A populist leader is a leader who stands for the “people.” They aim to aid the common folk whom they see as the naturally good and intelligent. These leaders see the people as held back from their potential by both the political and economic elites. Sometimes a populist will be remembered for improving their already stable country and other times for wrecking it and implementing controversial policies that split the populous for the good of their supporters.
Many view the President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta as a conservative populist with a strong sense of African nationalism. Kenyans elected him president of Kenya in 2013, making him the youngest to date. He is son of Jomo Kenyatta who was Kenya’s first ever president, serving for 14 years from 1964-1978 when he died. His father came to power with his nationalist pro-Kenyan policies. He wished for Kenya to be its own republic instead of just a colony, and he emphasized his goal to split from the British Empire. Rather than a Kenyan nationalist like his father Jomo, Uhuru is a conservative who sees great importance in pan-African nationalism.
To win his first election Uhuru had to take on Raila Odinga, an advocate for reform and democracy. Odinga’s father served as the first vice president of Kenya. Does this sound somewhat familiar? Well, interestingly enough, his father Jaramogi Odinga was vice president to Jomo Kenyatta. So, to say the least there is some history between the two. Uhuru won the 2013 election with just over 50% of the vote, while Odinga received slightly less at ~44%.
When he took office in 2013, Kenyatta’s set his aim on refocusing Kenya’s foreign policy to display an aggressive African-centered approach. This may seem an authoritarian-like action, however, it is simply due to Kenyatta’s strong African nationalistic beliefs. At his inauguration, to show his turn to a pan-African policy regarding Kenya’s region and the world, he had the anthem of the East-African community sung. He aims to strengthen ties between Kenya and the EAC member states – Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, as well as South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Kenyatta stated that the future of Kenya is inseparable from the future of the region around it.
A clear example of his populist style can be seen through his suspicion and disrespect for the media. He often insults newspapers, once actually saying their only purpose should be for wrapping meat. Also, his administration has passed laws aiming to increase the difficulty of being an independent reporter. The administration has abused journalists who ask questions that might wall in the person being asked. These journalists have reportedly been beaten and arrested, as well as having their reports pulled or even been fired.
Regarding terrorism, Kenyatta refers to Muslims and Muslim refugees in vague, villainizing terms. Kenya is involved in the African Union Mission in Somalia, aimed at halting the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, currently requiring an extra 28,000 troops to do so. The group has murdered nearly 800 Kenyans so far, with most of the violence occurring since Uhuru took office in 2013. Kenyatta’s opposition, Odinga, has continued to demand the withdrawal of troops, which would put the mission in severe danger. Kenyatta on the other hand has urged for more troops to be deployed and has even reached out internationally for help.
Kenyatta is a leader with a very colorful personality, and his supporters see him as very down to earth and approachable. He argued that the decision to annul his second consecutive win in the election for the Kenyan presidency was overthrowing the will of the Kenyan people. Kenyatta is truly a leader who claims to represent ‘The People,’ however, he then actively disregards those people who do not support him. Although this may not seem ideal, as he is not for every single Kenyan, he is a populist, for he is one for the common man.