At least twice in the recent past, Kenya’s President Kenyatta has officiated military functions while clad in military fatigues. In the characteristic propaganda system of his administration, photos of him appear almost in real time and are shared far and widely. While his supporters argue that it is harmless and ‘his right’, what he is doing is wrong.
There is absolutely something badass about a President in fatigues, at least for a country that has never had a successful military coup or a military government. Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Moi occasionally wore ceremonial military uniforms but the democratic principles of their successive reigns should not be emulated. Kenya’s dalliance with democracy has been sloppy, with the Second President exercising a troubling chokehold on military command after the attempted coup of 1982. President Moi, ever the performer, could inspect the guard of honor with a flawless military march but he was almost always in a suit.
Civilian leadership of the military is a principle that must not only be law but must be seen to be done. The capitalization of the entire legal command within the office of the President is meant to ensure that we do not slide into a military dictatorship. The President is bound by democratic principles; primarily that he will not extend the power of the arm of government he heads, the Executive, using his hold on the military command. The Constitution provides the basis of the President as Commander-in-Chief, specifically, a civilian head of the military. Had he been the Chief of Staff of the military, he would have first had to resign from his position to run as a civilian presidential candidate.
Last month, there was some disquiet in the United States after President Obama returned the salute of a troop of Marine Corps. The issue was that the office of the president is the civilian head of the military and is fundamentally separate from the military structure. This is a matter of law and fact for any country that is not a democratic leadership. When World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower ascended to the US presidency in 1952, he shed his military fatigues and all that pertained to that role. For someone who had spent the entirety of his adulthood in the military structure, he never gave the military salute because he understood the separation of his new office and his old office.The issue was that the office of the president is the civilian head of the military and is fundamentally separate from the military structure. This is a matter of law and fact for any country that is not a democratic leadership.
Even closer home, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s decision to run as a civilian candidate for a position he had held once before as a military dictator was a fundamental precedent. Obasanjo is often lauded for voluntarily giving up power in the 70s to a civilian government. As a civilian president, he avoided his former official uniform because he understood how wearing military fatigues would conjure traumatic memories of past military dictatorships in Nigeria. Kenya can do well to learn from her African neighbours about how quickly a country can become a military dictatorship. The armed forces become the judge, jury and executioner and before long, the people begin to cry for a civilian king they can effectively control and vote out if they are dissatisfied. Rather than watch their president’s increasing troubling comfort with donning military fatigues, the Kenyan people should seek to remind him that he holds the office by virtue of their vote, not military experience.
As a country at war, it is prudent for the President to do all that he can to ensure that he reminds the troops of their role as citizens beyond all else. Kenya is the only East African country that has a President who has no military background. That uniqueness tells a lot about the traditional separation of the military and its civilian leadership. In Uganda, President Museveni dons military fatigues whenever he wants to make a point such as intimidate the opposition or win a fraudulent election. It also implies that he holds the presidency not by virtue of a majority vote by virtue of conquest.
By appearing in military fatigues while officiating military functions, President Kenyatta is blurring the delicate distinction between the office he holds as a civilian head and his command over the military. He is not a member of the military simply by virtue of his constitutional duty to command it. The President must always be a civilian. He commands the military in the people’s name.