week before.
County assemblies, which were brought by devolution in 2013, have treated us to dramatic punch-ups, scratched faces, weaves and wigs ripped off, jackets torn and many swollen faces.
But there’s something that’s easy to miss: In the Elachi ouster, 103 of the 122 MCAs present voted to impeach her. In Kenya’s fractious politics, that’s as close as you can get to a unanimous vote. So why couldn’t the ruling Jubilee majority save Elachi?
It all goes back to March, when President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, having fought a very bitter presidential contest last year, surprised many by doing the famous handshake, hugged and became friends again.
The battle lines have since become very muddled in Kenyan politics. During the sugar wars in mid year, Jubilee heavies were going against one another, Nasa politicians were butting heads and unlikely alliances were forming across party lines.
That taught us a cold lesson: Whereas partisanship demoralises and often undermines effective government, it seems it is also the glue that holds African politics together.
It provides an organising principle in our wild politics because it puts the right price on the main ingredient of our politics — loyalty. You are loyal, you get rewarded. You are loyal to the government or the President, but you are a thief and get caught, your party supports you. You are their crook.
To the opposition, too, the enemy is clear: It’s the bad government that stole the election from them. If you are corrupt and are caught, you can cry that you are being persecuted because you are in the opposition.
Your side closes ranks around you and, the State, lacking credibility beyond its loyal base, backs off because no one else believes they are not just out to get you.
The handshake removed the obvious enemy in Kenyan politics. There is no bogeyman. The handshake itself was unusual — in that it did not happen in the post-election context of 2007/2008 that gave birth to the Grand Coalition Government.
It was a political truce, not a political settlement or peace. It has thrown away all familiar political references. Without these references, we usually get lost in African politics. We will illustrate this with an example from Cameroon.
Those who are not obsessed with the minutiae of African revolutionary politics might have heard of a leader of the struggle for independence called Ernest Ouandié.
Ouandié and his Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) — which was a left-wing pro-independence movement — fought against the French colonialists and continued a rebellion against the government of Ahmadou Ahidjo after independence in 1960.
The French stayed on to fight the UPC. Soon, the UPC became divided, Ouandié was isolated and the rebel ranks began to fall apart, run short of weapons and food and lose territories they controlled.
They faced hostile local populations and even the remaining small group fell out, disagreeing over things like which direction to run. Alone, Ouandié got hopelessly lost in the bush, and frail. In August 1970, it’s reported that Ouandié surrendered.
“Exhausted, thirsty, hungry and disoriented, he asked a passer-by for help,” a report notes. The man led him to a police station. At the station, Ouandié introduced himself. Because he was feared, the police officers were so terrified that they ran for the tall grass and hills. They returned cautiously later and handcuffed him. He was flown to the capital Yaoundé and imprisoned.
Then things got complicated. The Cameroon Times reported accurately that Ouandié had surrendered to the police. The reporter, editor and publisher were arrested, tried and convicted by a military tribunal for “publishing false information”.
Because, by reporting that Ouandié had surrendered, they were saying that the government was incapable of capturing him! They had violated the narrative. Ouandié was an enemy of the State. The only ways it could end was with him killed by heroic soldiers, or captured.
And, indeed, to his supporters, too, Ouandié, who had pulled off many famous military exploits, could not “surrender just like that”. The military court ruled that he been captured, not surrendered. Ouandié was convicted and killed by firing squad on January 15, 1971.
But times change. On December 16, 1991 Ouandié was declared a national hero. And that’s how in the world we have built this story should end. Heroes are captured; they don’t surrender.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. Twitter: @cobbo3