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Kenya and Nigeria: Two countries, similar political story

So Kenya has a new president. A spanking new, minted, candidate who defeated the establishment to become the new establishment. At least that is how…

So Kenya has a new president. A spanking new, minted, candidate who defeated the establishment to become the new establishment. At least that is how Mr William Ruto, Kenya’s president-elect presented himself as. In reality, he is not.

Yes, he fought the establishment, or what the Kenyans called the dynasties—the decades-long planned shift of power from the Kenyatta family to the Odinga family with the Moi Family waiting in the wing next time. Generally speaking. 

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There are far too many similarities in these elections, Kenya’s politics, and Nigeria’s democratic history. A reflection on both presents interesting nuggets for both countries and their long-suffering people. 

In Kenya’s elections and Nigeria’s 2023 one, the incumbent will not be returning so whatever happens, there is going to be a new name in both presidential villas. Both Uhuru Kenyatta and Muhammadu Buhari have served their term and look forward to retirement. Or do they?  

While Buhari has given the impression of not being interested in who succeeds him, save for a failed late Don Quixotic charge to install Senate President Ahmed Lawan, it is however in his interest that his APC produces the next president. 

On the other hand, President Kenyatta clearly had a horse in the race and it wasn’t his vice president of 10 years, William Ruto but his old adversary, Raila Odinga. For years, the two men, like their fathers before, have fought dirty for the soul or riches of Kenya. Their connection, however, runs deep. At independence, Jomo Kenyatta, the current president’s father, emerged from colonial prison to rule the country with Jaramogi Odinga as his vice president, bringing the country’s two powerful tribes, the Kikuyus and Luo, respectfully to power. A few years down the line, the fallout between the two men, resulting in Odinga’s ouster, would also cause a deep rift between the two tribes that would shape the country’s social and political history for decades. 

In the violent 2007 elections, the sons of these two men ran for president. Ethnic tensions crescendoed and the infamous post-election violence of that year occurred.  

Since then, Raila Odinga has become a sort of Buhari figure in Kenya’s political scape—a perennial contestant in presidential elections since then. This brings me to the realisation that this will be the first time in 20 years, that Buhari’s name won’t be on the ballot paper. Regardless of the outcome of his court challenge, at 77, Raila Odinga might have had his last rodeo in Kenya’s elections. But then again, maybe not. Who knows with African politicians? 

Until 2018, Odinga and Kenyatta did not see eye to eye. Since their 2018 “handshake” in which it would seem Kenyatta decided to pave the way for Odinga to succeed him at the expense of his vice president, Ruto, the two men’s bromance in a way mimics Buhari and Jonathan’s.  

In 2011, Buhari and Jonathan fought dirty for Nigeria’s presidential seat. Religion and ethnicity were brought into the campaign and after Jonathan won, Nigeria, like Kenya in 2007 experienced a wave of political violence. Interestingly, there has been no accountability for that violence, no apology for it, and even after Buhari became president, there has been no acknowledgement of the victims. But, hey, this is Africa.  

In any case, things have changed and Mr Jonathan has become a favoured guest at Buhari’s Aso Rock. At a point, it became evident that either the president or people close to him wanted Goodluck Jonathan to make a Christ-like second coming and succeed Buhari.  

In the end, it did not happen, and Jonathan had to declare that he was not running for president. But everyone saw the attempt to woo him and how tempted he was by the prospect. Common sense prevailed for him. 

Jonathan brings me to an interesting observation. As far as presidential sob stories go, Jonathan had a really good one. His “I had no shoes” proclamation was the mantra for his 2011 campaign. From grace to grass was the narrative. Everyone loves that kind of underdog story. He inspired people to dream that they could be a bloody fisherman’s son or daughter, and still aspire to be president of Africa’s most populous country. 

Well, Kenya will not be outdone in this aspect as well. President-elect, Ruto made it known in his campaigns that he too, like Jonathan, grew up without shoes because they couldn’t afford them while his boss’s father was running the country. 

He ticks the religious box as well. He was a Bible thumper in his young days and went out with his wife to preach the gospel on the streets. But what defined the election was that Ruto was a hustler. He sold chicken and peanuts on the streets. There is photo evidence to back up the claims. Everyone loves a good sob story. 

While we have heard before Atiku’s sob story of growing up an orphan and poor, and I am not entirely sure what Tinubu’s sob story really is, but Peter Obi is the candidate being pushed as Nigeria’s hustler. He is the frugal politician, the man with one watch and one pair of shoes, the man who flies commercial airlines, economy class like other Nigerians. What we forget too easily is that the man he hopes to succeed was marketed in the same way as the frugal-sachet Milo drinking, a penny-pinching incorruptible man who would curb government spending and restore sanity to the system. That did not go well. 

Regardless, the Kenya election inspires hope, especially for Obi’s supporters that an underdog can upset the apple cart, defeat the establishment candidate and win. Not minding that Ruto had run elections campaigns for both Odinga and Kenyatta in the past. 

The Kenyan elections were close, very close that the country’s media is trending #Kivumbi to describe the election. That would be the Swahili word for a tight race. Ruto won by claiming just 50.5 per cent of the votes ahead of Odinga’s 48.9. That was how close it was. 

To upset the apple cart, the stars have to align for the underdog.  

The incumbent needs to have performed really badly. Check.  

The establishment candidate has to have baggage. Check.  

And the outside challenger has to have a ground-swell of support. Check.  

But will these be enough? 

In both the 2015 Nigerian elections and the 2022 Kenyan elections in which the establishments were defeated, there was what both democracies called “the gamechanger.” In Nigeria, it needed a ballsy electoral umpire like Prof. Attahiru Jega to stand firm and call the results. Jega’s weapon of choice in that election was the card reader that minimised rigging. In Kenya, they had Wafula Chebukati who stood his ground. His weapon of choice was to publish online the electoral results from every polling unit. This meant that everyone could see the results coming in, use their calculators or their brains—if they are as good with numbers as Saratu Garba Dan Azumi, that poorly-educated genius Kano girl is—and arrive at the final result. 

Kenya and Nigeria’s elections have historically been fraught with ethnic divisions and tensions. In Kenya, this year, fortunately, they were able to vote across ethnic lines and the campaigns, thanks to Ruto’s focus, have been more about issues and less about ethnicity. That is moving the country forward. 

But in the euphoria, many people are forgetting that Ruto might have grown up poor, like perhaps 90 per cent of Africans, but care must be taken in projecting him as a saint. In a rush to recount this underdog story, many will conveniently forget to mention that Ruto was Kenyatta’s accomplice in the 2007/2008 post-elections violence, that his hands are tainted, that he was indicted and tried, dismissed but not acquitted by the ICC for his role in that violence and that he has a reputation, and I insist it is a reputation, among Kenyans for disappearing people who disagree with him. These are narratives that should not be forgotten. All our ‘heroes’ have tainted hands. 

Kenya might be Kenya, and to the East and Nigeria might be Nigeria to the West. Two very different countries but if one looks carefully enough it is troubling how the two democracies mirror each other.