Nairobi, Kenya – It’s election season in Kenya and even beyond the 22.1 million registered voters who will go to the polls on August 9, the biggest campaign slogan has been ‘deep state’.
Over the past two years, the phrase has emerged to convey the notion of a powerful dark cabal, not officially elected to government but, nonetheless, distorting the wishes of the people in elections and subsequently in the governance of the country.
Supporters of the main presidential candidate Raila Odinga have always claimed that there was a plot at the highest levels of government to deprive the former prime minister, who lost the presidential elections of 2002, 2007, 2013 and 2017, of this role.
But in December 2019, former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka made perhaps the first local mention of the phrase, in an interview with local private broadcaster Citizen TV.
“Kenyans need to know that there is a ‘deep state’ government,” he said. “A country is never run by these politicians who shout [the] the loudest.
A year later, Musyoka, an influential member of the Azimio La Umoja coalition which supports Odinga, said: “I don’t know if there is a deep [state]what I know is that there are interest groups and some of them have [an] enabling capacity.
In September 2021, another member of the ruling party coalition reinforced the now widespread belief of a “deep state”.
In an interview, Francis Kimemia, former head of the civil service and current governor of Nyandarua County in central Kenya, said: “The state exists. I can assure you it’s deeper than deep. If you have two candidates at the 50-50 rate and the “deep state” backs one of them, you can be sure who will win. The international community plays a major role in the choice of elected officials.
But ahead of Tuesday’s hotly contested polls, the phrase could take on dangerous dimensions.
A coalition for power
The term was popularized by the Kenya Kwanza (meaning Kenya First in Swahili, – above the elite) – a nationalist coalition movement led by the vice president and the other leading presidential candidate, William Ruto.
The so-called cabal is said to have the right of first refusal to influence prime positions and lucrative contracts in government and corporations.
The members are believed to be part of the presidency, security agencies, electoral commission and other parts of the civil service which are meant to work in tandem as an “all-seeing eye”.
For Patrick Gathara, cartoonist and political analyst, “the deep state” remains a deeply ambiguous term but could be a reference to a parallel political system inherited from British colonial administrators years ago.
“It’s a kind of administrative system that we’ve basically maintained since colonial times, and that the constitution was supposed to reform or in fact eradicate,” he told Al Jazeera. “You know, there’s an article written by a former attorney general, Githu Muigai, that really lays out the fact that the colonial system that we inherited…in essence, we were unable, and to some extent unwilling , when you talk about the powers that be, suppress.
It’s a concept no different from former US President Donald Trump’s constant talk of a “deep state” in this country, a conspiracy theory promoted by the discredited QAnon movement.
It is also reminiscent of “the cabal,” a term that struck the national consciousness in Nigeria around 2009 as then-President Umaru Yar’adua was battling a terminal illness that left him unable to lead the most populous country in Africa.
‘Hustlers’ vs ‘Dynasties’
Now Ruto, a skilled orator, has now employed the same logic while framing the election as one of ‘scammers’ versus ‘dynasties’.
This is in reference to the Azimio la Umoja coalition which has in its fold President Uhuru – a descendant of the Kenyattas (beginning with inaugural President Jomo Kenyatta in 1964) – as well as the other main presidential challenger Odinga (including father Jaramogi Odinga was the first vice-president of Kenya). president in 1964) and their supporter Gideon Moi (son of former president Daniel arap Moi).
Former first lady “Mama Ngina”, or Ngina Kenyatta, wife of Jomo, mother of Uhuru and one of the most influential people in the country since independence, also supports Odinga.
‘We’ve managed to push ethnicity into the background,’ Ruto, who has often called himself a ‘scam artist in chief’ and spoken about growing impoverishment, told a news conference August 6. “Regardless of where we come from, today we are united as a people and we have overcome the so-called system, the so-called deep state.”
The state against the people
No wonder, then, that the phrases “deep state” and “scammers against dynasties” have come to symbolize the involvement of the state apparatus in elections, even if the incumbent cannot run again after having served the Constitution. two-term limit.
President Kenyatta is on the campaign trail to try to get citizens, especially his Kikuyu kin, the country’s largest voting bloc, to back his long-time enemy-turned-ally Odinga. Consequently, he has been accused by the opposition, civil society and ordinary citizens of using the paraphernalia of the state to support his preferred candidate.
With Ruto repeatedly alluding to the existence of higher powers at play wanting to rig the election against him, it reinforces his narrative of being forced to no longer be relevant while in government, but to be a outsider working for the people.
He even claimed that power eminences in Kenya were seeking to implicate Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in the disqualification of Sakaja Johnson, the Nairobi County senator vying for his governorship with the Kenya Kwanza coalition.
This week, Ruto held back-to-back press conferences alleging there were threats against his family and several communities, stemming from “meetings that are held in dark places to orchestrate discord”, including one at which the president allegedly attended.
“These are the people who hire and fire the government,” Ruto said on Saturday. “It’s not the system, it’s not who’s in power, it’s not the Deep State and it’s not everything else we’ve been told all the years, it’s is the people and in this election it is the people of Kenya who will confirm that, no matter how ordinary they are.
As recently as March, Ruto said, “I’m the vice president. Do you think there is a deep state that I don’t know about? Do you think there is a system that I don’t know about? If you look at me, do I look like someone whose votes can be stolen? They should look for someone else.
Yet industry insiders and rival politicians, including Jubilee Party vice-chairman David Murathe, say Ruto, one of the country’s richest and most influential politicians, would himself be embedded in a “deep state”, if it were to exist.
In the streets of the capital, stronghold of Odinga, it may be that too. “Ruto is the baddest man in Kenya,” said Charles Wairimu, a security guard.