It's All Political

The trouble with Uhuru Kenyatta

Presidential. A strong and powerful word that stands alone. A one-word sentence that is heavy with the dreams and aspirations of nations. As the man (or woman) who becomes president, that word presidential hangs around your neck, dragging you down with the weight of expectation.

As head of state, you must have the presidential factor. But a president has to be presidential in just the right amount. You can’t have too much of it because you risk being labelled aloof, standoffish and out of touch with the people. And you can’t have too little, because you risk being labelled abrasive, buffoonish and out touch with the people.

Take Donald Trump for example. He is the ‘leader of the free world’ but no one can accuse him of being presidential. This is not a man who has the bearing or demeanour befitting a president. He has an abundance of confidence – bravado might be a better word – but hasn’t quite mastered how to be dignified at the same time.

It has been said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Donald Trump is certainly a man who speaks from the heart. While he might be an accomplished businessman and a deal-maker extraordinaire, there seems to be little room in his heart to be presidential.

He is more concerned with the personhood of the presidency (i.e. himself) than the office of the presidency. The American public – more accurately those who didn’t vote for him – have become accustomed to their president’s self-centred and inward-looking approach to leadership. They expect him to vibrate at a low presidential frequency. Therefore, when he raises his game, as he has done sporadically, their dreams of a dignified and respected president are momentarily validated.

In his first address to a joint session of congress, Trump stunned audiences by staying on script, and as The Guardian reported, avoiding “the rambling, shambolic speeches he is known for”. That lucid moment was brief. It wasn’t long before Trump reverted to his nocturnal tweeting habit, talking about how President Obama had authorised a wiretap on Trump Towers during the campaign period, and instantly restoring his non-presidential default setting.

Trump allegedly based his tweets on information gleaned from the right-wing media including Breitbart News, an alternative-right news outlet that used to be run by Steve Bannon. Steve Bannon is a die-hard conservative who is now the president’s chief strategist. Breitbart News is fanatically pro-Trump, just like Mutahi Ngunyi’s ‘The Fifth Estate’ is fanatically pro-Uhuru.

Both operate in the realm of conspiracy, offering their subscribers – followers might be a better word – a potent mix of fringe political theory and crystal-ball prophesy. Bannon is Trump’s de jure chief strategist, while Mutahi has certainly taken on a de facto advisory role in pro-Uhuru circles.

The latest episode of The Fifth Estate dismisses Raila Odinga’s recent hospitalisation as a ‘fake news’ story perpetuated by a ‘crooked media’, while taking aim at the same media’s coverage of the Uhuru/Nanok war of words.

This latest broadcast alleges that the coverage of our President lashing out at Governor Josephat Nanok was “mis-engineered out of proportion”. The crooked media, the hosts continue, is out to destroy Uhuru Kenyatta.

“If Uhuru is genuine, they call him weak. If he’s abrasive, they call him angry,” one host complains. Well, that’s just how the cookie crumbles, I’m afraid. When you are the head of state, all eyes are on you all the time. You are constantly being weighed on the presidential scale.

You can’t be too presidential, because you risk being labelled aloof and standoffish, and you can’t be flat-out ‘unpresidential’, because you will be labelled abrasive and buffoonish.

Here’s the thing. President Kenyatta can say anything he wants to any governor he wants, Governor Nanok included. What he must never do is to dismiss the voting machines that governors represent – like he did in Turkana – by letting them know in no uncertain terms that their votes mean nothing.

The tone of his response to Nanok’s remarks was distinctly unpresidential, not just because it was petulant, but because out of the abundance of his heart, Uhuru forgot that without the people there is no president.

Here’s the problem with our head of state. He’s a nice guy. A charmer. A loyal friend. A gentleman. To the people that know him, he’s a good person. But to the people that would vote for him, he often vibrates at a low presidential frequency.

His propensity to lash out and shoot from the heart a la Donald Trump, is a recurring reminder that we have a leader whose focus can easily be drawn to the personhood of the presidency at the expense of the office.

To be clear, electorates need tough-talking presidents who can inspire confidence and assure them that the affairs of state are in capable hands. But strong words when they are considered, hold more sway than vicious knee jerk reactions.

And when all is said and done, actions speak louder then words.


ILLUSTRATION | James Ferguson