No Mr. Prime Minister, The Deputy President’s “Hustler” Narrative is Not “Divisive”, it is a Reality for Many Kenyans.

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A recent picture of President Kenyatta, Former PM Raila Odinga, former schoolmates Musalia Mudavadi and Gideon Moi along with Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula, Wycliffe Oparanya did the rounds on social media. That image of the seven national politicians – all in varying levels of pudginess – would have been a non-issue were it not for the fact that Kenya’s General Elections are just over twelve months away. Even as I acknowledge that a year in politics is a lifetime, the race to replace the termed-out Uhuru Kenyatta has begun in earnest.

The race pits the president’s former bosom buddy, “brother,” and deputy William Ruto against a motley crew of politicians including the former prime minister, perennial loser, and Uhuru’s newest bosom buddy and “brother” Raila Odinga. Also-runs for the 2022 race include others pictured alongside Mr. Kenyatta notably Musalia, Moi, and Kalonzo. I was also reminded that none of these three men have officially thrown their hats into the ring but that’s just a matter of time.

That these scions of Kenya’s elite appear to be circling-the-wagons around one another as they pursue the country’s ultimate seat of power being vacated by one of their own would be a non-issue were it not for the primal and visceral narrative that has captured the nation’s imagination.

The narrative?

That would be the “Dynasty” versus “Hustler” narrative singularly formulated and popularized by Deputy President William Ruto. This is a tagline that would be gratuitous campaign rhetoric and comedic fodder were it not so true; this as illustrated by the image alluded to in the opening paragraph.

The “hustler” narrative is so emotive that the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga was forced to push back with the rather absurd claim that the “hustler narrative is instigating class war.”

Let’s set aside the irony of Raila, scion of one of Kenya’s three certified dynastic families, pushing back against the fact that he is cut from said stock. Let’s also set aside the truism reflected in the narrative – thanks to fortuitous timing of the photograph showing a gathering of the scions of the country’s certified dynasties and ask the question:

Why is Raila afraid of embracing who he is?

The three families – Odinga, Kenyatta, and Moi – ARE dynasties. I would also argue that Mudavadi and Musyoka are not far behind.

Dynasty: A succession of rulers of the same line of descent; a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.

Since independence, the Kenyattas, Odingas, and Mois have yielded between them, an impressive succession of national and regional leaders including three of the country’s four presidents, two vice presidents, two prime ministers, and several cabinet ministers. Similarly, Mudavadi and Musyoka both have CVs that have connected them to these original members of Kenya’s post-independence elite. Along the way, the two men have occupied, between them, the Office of the Vice President, Deputy Presidency, and several cabinet posts including the prestigious Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Raila’s other gripe included the rather curious citation of Obama – that one who wins a campaign by “dividing people” will have a “rough” go governing them because they “won’t be able to unite them later.” While the foregoing caution is intellectually plausible, Raila’s checkered past on campaign-via-dividing-people neuters him as the message’s carrier. The man was partly blamed for the 41 vs. 1 darkness that forever scarred his relationship with the supposed “1” – the GEMA Community of Central Kenya. This charge stoked fear among the Gikuyu, Embu, and Meru communities that remains palpable decades later. And before the 2018 “Handshake” that renewed his bonhomie with Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila was painted as the person responsible for all that ailed Kenya by spinmeisters linked to Uhuru (and ironically, Ruto). Taken together, one would argue that Raila should heed his own counsel he offered to the “Hustler” nation.

The fact is Ruto and his so-called Hustlers could have come up with any label claiming that they were not trust fund babies benefiting from the status quo or entitled to the throne that is the Kenyan Presidency, and given who he is up against, it would not have mattered.

Hustle/r: to obtain (something) by energetic activity or hard work, i.e., one who obtains something by energetic activity or hard work. Predictably, it is the (other) pejorative definition of the term (and Ruto) that Raila and co want Kenyans to embrace, i.e., someone who scams or cons people out of their money or property.

Channeling former Governor and Secretary State of New York and one-time presidential candidate Mario Cuomo who offered that “candidates campaign in poetry but govern in prose,” the Dynasty vs. Hustler debate is a truism about political discourse and campaigning in general:

Less is more.

If a candidate is explaining or defending their position, an issue, or why they are not what their opponent claims they are, they have lost the narrative. The following examples from previous US campaigns succinctly explain, in less than twelve words, the campaign platform or ethos of the eventual winner of each of the presidential race:

  1. Are you better off today than you were four years ago? – Ronald Reagan.
  2. It’s the Economy, Stupid! – Bill Clinton.
  3. Yes, We Can! Hope. Change! – Barack Obama.
  4. Make America Great Again.
  5. COVID – Joe Biden.

Likewise, since independence, Kenya’s political discourse has been captured in pithy and lofty words and sloganeering even as their purveyors, much like their American counterparts, struggle to embody said words or slogans during their time in office.

  1. Harambee! – Jomo Kenyatta.
  2. Nyayo – Daniel Moi.
  3. Yote Yawezikana bila Moi and Kibaki Tosha! – Mwai Kibaki.
  4. Wembe ni ule ule! Tano Tena! Kumi Fresh! The Real Raila! – Uhuru Kenyatta and until 2018, William Ruto.

While most Kenyans now admit the permanence of a yawning gap between the conduct of the slogans’ originators and the ethos their slogans embodied, many of them embraced them – some to the point of sycophancy – while others toed the line out of sheer terror. To this end, not everything was possible once Moi left the scene and those who thought they were unbwogable or that Emilio Kibaki was enough were sadly disappointed. Kumi Fresh was supplanted by the “Handshake” and a bold-faced default on the deni!

The proceeding progression brings me to the metaphoric war of words now pitting the scions of Kenya’s establishment (Dynasties) against the self-styled upstarts, i.e., Hustlers. Of course, Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga, and Gideon Moi, along with their lower-tiered cohorts Musalia Mudavadi and Kalonzo Musyoka, belong to or are connected to Kenya’s dynasties. It is why the tag has stuck and resonated with Kenyans, not because of “divisive” campaigning – supposedly by Ruto. And thanks to the corrupt and inept governance of the country by these dynasties, the average Kenyan know who has made their existence a never-ending hustle – to put food on the table, a roof over their head, and clothes on their back:

The men pictured standing next to the out-going scion of Kenya’s pre-eminent dynasty.

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