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President Uhuru Kenyatta with the Inspector General of Police Hillary Mutyambai after signing of the Leadership and Integrity Code and the Accountability Pledge at State House, Nairobi. [File, Standard]

Kenyan heads of state have held untrammeled power – until now. Jubilee’s Uhuru Kenyatta, also known as the scion of the Burning Spear, is the first Kenyan CEO to have his powers severely clipped. But Mr Kenyatta’s relative powerlessness isn’t a result of the 2010 Constitution. Nyet – the culture of the imperial presidency, which Kenyatta can effortlessly harness, hasn’t fled to Sweden.

Rather, Kenyatta is a prisoner of his co-presidency with URP’s William Ruto. Mr Ruto has Kenyatta in a vice-like grip, and won’t let go. Kenyatta is the first Kenyan head of state to fully share power with his subordinate. That’s why his legacy could be for naught despite his “handshake” with ODM’s Raila Odinga.

Life often mimics sports. That’s why sports metaphors aptly describe life’s predicaments. Let me try two on Kenyatta. In sports – especially basketball – you choke if you have an easy layup with the game on the line and fail to score. Or if you are fouled with a second left in the game and you only need one free to win it, but miss both. Instead of being the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), you become the goat. You choke if you’ve a clear path and you blink. You miss wide. Likewise, a hunter who gets only one clean shot at his prey but blinks will open his eyes only to find the animal gone – out of sight. 

Failure to wield a machete

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Kenyatta is starting to look like the hunter who blinked, or the player who choked with the game on the line. That’s why I watched the State of the Nation (STON) address with a keen eye last week. Kenyatta’s much anticipated speech was preceded by a lot of bloviation by pundits and politicos. A lot of useless ink was wasted on newsprint by breathless columnists. TV analysts made utter fools of themselves. Most had predicted a fire-and-brimstone speech by Kamwana. Heads of the corrupt high and mighty were going to be guillotined. There was going to be blood on the streets. Images of severed heads of Cabinet members occupied many noggins. Lords of impunity quaked in their stolen boots.

Unlike many of my fellow travelers in the chattering classes – the nattering nabobs of negativism – I was skeptical that the SOTN would be an earthquake. In life, look to the past if you want to predict with some degree of accuracy what might transpire in future. Kenyatta’s watchers know his mind knows he should fight corruption without pity, fear or favour. He knows his legacy hinges on that singular issue. But his government is a snake pit. Hissing snakes surround him wherever he turns. Many of those opposed to him and his anti-corruption crusade are led by DP Ruto. Get this – his number one nemesis is his key assistant in the state.

Ruto has lassoed Kenyatta. That’s why the SOTN was a whimper, not a roar. After threatening Armageddon, Kenyatta instead retreated into the “rule of law.” He blamed his failure to wield a machete against the corrupt on his fidelity to the rule of law. He said no one will be condemned unheard. Yada yada. As the inimitable Jeff Koinange would exclaim “Oh my wamae!” Bring out the fire extinguisher! The evidence for the corrupt is in plain sight. Either the sleuths don’t know what they are doing, or don’t want to do a thing. Where was the rule of law when Kenyatta ordered morning demolitions of buildings sitting on grabbed lands? Excuses. I wasn’t impressed.

There were telltale signs Kenyatta was going to cave into the war chants by Ruto and his brigade two weeks before the SOTN. First, Kenyatta chastised the corrupt – among them his own ministers – and then did nothing. Second, in a stunning act of self-disarmament, he went to see Ruto in his office. As the Akamba would say, “asi!”  When does the head of state go to pay homage to a deputy who has openly defied him and is out to sabotage every leg of his legacy? Was this surrender, or a tactical retreat? Kenyatta cannot continue to toy with the minds of Kenyans. He must deliver – pronto and decisively – on the war on corruption.

Kenyatta doesn’t want his legacy to be one of ignominy. He can’t afford to squander the gift of the “handshake” that Raila gave him. He must refuse to be cowed and intimidated by the evil hands of the corrupt. I have hitherto fully supported his anti-corruption purge, but I and many others will walk away if he can’t deliver – now. We must ask – why did he seek the office and fight so hard to reclaim it if he lacked the backbone?

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- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua.

William Ruto Raila Odinga ODM State of Nation Address
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