NGANGA: The Brexit vote and parallels to Kenyan politics
By Nixon Ng’ang’a in Leeds.
There are useful lessons for Kenyan politics from the unfolding tumult after Britain, a former colonial master, voted to leave the European Union.
Exiting Prime Minister David Cameron pledge for the referendum may have been targeted at shaking off the Liberal Democrats from the “nusu mkate” government forced on his Conservative Party by the 2010 “hang” election outcome.
But it delivered political consequences with unimaginable reverberations even to the most discerning political pundit.
The domino effect of the Brexit vote has not only ushered in Theresa May as the second woman resident at 10 Downing Street since the curtains fell on the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher but also threatens to torpedo the turbulent reign of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Lets us begin with the turmoil in the Labour party. Corbyn may have won with a landslide in the party internal duel following Ed Miliband’s resignation after the Conservative party’s comprehensive victory last year. But his is turning out to be a classic Pyrrhic victory as he struggles to win the respect of the party MPs. Apparently enamoured to the ghost of a posh Tony Blair and Miliband’s movie-star looks, they have refused to accept an old man in corduroy coats and Joe Public looks.
After a few false starts in their palace coup attempts, the anti-Corbyn camp has found fresh vigour in the Brexit vote. Their gripe against the Labour Party boss is that though he was anti Brexit, his voice was tepid at best; that he was a reluctant convert who only lent a lukewarm passion to the Brexit counter campaign. Corbyn supporters have qualified his unenthusiastic support to reluctance to be seen as batting for the same team as Cameron.
But to a discerning eye, there is a strong reek of opportunism in those going for Corbyn’s jugular now. For starters, these are the same people that unsuccessfully attempted an internal coup earlier this year.
And therein lies the first lesson for Kenya’s politics: political enemies never really sue for peace. They only call for truce to dry their gunpowder for the next assault. If in doubt, revisit Ababu Namwamba and the Men in Black fiasco at Kasarani in 2014. The Budalang’i MP claimed to have publicly forgiven the architects of his ordeal. So why is he still referring to the incident with obvious bitterness two and half years later!
Still from the Labour Party, the other useful lesson is that of the folly of blind trust. The late Masinde Muliro famously quipped that if you have no ambitions, you have no business being in politics. The whippersnappers who are now craving for Corbyn’s crown, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, are politicians he considered such nascent works in the progress of political maturation to ever imagine they could risk his turf. He “kindly” appointed them shadow secretaries!
Corbyn loyalists are screaming at the apparent disloyalty of protégés who have grown too big for their boots. On this, there is a strong echo to Raila Odinga lieutenants’ claims that Ababu, Paul Otuoma and other rebels, are being ungrateful to the ODM leader’s benevolence and political mentorship.
But the lesson learnt from Prof George Saitoti and his political godfather, former President Daniel arap Moi, is that a political godchild will inevitably test the boundaries of his benefactor’s leash sooner than later. It is a lesson Corbyn is learning, maybe, too late! In politics, you have to be ruthless with rebels. If you don’t slay the dragon when it’s down, it will rejuvenate sufficiently to consume you.
It is to Cameron and the ruling Conservatives that Brexit painful lessons echo loudest. The first, obvious take-home is that a leader should never gamble that which he/she cannot afford to lose. Strictly speaking, Cameron did not have to promise a Brexit referendum. In fact, the pledge appeared to have been a by-the-way first announced in a BBC interview. Apparently, he desired to cut loose the LibDems coalition partners whom he blamed for slowing down his desired policy changes under coalition government.
It is a lesson that is well-served to leaders. Many of them make grandiose, elections-inspired, promises whose realisation hinge on the impossible or the preposterous. But like Kinjeketile’sNeno that returns to haunt its utterer, sometimes, such pledges evolve to an all-or-nothing albatross. Like with Cameron, failure to deliver on them has an in-built self-destruct consequence. If you cannot afford it, don’t offer it.
Another lesson from the Cameron debacle is the fickleness of political loyalties. There has been a vibrant debate about the out-going premier apparent faith in old classmates at the prestigious Eton school and the Oxford University. Boris Johnson as well Michael Gove, his trusted lieutenants-turned-traitors, shared his alumni. Many of Cameron senior appointees went to the same institutions.
Cameron struggled to confront the fact that Johnson and Gove were at the centre of the Brexit campaign. His former Justice Secretary and the former Mayor of London were, after all, more than friends. But they saw in Brexit the perfect opportunity to step out of their first-among-equals friend shadow. That is real politics. Cameron may have read betrayal where his previous allies saw a god-sent chance!
Even here, there are parallels with the Kenyan political landscape. President Kenyatta, for instance, has been accused of being unusually tolerant with the malfeasance of his old Saints Mary’s boys’ alumnus. Bruce Odhiambo belated but ignominious exit at the Youth Fund was attributed to his high school ties with the President. Uhuru’s predecessor, Mwai Kibaki, reportedly went beyond normal bonds for ex-Mangu and Makerere students. Eton and St Mary’s have much in common: brains alone may not suffice for an admission!
The other useful lesson is on succession politics. The poorly kept secret is that until the Brexit vote, Cameron was grooming Johnson to succeed him. May was not even an outlier consideration. In fact, the allegation is that she was handed the Home docket because Immigration was a career killer powder keg that she was never meant to survive. But like Moi weathering the passing cloud expectation, there are political benefits in a party leader not hedging his/her succession bets.
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