Nairobi, Kenya – It’s election season in Kenya and even beyond the 22.1 million registered voters who went to the polls on August 9, the campaign’s biggest buzzword was ‘deep state’.
In recent years the phrase has emerged to convey the notion of a powerful shadowy cabal that is not formally elected to government but nonetheless distorts the wishes of the people during elections and afterwards in the country’s governance.
Supporters of leading presidential candidate Raila Odinga have always claimed there is a conspiracy at the highest levels of government to deny the role to the former prime minister, who lost presidential elections in 2002, 2007, 2013 and 2017.
But in December 2019, former Deputy President Kalonzo Musyoka made what may be the earliest 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 supporting Odinga, said: “I don’t know if there is a depth [state]what I do know is that interest groups exist and some of them have [an] enabling capacity.”
In September 2021, another member of the ruling party coalition reiterated the now widespread belief in a “deep state”.
In an interview, Francis Kimemia, former head of civil service and current governor of Nyandarua district in central Kenya, said: “The state exists. I can assure you it’s deeper than deep. If you have two candidates at 50-50 odds and the “deep state” backs one, you can be sure which one will win. The international community plays a big role in who gets elected.”
But ahead of Tuesday’s hard-fought polls, the sentence could take on dangerous proportions.
A coalition for power
The term was popularized by the Kenyan Kwanza (meaning Kenya first in Swahili, – via the elite) – a nationalist coalition movement led by Deputy President and the other main presidential candidate, William Ruto.
The so-called cabal is said to have the right of first refusal to influence electoral positions and lucrative contracts in government and business.
Members are believed to be in the presidency, security agencies, the electoral commission and other parts of the public service purportedly working together as the “all-seeing eye.”
For Patrick Gathara, cartoonist and political analyst, the term “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 should reform the constitution or actually eradicate it,” he told Al Jazeera. “You know, there’s a paper that was written by a former Attorney General, Githu Muigai, that really expresses the fact that the colonial system that we inherited…essentially weren’t able and to some extent weren’t were wanted when you talk about removing the powerful.”
It’s a concept not unlike former US President Donald Trump’s constant talk of a “deep state” in this country, a conspiracy theory spearheaded by the discredited QAnon movement.
It also evokes “the cabal,” a term that entered Nigeria’s national consciousness around 2009, when then-President Umaru Yar’adua was struggling with a terminal illness that left him unable to govern Africa’s most populous country.
“Hustlers” vs. “Dynasties”
Now Ruto, a veteran orator, has applied the same logic while describing the election as one of “Hustlers” versus “Dynasties.”
This refers to the Azimio la Umoja coalition that had President Uhuru – scion of the Kenyattas (starting with inaugural President Jomo Kenyatta in 1964) – along with the other leading presidential candidate Odinga (whose father Jaramogi Odinga was Kenya’s first vice president) in its ranks has President 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 country’s most influential people since independence, also supports Odinga.
“We managed to push ethnicity to the background,” Ruto, who often referred to himself as a “hustler-in-chief” and spoke about impoverishment, said at an Aug. 6 news conference. “No matter where we come from, we stand together as a people today and have overcome the so-called system, the so-called Deep State.”
state versus people
It is little wonder, then, that the phrases “Deep State” and “Hustlers versus Dynasties” have become symbols of the involvement of the state machinery in the elections, even when the incumbent cannot stand for re-election after serving the constitutional limit of two terms
President Kenyatta campaigned to persuade citizens, particularly his Kikuyu relatives, the country’s largest electoral bloc, to support his longtime enemy and ally, Odinga. As a result, he has been accused by the opposition, civil society and ordinary citizens of using the state apparatus to support his preferred candidate.
As Ruto repeatedly alludes to higher powers at play wanting to rig the elections against him, this reinforces his narrative that he was pushed out of relevance during his reign but was an outsider working for the people.
He has even claimed that those in power in Kenya were trying to involve Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni in the disqualification of Nairobi County Senator Sakaja Johnson, who was vying for the governorship with Kenya’s Kwanza coalition.
This week Ruto held back-to-back press conferences claiming there had been threats against his family and several communities stemming from “meetings being organized in dark places to orchestrate disharmony,” including one where the President allegedly attended.
“It’s the people who hire and fire the government,” Ruto said on Saturday. “It’s not the system, it’s not those in power, it’s not the deep state and it’s not everything else we’ve been told all these years, it’s the people and in this election it’s the people of Kenya will confirm that.” , as ordinary as they may be.”
As recently as March, Ruto had said: “I am the deputy president. Do you think there’s some deep state I don’t know about? Do you think there’s a system I don’t know about? When you look at me, do I look like someone whose votes can be stolen? You should find someone else.”
Still, industry insiders and rival politicians, including Jubilee Party vice-chairman David Murathe, say Ruto, one of the country’s wealthiest and most influential politicians, would himself be embedded in a “deep state” if there were one.
That may be the case on the streets of the capital, a stronghold of Odinga. “Ruto is the baddest man in Kenya,” said Charles Wairimu, a security guard.