There’s a red line, Mr. President; is anyone listening?

30Oct 2016
Isaac Mwangi
Guardian On Sunday
Ea Whispers
There’s a red line, Mr. President; is anyone listening?

A REBUKE by President Uhuru Kenyatta directed at the country’s Auditor General, Edward Ouko, may be a pointer at something much more sinister that is unravelling in East Africa: Interference by the executive in key institutions of governance.

There was a time when such interference was the order of the day, not just in Kenya but throughout most of Africa. The president of the average African country had power to interfere in key institutions in unimaginable ways.

Heads of parastatals all served at the mercy of the head of state, and in Kenya the 1 o’clock news bulletin was the time to discover who had been axed and who had obtained favour.

Gross mismanagement and embezzlement of public funds went unquestioned. The police and other security agencies acted with impunity upon instructions from the executive. The Judiciary, too, shed its independence. University professors fell over themselves in singing praises to the president.

The monetary system, including central banks, state-owned banks and other financial institutions, all ensured they promptly executed any instructions from the executive, however illegal these might be.

The magnitude of the scandals from that by-gone era are simply mind-boggling. Western powers, in their desire to keep Soviet influence away from Africa, propped up puppet regimes and committed themselves to continue the plunder and impoverishment of the continent that they started hundreds of years ago.

This is how regimes such as that of Mobutu Sese Seko in the former Zaire, currently the Democratic Republic of Congo, connived with foreigners to siphon billions of dollars from the country.

The situation wasn’t much different in Kenya under the leadership of founding president Jomo Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, both of whom grabbed large swathes of land and enriched themselves and their cronies at the expense of the larger population. But the wind of change that gathered momentum with the end of the Cold War has brought about greater awareness and willingness by the masses to fight for their rights.

This has led to changes in the running of public affairs in much of Africa. Presidential term limits are now the norm in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, while various public institutions have gained sufficient autonomy to keep the executive in check, preventing the excesses of the past. It is within this historical context that President Kenyatta’s criticism of the auditor general must be seen.

In Tanzania and Uganda, too, interference in the running of key institutions is becoming the norm. Is it perhaps time for East Africans to rise up and warn their megalomaniac leaders that there won’t be any more tolerance for their interference, that they are crossing the red line?

Those who witnessed the excesses of past regimes have reason to be concerned at the current preoccupation by leaders across the region to accumulate power to themselves – a phenomenon often referred to as personal rule.

When a head of state publicly ridicules the efforts of an independent office to trace stolen funds in a foreign country, that qualifies for unwarranted interference. But this is not the first time the presidency in Kenya is attempting to exert control over other institutions, moves that are invariably resisted.

Not long ago, a move to compel the Judicial Service Commission to present three names from which the president would select a chief justice was defeated. Efforts to introduce draconian security laws that would have gagged the media have similarly met opposition. Still, it poisons the democratic environment when human rights activists and citizens have to be constantly on the alert against executive mischief.

Energies that would have been directed to more useful activities are dispensed on keeping the presidency in constant check to avoid a subversion of Kenya’s 2010 constitution.

The weakening of institutions, if finally allowed to happen on whatever pretext – even on the ground of fighting terrorism – will be the undoing of East Africa. It will make it difficult for citizens to know about the dubious machinations and corruption within their governments.

The end result will be greater impoverishment and insecurity. Eventually, it will also sabotage the East African integration process, with every country’s ruling clique unwilling to cede the power to ‘eat’ to a supranational authority. It must not be allowed to happen. East African News Agency