The role of the President: Protecting our rights or oppressing us?

As is the wont of presidents, Uhuru Kenyatta promised much on Jamhuri Day. His theme sounded like that of an elder statesman — young though he is. It really inspired me, for I had for long argued for similar policies, and for them to be incorporated in the 2010 Constitution. I cannot resist quoting some of his promises.

“National unity is one of my most passionate goals. I pledge to you today, fellow countrymen and women, that national unity and integration will be priority number one of my administration. We must all be ready to fight against negative ethnicity. For too long our people have suffered from this disease but now it is time to say we are tired and we must eliminate it. … We have to accept Kenya is our motherland; the land where Kenyans of all nationalities and of all religious faith can live together as brothers and sisters…..”.

Another of his promises was equally inspiring: “My government in collaboration with Kenyans will get tough with those who use their positions of power to acquire ill-gotten wealth. Therefore, the now fully constituted Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission must utilize its constitutionally given mandate to investigate and bring to book all those involved in corruption. In the meantime, I urge all Kenyans of goodwill not to give any bribes or otherwise participate in corrupt activities.”

He continued, as if he was moved by his own policy, “The Jubilee government believes in one Kenya; a Kenya where every citizen, whoever they are and wherever they live, will have the opportunity to succeed and prosper, free of discrimination. Our shared aim is to end meaningless ethnic tensions and rivalry and to unite all our citizens. I am determined to provide leadership towards the attainment of this noble objective. A united Kenya has tremendous potential for growth and development. Kenya is one nation, assembled by divine providence and held together for the last 50 years by our common will and belief in a collective brighter future for our children, our future generations, and ourselves”.

He made another promise which would have gladdened many of his fellow citizens, “I want to give an equivocal commitment to the protection of lives and property of Kenyans; to the economic prosperity for all of us; to inclusivity and equitable growth that leaves no one behind; and to total adherence to the rule of law.”

He ended on a grand note, “Let each of us make a personal commitment to a just, cohesive, and caring nation”.

Before Kenyans get too elated by his promises, let me tell them that this is the presidential speech on Jamhuri Day 2013. He has had five years to live up to his promises.

PROMISES OF 2017

His speech this year has not inspired me in the same way. It sounded a bit stale, and often unconvincing.  The theme of unity and prosperity is repeated frequently as before. He does not discuss how far the last five years have achieved the objectives he promised. We know that little of what he promised us has been fulfilled — and he seems to realise it because he implies that he has seen the “future” only now.. His future consists of two elements. The first one is to do away with politics (or to be more precise, “politics for the sake of politics”). He chastises those who are in politics for the sake of politics. But he does not explain what he means by “the sake of politics” and in what way he himself was able to evade politics for the sake of politics.

The second element is the future he has seen which consists of (his emphasis) “Big Four” — food security, affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable healthcare for all. “During the next five years, I will dedicate the energy, time and resources of my administration to the Big Four”. That is indeed a bold statement. Undoubtedly his Big Four is an instance of politics for something else than politics. Or is it?

The Big Four are of course critical to reasonable lives of citizens — something that his government has ignored in the last five years, as he implicitly acknowledges. I wonder whether he realises that except for “manufacturing”, his friends and supporters, to whose material and other forms of assistance he owes his victory, are going to be deeply disappointed. Past experience shows that our President is prone to pressure from his family and friends.

Nor is he good at policymaking and administration, as became clear when he held the finance portfolio many years ago — as indeed in his first term as president. I often wonder whether he realises what havoc he, and his team, have created in the economy, particularly public, and increasingly private, finance.  Nor does he care about the corruption within his government and business associates, routinely ignoring the numerous reports of the Auditor General attesting to corruption within the government, placing us among the world’s fourth or so most corrupt states.

For his belief in the economy, he cites the economic progress of Singapore — but completely misunderstands how Singapore got there.  He says, “It focused on using politics to build its economy”— a meaningless statement —  and then goes on to say that it was so ambitious and disciplined that it became a world leader in multiple sectors”— another senseless statement.

I spent a year in Singapore as a visiting professor and know that its economic progress was secured by the denial of human rights, detention without trial, and a tight ban on corruption. Perhaps neither Uhuru nor his advisers know that the first two conditions are against our Constitution and the third (ban on corruption) is compulsory but greatly ignored by our government. I do not think, Mr President, that we are either going to achieve or want the Singapore route to “economic prosperity”. 

 

Equally, his statement “My Friends, there is abundant evidence that focusing on economic development transforms nations” has no validity at allSingapore, largely Chinese, was torn apart as a result of Lee Kuan Yee’s economic policies. Our President ignores — more likely does not know — how different modes of economy produce different social results. Add to that how the resources of the state are distributed, according to what norms, and we are getting close to a definition of politics. Can one imagine Uhuru’s friends accepting an equitable distribution of economic policies?

 

PRESIDENTIAL OBLIGATIONS UNDER THE CONSTITUTION

Reading Uhuru’s admiration of Singapore, I felt reinforced in my long held conviction that Uhuru has either not understood the Constitution or does not care for it — probably both. I have over the last five years frequently pointed to his breaches of the Constitution, and sometimes his introducing laws that would have deprived it of some of its fundamental principles . He chooses to see the Constitution as an instrument of power at his disposal, to oppress others, but not an instrument of the people both to direct and to control the President or the government.

His closing remarks in his speech are quite frightening, “When I took the oath of office in 2013, which was renewed last month, Kenyans bestowed two instruments of power. The first one was the Constitution; the second one was the sword. I swore to use them to defend and protect Kenya from any form of aggression, internal and external…Today, I serve notice to those treating our constitutional order with casual recklessness. The Constitution is the general will of all. No one is above it: No matter who you are, you are subject to its authority. Anything outside the Constitution is a hostile intrusion…Whoever destroys property, whoever chooses senseless violence over constitutional order – all these are enemies of the republic. That is how they will be treated.”

No prize for guessing who this is addressed to.  Mr President, What happens now to national unity and integration?

 

Prof. Yash Ghai is a constitutional lawyer who chaired the CKRC and Bomas.