President Uhuru Kenyatta is a brilliant politician. Perhaps not in the same calm, furtive and massively cerebral fashion as retired President Mwai Kibaki, or former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s cheeky smile, rally theatrics and relentlessly pragmatic deal making, or even Deputy President William Ruto’s discipline and famed monumental capacity for the hard slog of politics.
His gift is raw, down-to-earth star power: a 10,000-watt gap-toothed smile, the familiar laugh with the head thrown back and an almost compulsive tactility.
Few people walk away from an encounter with Mr Kenyatta without thinking: “I like that guy”, and “that guy really likes me”, and once a politician has penetrated through to your heart, your head stands little chance.
The Nation raises this not to flatter Mr Kenyatta but because the way he wears power so easily is at the heart of his success as a politician – the name recognition, the fortune and right connections with sitting Presidents did not hurt – but even more important, the collapse of his relationship with his erstwhile political twin, Mr Ruto.
Because he is easy-going and does not possess Mr Kibaki’s inscrutable emotional inaccessibility or Moi’s kingly poise and frightening reputation for ruthless political cunning, Mr Kenyatta’s partners possibly made the error of not paying too much attention to what he was saying.
“I have been pleading with people the whole of 2019: ‘Please, let us focus on the (Big Four) agenda, the time for politics will come’… Well, I don’t have that much time to go…I can’t continue pleading,” he said during an interview at State House, Nairobi on Tuesday.
While the interaction with the Nation was brief and conducted in front of an audience, some with huge followings on Twitter, those with a fresh eye and keen ear could discern direction of his thoughts even as he was being massively guarded with his thoughts.
Those with more detailed knowledge of the two men would probably know better, but it appears that Mr Kenyatta might see Mr Ruto as having been a bad deputy, one who pursued his own burning political ambitions to the detriment of his boss’s agenda.
Deep down, though, he doesn’t use the term; he thinks he is being sabotaged. “Don’t let your ambitions of tomorrow cloud what you must do today. Because what you do today is what shall determine where you shall be tomorrow,” Mr Kenyatta said somewhat cryptically.
During the interview, he never referred directly to anyone, least of all Mr Ruto, leaving the observer to arrive at his own conclusions.
The hints the President dropped were as heavy as anvils: if you don’t support his programme, it is okay, you can go and do something else.
“There are a number of things I promised Kenyans (during my swearing-in) in Kasarani. I promised that I would achieve my Big Four agenda. I am still following that route. I also said that I would end corruption in this country,” he says. “I have not deviated.”
In one of the heaviest hints that President Kenyatta might be focusing on reorganising his government, the President told the Nation that he is looking for leaders who can support his agenda.
“I want people who are not going to fight the agenda I laid out and made to Kenyans. I want people who are going to support that agenda. And in a democracy, if you feel you are not happy with the way the leader is going then…”
That hanging sentence suggests that if the Ruto wing wishes to restore the previous bromance with his boss, it is either too late or time is short.
Whenever there is a purge or a political bloodbath, there is always the temptation to excuse the leader and blame it on handlers, deep state operatives or political allies.
But anyone observing Mr Kenyatta’s fierce passion when he speaks about his agenda and crackdown on corruption would arrive at the same conclusion: this is not a man repeating a briefing, this is the driver.
With only two years left of his final term, Mr Kenyatta’s leadership is winding down and three things appear on top of his mind: his record, his legacy and national unity.
At the moment – and he says as much – he wants a team that he can work with for the final sprint and to fulfil the promises that he made at Kasarani.
Ever since Mr Ruto embarked on early campaigns for his presidency, Mr Kenyatta’s main worry, like many final-term leaders, was whether he would end up as a lame duck.
To shield his Big Four Agenda, the President released Executive Order No 1 of 2019 and named Dr Fred Matiang’i as the chairman of the National Development Implementation and Communication Cabinet Committee, which cut the DP from inspecting the projects.
But with that Order, the President gave Dr Matiang’i the super role of providing “supervisory leadership throughout the delivery cycle of all national government programmes and projects”.
While it is easy to purge other leaders, the position of Deputy President is not held at the behest of the president.
Rather, the DP can only be removed after being impeached for gross violation of the Constitution if he resigns.
IN OR OUT?
President Kenyatta appears to have reached a dead end, perhaps trapped with a deputy he cannot work with.
For many months, the DP has not been attending presidential functions at State House and has been missing the National Security Council meetings, where he is a member.
Once, the DP said there was a scheme to stop him from succeeding President Kenyatta by “the system”. The DP, in March this year, said that the “system” – without giving evidence – was plotting all manner of schemes against him.
“Those in this scheme are boasting that I will not be there soon,” tweeted the DP. “Since the system cannot elect anybody, they can only kill. But there is God in heaven.”
It is this soiled relationship within the Jubilee government that President Kenyatta finds himself in. Without dropping names, President Kenyatta now says:
“If you feel you are not able to work in tandem with my agenda, please then, why don’t you let me put somebody who is keen and eager to help me fulfil that agenda I promised Kenyans in 2017, for the second time, and in 2013 for the first time. I am not against anybody and I am not for anybody. But if you feel you are not comfortable, then I say, this gives you free time to engage in whatever you want to engage in.”
