There was something understatedly cool about President Uhuru Kenyatta’s choice of dress at the historic Ivory Burning event. A black rugged khaki jacket over a black polo turtle neck and matching dark khakis was a sensible dress choice for a rainy day out in the park. The president was owning an event that captured the world’s media attention and Uhuru sneakily delivered a reprimand directed at the powerful nations, the lords of conservation to lower their patronising voices and let Kenya (aka the poor country) do what was in its best interests.
The previous evening President was the host at the exclusive Giants Club dinner, a consortium of influence and power to tackle African elephant poaching crisis, whose membership includes African heads of state, global corporate CEOs, philanthropists, conservationists and international celebrities. At the Mount Kenya Safari Club. After formalities, Uhuru in a black suit took to the floor at Ugandan’s President Yoweri Museveni’s prodding. He started off with a hesitant step, almost bashful but soon got into his groove, pulling some decent salsa dance moves. On the same floor was Museveni ( Sevo himself) without his big hat ( Thank God!) stepping on the floor with a two female companions. Sevo stuck to his a one trick pony act, stamping up and down like a soldier marking time. I have heard Museveni rap or the millennials would say ‘spitting a few bars’ so he is not as square as he is dated.
President Uhuru has his challenges but hanging loose is not one of them. The idea that a President can let loose in the same ordinary folk sense has become a captivating spectacle. It makes him look more human. 10 years ago a president getting down with an unidentified white woman at a private function would have been material for long speculation. From Jomo Kenyatta, through to Daniel Moi and Mwai Kibaki, the presidency was identified with a pronounced stiff upper lip. Presidential royalty was expected to maintain an air of aloofness, making no apology for not participating in the merrymaking rituals of the masses. President Uhuru has flipped that script and is shuffling in step with the millennials. I cannot picture Kibaki having the time nor day to fathom Sauti Sol, let alone inviting them for a sequestered function at State House and asking them to sing “ That song I like…Awinja’.
Every time, I watch the president dancing at a public function on the news, one cannot help but notice his sense of restraint, like the guy at the wedding party slowly foot tapping and head bobbing waiting for the beat to drop before unleashing the fancy footwork.
A week prior to the Ivory Burning event, Uhuru was getting hoisted for a line out by the national sevens rugby team, back with the winner’s trophy from Singapore. And he caught the ball which is a long way from the days when Daniel Moi kicking a football into space was a heroic act that grabbed headline news. Uhuru understands rugby camaraderie and no surprises there since he is a genuine card holder with a rarely referenced high school stint as a winger at Nairobi’s St. Mary’s school.
The one dimension that Uhuru Kenyatta has introduced to the Kenyan political landscape is that ‘looking cool” is worth its weight in PR gold. Of the stereotypical presidential male traits, playing cool is no longer a leadership liability. Since Obama happened, grownups no longer frown on taking selfies. With a younger voter demographic coming of age, the cool factor has gained serious currency. Image trumps substance all day and digital savvy presidents would never pass up the opportunity to milk a gif worthy moment. Millennials need to be engaged on their terms and a regular Facebook update about a day out on government duty won’t cut it. Shoot a video and add a music bed to it if you are serious about likes.
Politics is about identity and voters are drawn to people they perceive and believe are like them. In Kenya, tribal identity has been the most persuasive force. However with a better informed and disruptive youthful population, appealing to millennials takes more than a familiar last name. Instead of identifying solely around tribe, party affiliations, economic policies, young people are creating new codes of identity that challenge the dominant political narratives and politicians are making rapid adjustments.
Uhuru’s style rather than substance is reconstructing masculinity identity in 2017 election politics. We are entering a campaign period where the inability to ‘katika’ would just be as sacrilegious trying to be president while single.
Perceptions of maniliness have changed and shaking a leg is how one earns credentials as Performer-In-Chief. The presidential campaign playbook has evolved and if you hope to connect with young voters, one has to descend to where they are and sometimes that entails learning the words to your favourite Sauti Sol song. It helps a great deal to work on some moves, because it is a dance contest to State house.