By Barack Muluka
President Uhuru Kenyattaâ€™s explosion against his nemesis Raila Odinga raises serious questions on decorum in political leadership. Does sense of occasion matter? Must we ventilate uncontrolled and demeaning anger, regardless of our audience? The Presidentâ€™s eruption on domestic politics came at a dignified continental function.
The performance was not too dignified. It certainly had no sense of occasion. Is it possible that the President could still have firmly but decorously expressed his disquiet? Could he have presented his case without throwing up what some will see as an unnecessary tantrum? Did he paint the picture of an irritable younger person used to having it his way?
The occasion was an astute moment for the President to justify some of the pacts under consideration between Kenya and Uganda, in the wake of his three days visit to Entebbe. A measured, methodical and reflective explanation of his position is likely to have gained him more mileage and empathy than this frenzied act.
Moving forward, President Kenyatta may wish to consider the merits of stylistic firmness. He may want to learn how to convincingly drive home his message instead of being consumed up in searing paroxysms that challenge the dignity of his office while also devaluing the occasion and shocking the audience. It is also instructive that while the President indicated he has reached an understanding with Uganda on importation of sugar, his officials have told us that none has been reached.
The government needs to decide which leg to stand on in this regard. If we must believe the President, we must disbelieve his officers. Contrariwise, if we believe them, then we must disbelieve him. Neither position helps the government much.
This column has previously questioned the public communications strategies in this government. Indeed, do they have a strategic approach to public communications? Are there policies? As part of rolling out major thoughts, programmes and projects, do they think through supportive public communications? Do they plan their messages, messengers, channels and allied secondary considerations? Do they anticipate setbacks to messaging and how to mitigate them?
If they did, the President would perhaps not need lose his composure over domestic politics in front of an international audience. But maybe this is how they intend it? In which case President Kenyatta must be the beneficiary of deficient professional guidance.
State House must at all times be conscious of its brand. The blend between the message, its purpose, audience, channel, timing and messenger cannot be left to chance. You cannot have the President as the spokesperson on everything. It pays to have the right technocrat breaking it down for us.
We have heard that President Kenyattaâ€™s Cabinet Secretaries are technocrats. So why donâ€™t they methodically explain to us the things that make their boss explode at international gatherings?
In the circumstances, when the President speaks, the world will pause and listen. Performance of the kind that we increasingly see from the Hill does not encourage us to take this leadership very seriously.
But questions of style could also be asked of Raila. One riddle is why he has no shadow cabinet, as leader of the Opposition. Granted, our Constitution does not expressly recognise the â€˜Oppositionâ€™ as such. There are only leaders of the Majority and Minority in the National Assembly and in the Senate. And Raila is not any one of these.
In practice, however, the Opposition exists and Raila is the leader. So why doesnâ€™t he have a shadow cabinet? It would help a lot if a shadow cabinet handled some of the things he quarrels about with President Kenyatta. However, maybe this will steal the limelight from the CORD leader?
Away from style, decorum and common decency, substantive questions have sunk under the weight of altercations. The government has signaled its intent to open the floodgates for sugar from Uganda.
There are legitimate fears the sugar may, in fact, not originate from Uganda. Could Uganda, in fact, only be there for window dressing purposes? The argument has also been correctly made that our sugar sector is at risk of extinction. Western Kenya MPs on Thursday shunned an invite to State House. Yet these same MPs had begun warming up to President Kenyatta, just over a month ago when he gave the ailing Mumias Sugar Company a jab in the arm.
Has this President now shot himself in the foot with the Uganda deal? The perception is that Jubilee leaders have vested interest in dairy exports to Uganda. That they have elected to sacrifice the cane farming and business community in western Kenya in exchange for vested gains through dairy exports to Uganda? We do not know this for sure.
However, time will tell. Railaâ€™s concerns about the impact of unbridled sugar imports are valid, many would say. Sugar imports from Uganda do not sit well with revival of Kenyaâ€™s sugar sector. This is what he is trying to explain. Whether he is driven by thirst for political mileage or not, he is spot on.
The trouble with Raila though, is that he speaks on just about anything and everything. And he speaks angrily all the time. His style makes him the proverbial boy who cries wolf even when there is none. Hence when the wolves of sugar and milk arrive, some people will not take him seriously, for he is â€˜just that boy who cries wolf.â€™ Going forward, he will want to change tact. Just like President Kenyatta, when Raila speaks, the country should pause to listen. This will not happen if he must remain a political rolling stone that never has a quiet moment.
The bigger loser here, however, remains President Kenyatta. He must understand that the Opposition has a duty to robustly criticise him â€“ all the time. His circumstances may have trained him to have things his way all the time. Yet he must recognise that he now occupies and operates in public space.
There is a price. It is not like the good old days when he got whichever toy he wanted whenever he wanted it â€“ and if they did not give it to him he threw up a tantrum. Kenyans are raising valid questions about the sugar sector.
The President and his government owe them dignified, level headed and convincing answers. Mister President, please get your act together and speak to us with decorum. Donâ€™t scream at us.
This article was published by the Standard Newspaper.