Uhuru: The making of political genius in a crowded field

President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga after Mr. Ruto hosted them for lunch at his Karen residence on November 4, 2018. [Image: DPPS]

Cold, unassuming and calculative are the three adjectives that best describe the political soul of Kenya’s fourth President Uhuru Kenyatta whose spell has bound his former nemesis, Opposition leader Raila Odinga.

As he celebrates the 20th year in public service and between running a country, Uhuru is successfully juggling succession, legacy, ambition balls with unmistakable artistry that would make his political godfathers proud.

Under his political spell is the man who paid to his first foray in the presidential race in 2002, and jolted two others. Like a genie in a bottle, Raila, a dyed-in-the-wool politician, is now tamed, silent and inside a government, he did not form.

Hanging on the President’s coattails is the man he, by word of mouth, promised to hand over power to, Deputy President William Ruto. Their dream party, Jubilee, is imploding from within while on the sidelines, a legion of political comrades, former Vice Presidents Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi are politically dazed.

“Perhaps it is about his grooming or its learning, but given his agility and moves in the political chessboard, he has proven to be a master tactician at the political stage,” argued political analyst Javas Bigambo.

Observers like Mr Bigambo say the handshake between the President and Raila is the latest display of Uhuru political wit. Owing to it, a near illegitimate rule has been cleansed and forgotten.

The President’s election victory in 2017 was invalidated by the Supreme Court. The repeat election was largely a sham, boycotted by his main opponent and his supporters. It is on the basis of the second election that he was sworn in.

“Uhuru is a good politician, who is easily mistaken to be aloof but has his antennas up in the air,” said Macharia Munene, a Professor of History and International Relations at the United States International University says.

And now this week, he pulled a fast one on his handshake brother, fielding a Jubilee candidate in his political bedrock of Kibra, stoking fresh fears on their pact. Those who know Uhuru well say this is nothing compared to what the man is capable of.

They paint a picture of the least celebrated “mini-professor” of politics, his political godfather being former President Moi. It is instructive to note that besides his major defeat in 2002, he has never lost a political contest.

“He is a super politician, one you cannot understand just by relying on his body language. You cannot anticipate his next move. His close allies like myself have learned to wait for his signal so as to act,” said National Assembly Leader of Majority Adan Duale.

Before 2002, Moses Muhia had outsmarted Uhuru for Gatundu South parliamentary seat. Some say this experience brought out his true fangs and defined his political trajectory.

“He has never forgotten what we went through with Moses Muhia. In retrospect, it was for his own good. It made him stronger,” David Kigochi, now Farmers Party leader but then a Uhuru strategist told the Sunday Standard.

Lay low

Uhuru lay low for two years soul searching before he re-emerged with a public appointment as Kenya Tourism Board chairman, later a nominated MP, a Cabinet minister and a presidential candidate for Kanu, all in quick succession.

When he lost the 2002 contest, Uhuru easily settled for the Opposition Leader role, honing his skills. In between the 2002 and 2007 General Election, he had won three major battles. Few remember that he served Kibaki the very dose he gave him, working with Raila to delegitimize and collapse the Narc regime.

He also fought and won the battle for the soul of Kanu involving rounds of National Delegates Conference (NDC) meetings in Kasarani. And finally, he won the 2005 Orange versus Banana referendum battle.

“It was during those Kasarani NDC’s that he was hardened and nosed for rough and tumble of politics. The genius sparkled on the day our then nemesis Nicholas Biwott bolted in the dead of night and we took charge,” former Jubilee Vice Chairman David Murathe recalled.

In the run-up to the 2007 General Election, after dealing Kibaki many a blow, Uhuru pulled a fast one; dumping Raila’s side and closing ranks with the man he had previously described a “see no evil, do no evil and hear no evil” kind of politician.

“He tends to listen to as many voices as possible before he makes a decision. He is slow to act impulsively. These two combined predispose to making sound and latent moves,” National Assembly Speaker Justine Muturi says.

His unassuming posture and approach to politics easily confuse his enemies. When the spoils of the original handshake between Kibaki and Raila in 2007 were being shared, former Cabinet minister Martha Karua is said to have made a fatal mistake that haunts her today.

“She assumed that given the prominent role she had played in protecting the Kibaki presidency, she would be an automatic choice for Deputy Prime Minister position. She was gravely mistaken for Uhuru had long bagged it and walked away, whistling and puffing away,” a source at the heart of grand coalition politics told the Sunday Standard.

Dropped him

A similar situation obtained in the run-up to the 2013 General Election, this time featuring Kalonzo, another heir to the throne who turned out to have been equally clueless. After entertaining him for a while, Uhuru eventually dropped him like a hot potato, telling him to his office, and in his own home, to forget the presidency and DP.

“There was silence in the gazebo. As tension rose, Uhuru suddenly stood up, pushed his seat back and stepped out of the sliding glass door. He walked five steps to the waterfall, removed a packet from his jacket pocket and pulled out a cigarette,” Kalonzo recalled in his recent memoirs.

Uhuru then led Ruto in making history as the world’s first pair to be elected President and deputy with an international court indictment hanging around their necks.

For Prof Peter Kagwanja, Uhuru is the quintessential democrat and a pragmatic leader. “He has ensured national discourse steers clear of 2022 politics. He has refused to be drawn to play partisan, populist or tribal chieftain but elevated engagements to the bigger common good ideals of the country he leads,” said Prof Kagwanja.

Mudavadi says Uhuru is “a nice guy” who would like to please anybody and at some point, he would not even take action even he knows they are wrong. “He is a goodhearted person. He always means well but this sometimes acts against him in terms of making difficult decisions,” said Musalia.