Want to see masters of Covid politics? Come to East Africa


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On Monday morning, with the Nairobi air still fresh from relief of human pollution as we stay home to hide from the new coronavirus, President Uhuru Kenyatta assembled senators from his ruling Jubilee Party for a parliamentary group meeting — with some Kanu members in tow.

The meeting ended with blood on the breakfast table. It replaced Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen with Kanu’s Samuel Poghisio and Majority Whip Susan Kihika’s chair fell to the more reliable Irungu Kang’ata of Jubilee.

It was not the ‘Night of the Long Knives’; it was the ‘Morning of the Short Sticks’.

Commentators declared the President had again kneecapped Deputy President William Ruto, in what the media have lately dubbed an “all-out war” as the two pull in different directions over the shape of the 2022 succession. Mr Murkomen and Ms Kihika had been loyal Ruto soldiers.

It is no accident that the moves came in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. From HIV/Aids in the 1980s and 1990s, Ebola in Uganda, West Africa, and DR Congo over the past 20 years, pandemics are a wonderful opportunity for incumbents to consolidate power or opposition or rebels to seize it from incompetent small-minded rulers.

Taking advantage of the paralysis of government by Covid-19 and militaries hobbled by quarantines and fear of the virus, Boko Haram in Nigeria and “Islamist militants” in Mozambique have increased attacks and taken more territory.


Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, a master at weaponising crisis, has seen his star rise on the continent.

His social media following has surged for his home exercise video with 30 press-ups, not bad for a 76-year-old, and his salt-of-the earth cuddly Covid-19 musing, are the leading national soap and popular YouTube fair. He is the First Pandemic Counsellor.

But being Museveni, he has also tended to his usual business of hammering opponents, prohibiting them from distributing Covid-19 relief, declaring any gathering of people for such purpose “attempted murder”.

With use of private vehicles banned, and his rivals for the crown unable to get far from their homes on foot, he’s hogging all the limelight and comprehensively cornering the political market for himself in ways he has not been able to do in nearly 20 years of his very long rule.

There is always the one that gets away. Musician-turned-opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi (better known by his stage name Bobi Wine), pulled a fast one.

Tech-savvy, he put together a brilliant online concert from his front yard, with everyone two metres apart, for half of Sunday, streaming it on YouTube and Facebook.

He got a huge reception, racking up tens of views, and raving reviews on social media. In recent months, all his attempts to stage concerts pre-Covid, ended in teargas, bullet wounds, and broken bones as heavily armed police broke them all up.

President Uhuru has also played his hand, though nowhere near Museveni’s level.

He debuted his colourful floral shirts in the Covid-19 briefs, and even though he has been panned on social media by Kenya’s unforgiving tweeps, he is still the only Corona Giver, doling out tax breaks, calling the credit reference bureaus off defaulters’ backs, and doling out grants to the elderly and vulnerable.

Most of the business community is purring quietly with pleasure. His enemies and foes inside the quarrelsome Jubilee have been closed out, reduced to social media rants.

All other appearances and prime TV appearances are by the President’s Men — Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i.

Even most county governors who are grabbing headlines with launches of new wards or hospitals to help in the war against the virus or opening new office complexes are all his people, like Machakos’s Alfred Mutua.

It’s the nature of the beast. You snooze, you lose. Never let a major disease crisis go to waste.

It is revolting, and the cynicism of it grates many upright people. But such people are rarely the majority, and many often come round.

Further inland, outgoing Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, who is surprisingly leaving power, has deployed Covid-19 to ensure victory for his chosen successor Evariste Ndayishimiye.

Also, a coronavirus denialist, Nkurunziza imposed few restrictions to control the spread of the disease, and Burundians went on with their lives almost normally.

The elections are due on May 20, and while the few rules hobble the opposition, his supporters are massing and canvassing freely.

But the winner has to be the announcement that all election observers to the poll would have to quarantine for two weeks, although no one else has had to quarantine.

Observers arriving when the announcement was made would only emerge from quarantine on May 24, long after the vote had been rigged and counted. Beat that.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans; @cobbo3

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