By Kenyatta Otieno
Two phrases stuck in my memory during the 2008 post-election violence crisis: political elites and ruling elites. By the time Kofi Anan was taking a walk around central park to cool off from the negotiations, I had made my conclusions on the two groups the western government representatives were calling upon to find a solution to the crisis. The elected political elite can look like they are wielding the power but the real power is always with a small cabal of shadowy, rich and influential figures – the ruling elite.
In the case of 2007 elections, it was evident that the ruling elite had realised too late that power was going to Raila Odinga, whom they did not have influence over. At the last minute, they must have held a meeting and agreed to prevent Raila’s ascent to power at whatever cost. What transpired next is fodder for a good thriller movie, with a horror ending. The whole fiasco watered down my belief in the democratic ideal of one-man-one-vote, and the rule by the people for the people.
The reality that a small group of people can decide if I will take over power or not even if I win at the ballot disturbed me about the future of our country. The resultant coalition government did not make matters any better, as the hand of these unseen yet known fellows could be felt behind the numerous feuds between the ODM and PNU sides of government. Nevertheless, I have come to admire Raila’s resilience after that humiliating experience because I believe if someone else was in his position he would have quit politics for good. The 2007 General Election is replaying itself a decade later with Raila Odinga as the only constant.
I later learned that there is nothing new under the sun because such things have happened before. The scenario played out while I watched The History Chanel documentary, The Men Who Build America. The show is a masterpiece but some reviewers have questioned its accuracy in reconstructing some Nineteenth Century scenes. But that is expected. At the end of the third episode, a teaser promises to reveal how the three wealthy businessmen in Oil magnate Rockefeller, steel man Carnegie and general investor JP Morgan will conspire to “to buy the President” going into 1896 American elections. JP Morgan had even bailed out the Federal Government around this time.
We are then told of William Jennings Bryan, a 36-year-old lawyer with Barrack Obama-like oratory skills, who electrified the 1896 Democratic Convention with his “The Cross of Gold Speech”. Bryan went to the convention as an undeclared candidate but walked out with the ticket. In the documentary, he threatens to break up the monopolistic “trusts” controlled by wealthy businessmen, and calls out Carnegie and Rockefeller by name. What happened is that Bryan’s “Silver Wing” triumphed over the “Gold Democrats” led by incumbent Grover Cleveland. The factions are based on the preference to bimetallic (silver and gold) against gold as the only standard currency at that time.
Bryan was nominated by a coalition of Democrats, Populist Party, and Silver Republicans. He presented his campaign as a crusade of the working class against the rich, who impoverished America by limiting the supply of gold-based money. According to him, silver was in ample supply and, if coined into money, would restore prosperity to majority of Americans and curtail the illicit power of the money trust. Meanwhile, JP Morgan was planning a central banking system for America. The interests clashed; Bryan had the masses, McKinley had the wealthy Americans behind him.
The History Channel narrator tells us that Bryan wanted not only to break up the business interests of the three, but that he won’t rest “until they are behind bars.” The three businessmen then discuss the available options for an opponent to Bryan and come up with William McKinley.
In the fall of 1896, many observers believed Bryan was the frontrunner. He was pulling large crowds everywhere he went while McKinley opted to campaign more by proxies than travel around the states. This looks like the 2007 election, pitting a laid back Mwai Kibaki against a charismatic Raila Odinga. The Republicans used the excitement created by the Democratic Party campaign to their advantage. They leveraged on the fear of a free-silver victory to lobby for contributions from Republican businessmen. It is believed that Republicans raised between three and seven million dollars, compared to about $300,000 by the Democrats. You can guess where a big chunk of the money came from. In the end, Bryan lost.
To date, American elections attract funds from corporates and wealthy individuals who put their stake with the side that appears favourable to their interest. This habit has found its way into fledgling democracies like ours and so it led me to conclude on one wing of the “ruling elite”. The other wing I believe is composed of influential civil servants, military top brass, police, intelligence services and the Judiciary. They are the people tasked with organising the swearing in ceremony and handing over of instruments of power, and Raila failed to win them over to his side. The two form the “ruling elite club” because the wealthy businessmen have influence over but are not custodians of power, which is in the hands of the influential civil servants and security chiefs.
The 2008 fiasco led me to believe that Kenya has a pseudo Electoral College system in the form of the ruling elite. In the US, a presidential candidate can lose the popular vote but win if s/he wins a majority of the Electoral College votes. It does not matter if you win or lose the popular vote in the ballot; as long as the ruling elites are on your side, you clinch the presidency. This is why I am reluctant to categorically state who will win this year’s elections.
In 2013, the system was very cautious not to repeat the mistakes of 2007. Though the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord) was sure the tally had been tempered with, they did not have evidence. Cord lieutenants later came to the point of accepting that even if Uhuru won, the vote was inflated to avoid a run-off thus giving him an eight thousand vote above the fifty per cent threshold. The one paragraph ruling by the Supreme Court, and further “accept and move on” campaign in the media, was a clear show of a ruling class that was prepared to keep Raila out of power without leaving any tracks of their actions.
Going by the current ratings, Raila Odinga of National Super Alliance (Nasa) looks like a frontrunner against a gritty incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta of Jubilee Party. The cost of living has hit a high in a non-performing economy. Members of Uhuru’s community are the most hit by this because they run the informal sector but cannot come out strongly about it. Uhuru has said many times that he will concede and hand over power if he loses in August. That is a good assurance going into the vote, as the 2007 scenario plays out with an electorate dissatisfied with the incumbent. The point of departure is if the “ruling elite” will allow him to hand over power to someone they have maintained they do not trust.
Raila Odinga does not make matters any better. Like Bryan in 1896, in 2013 he said during the presidential debate that he would carry out land reforms. This year he has said he will bring down or regulate rent. The issue of land is…
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