In fairness, the President did not name anyone by name and it is left to speculation whether he meant Mr Ruto or the Senators and MPs being dragged through Okiki Amayo-type “loyaltymeter” and purged from committees.
“These positions are very critical to me and fulfilment of my agenda,” he says. “I am not against anybody and I am not for anybody,” he said.
When the President embarked on the war against corruption, Mr Ruto went on record criticising the investigators and claimed that it was weaponised to target those who are perceived to be close to him.
The DP, and his allies, argued that the Directorate of Criminal Investigations – and which had the backing of the President — lacked legal mandate to probe economic crimes and that it was playing politics.
Another source of friction between the President and his deputy was on the dalliance between Raila Odinga and President Kenyatta after the March 9, 2018 political truce that led to easing of tension in the country after the controversial presidential election of 2017.
President Kenyatta says that this truce was part of a promise that he had made to Kenyans. Interestingly, on November 28, 2017 and after he was sworn in for his final term, Mr Kenyatta said:
“I will devote my time and energy to build bridges to unite and bring prosperity to all Kenyans.” The promise was perhaps lost in the cacophony of speeches.
At the time, the country was awash with political tension after the leading opposition candidate, Mr Odinga, and other National Super Alliance leaders boycotted the ceremony after Odinga boycotted a repeat poll ordered by the Supreme Court, which had annulled Kenyatta’s victory.
The rapprochement between the two political leaders has become the source of acrimony between Mr Ruto’s allies and the Raila camp, which interpreted the move as a chance by Mr Kenyatta to renege on his promise to support Mr Ruto’s candidature for 2022.
The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) has turned to be a bigger agenda – and which could lead to more constitutional reforms.
ENDING POLL VIOLENCE
But Mr Kenyatta looks at the ‘handshake’ – and the subsequent Building Bridges Initiative that was launched at the Bomas of Kenya on November 27, 2019 – as part of the Jubilee Party agenda of uniting the country and ending the winner-takes-all mentality that always led to violence and animosity.
“BBI is about the same dream of national unity. In Jubilee (we) saw two communities that were at loggerheads (and had engaged) in a lot of killings and destruction (of property) come together. That was what Jubilee was about. Bringing communities together.”
While President Kenyatta says the BBI is an extension of the same Jubilee ideal to the entire country, he wonders why it is being politicised.
Critics, especially from the DPs political camp, say that Mr Kenyatta’s dalliance with Mr Odinga could break up Jubilee Party, to which the president says:
“I have not reached out to break what we have. I have reached out to extend what we have to the whole country, and I will not stop. I will continue. Because I believe that is what this country needs.”
He says national unity was much more important and his initial thoughts were: “Why then can’t we extend the same principle to others out there… You may not agree 100 per cent with all the other Jubilee ideals and agenda…but can we can agree on the quest for national unity.”
Before the BBI rallies were disrupted by Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Ruto had accused Mr Odinga of hijacking the BBI conversation and dividing Jubilee.
The Ruto camp has never hidden its distrust for the Building Bridges Initiative. And during its launch at the Bomas of Kenya, President Kenyatta had sought to answer his deputy, who had become a critical voice and his allies had expressed fear that it was being used to undermine the DP.
“I find it very unfortunate that as I try to unite Kenya, some people feel that I am locking them out. I am not fighting any person. I am working for all the 47 million Kenyans,” said Mr Kenyatta.
In our interview, the President said BBI has only been “delayed” by the Covid-19 and has not been shelved.
The President says that the intention of BBI is to promote national unity, rather than personalities.
“BBI is not for anybody or against anybody. It is just to help us deal with a cancer, a problem, that has afflicted our country. And all we are saying: let us cut this cancer out… Once we create a level playing field that everybody is happy with, then we shall enter competitive politics but hopefully manage it better than we have done with the past.”
But the process has faced political criticism and both the Nakuru and the Eldoret rallies were postponed due to tensions.
The now ousted Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen, an ally of Mr Ruto, had said the rallies had become forums for insulting the DP.
This had bothered Mr Kenyatta, who says he was left wondering why a “process …to make Kenya more inclusive” was facing such challenges.
“The BBI is one area where I always wonder why we are politicising the process,” he says, and then poses: “Because what is it about? …It is about bringing people together, ending and not creating suspicion.”
Mr Kenyatta says the BBI process “has been one of the most transparent processes, as far as I am concerned, that we have had in this country for a long time. From its inception, despite a lot of people being sensitive, we went and ended up with the document at the Bomas of Kenya and all the people said it is okay.”
Mr Kenyatta says that he could have had the option of waiting for the next election and let the country go through the normal tension experienced since 1992.
“I chose I will not sit and wait for the next election cycle while we already knew what it would bring,” he says.
Kenya has witnessed political violence and tension after every general election since 1992, except in 2002.
“We may not agree all of us politically. If we did we would not be a democracy. We have different positions, but let us create an environment where those different ideologies and positions can be expressed, and where people can go to an election without shedding of blood and destruction of property,” he says. It is a tough task with only two years to go.