Why are Kenyan politicians politicizing the military?

Botswana, Gabon, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are the only continental sub-Saharan African states to have never experienced military rule. Each country has managed to do so via well orchestrated coup-proofing strategies of ethnic balancing and material payoffs to the men and women with the guns and tanks. 

Kenya, in particular, has perfected this art. Because of its fractious ethnic politics, ethnic balancing within the officer corps has been key to Kenya’s coup-proofing. Kenyatta (who spoke Kikuyu) had a bit of a hard time in the beginning with a Kamba and Kalenjin speakers dominated military but eventually succeeded in having his co-ethnics in key positions. But before he did so he ensured Kikuyu dominance over the paramilitary force, the General Service Unit (GSU) to balance the military. Through the 60s and 70s, Kenyatta ensured that the GSU and police could handle their own against the military in case stuff hit the fan. Moi continued along this path, so much so that for a while in the media the typical accent of a security officer – whether police or military – became an accent from the North Rift. Under Moi the Kenyan army became “Kalenjin at the bottom, Kalenjin at the middle, and Kalenjin at the top.”

Beyond the ethnic balancing, Kenya has also coup-proofed by keeping the generals wealthy and OUT OF POLITICS – at least not overtly. The generals in Kenya are probably some of the wealthiest on the Continent. I went to high school with the son of an Air Force Major General whose family was always taking foreign trips to exotic places and always made a big splash on visiting days. The only estimates I could find are from the 1960s when nearly “two thirds of the military budget went to pay and allowances, most of it to officers.” A lot of them also got free land for cash crop farming and lucrative business deals (some illegal) from the Kenyatta and Moi governments. Keenly aware of West Africa’s junior officer problem following 1981 Moi extended land grants to junior officers as well. 

But despite their importance as leaders of a key national institution, most Kenyans, yours truly included, do not know much about the top generals in the army. The one chief of staff that I remember hearing a lot about in my childhood days was Gen. Mahmood Mohamed, the man who played a big role in quelling the 1982 coup attempt. For the most part I only saw these guys in the media on national holidays when they rode on the president’s Land Rover. 

In other words, I think it is fair to say that, contrary to arguments made by N’Diaye, for the most part the Kenyan military has historically been fairly professionalized and depoliticized relative to other countries in the neighborhood. There is no evidence to suggest that ethnic balancing has severely interfered with the process of professionalization. Kenyan presidents’ preferred agents for dirty political work have always been the intelligence service, the police and paramilitary units, but never (to the best of my knowledge) the military. Indeed the US and British militaries have had very close technical cooperation with the Kenyan military through training, material assistance and more recently joint operations, resulting in a relatively highly trained force that has for the most part stayed clear of politics.  

But this consensus appears to be slowly eroding. Before the 2013 General Elections the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga accused the military and the intelligence service of colluding with his opponent, Uhuru Kenyatta, to rig the presidential election. And now the heads of the military and intelligence service are reportedly contemplating suing a former aide to Mr. Odinga for defamation. Increasingly, the military is being dragged down to the level of the marionette-esque GSU and Police, perennial hatchet men for whoever occupies State House.

This cannot end well. 

Coup proofing is hard. And the thing with coups is that once the genie is out of the box you can’t take it back. Coups just breed more coups.

This is why the generals must be left fat and happy and in the barracks, or busy keeping the peace (and hopefully not facilitating charcoal exports) in Somalia’s Jubaland State. Do your ethnic balancing and all, but by all means KEEP THEM OUT OF POLITICS (I am glad the current Defense Minister has no political constituency).

The last thing Kenya needs is a Zimbabwe situation in which there is open bad blood between the military and the opposition. 

Plus Kenya, based on its per capita income, ethnic politics, and minimal experience with genuine democratic government, is still not beyond the coup trap to be able to safely play politics with the military. If you doubt me, go find out the last time Brazil, Thailand and Turkey had generals in charge. 

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2 thoughts on “Why are Kenyan politicians politicizing the military?

  1. Pingback: Only four shooters at Kenya mall (Westgate) and they may have escaped alive, says NYPD « An Africanist Perspective

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