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Jitters in William Ruto, Raila Odinga camps as Uhuru hits the campaign trail

President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks in Mwiki, Nairobi County. [PSCU] 

After being taunted several times by Amani National Congress (ANC) leader Musalia Mudavadi, for allegedly abandoning his “political project”, President Uhuru Kenyatta has eventually hit the campaign trail with just three weeks to the polls. 

With opinion highly divided on whether Uhuru’s presence hurts or boosts the presidential campaigns of Raila and Deputy President William Ruto, it is unclear if the president has played into Musalia and the rival camp, Kenya Kwanza’s, net.

Yesterday, an elated Ngunjiri Wambugu (Nyeri Town MP), described Uhuru’s entry into the final phase of the race as “a timely and strategic masterstroke” aimed at boosting the Raila-Martha Karua ticket “while dealing a serious political blow” to the Ruto-Rigathi Gachagua pair.”

Citing recent opinion poll ratings, Ngunjiri said “the situation was going to get worse for the DP over the next three weeks.”

However, Prof Amukowa Anangwe, a member of Kenya Kwanza’s think-tank, describes “Uhuru’s return” as a dicey affair, comparable to a sword that cuts both sides.

“Raila and the entire Azimio fraternity may look rejuvenated with a new sense of self confidence, but on the flipside, Uhuru’s presence projects Raila as a State project, just like we have always mentioned,” Anangwe said.

Speaking last month at a rally in Bungoma County, Musalia hinted to the “State project” tag when he asked Uhuru to complete his term and leave office in peace.

This begs the question whether the Kenya Kwanza principal has been applying reverse psychology aimed at luring Uhuru to the campaign trail.

Commissioning projects

“Uhuru has only one month remaining to leave office, he has really destroyed the country’s economy following his handshake with Raila Odinga,” Musalia said at a rally.

Clearly this protest note gives away the ANC leader, who is obviously uncomfortable with President Kenyatta’s support for their main rival, Raila.

This contradiction is even more pronounced by the DP, who has repeatedly said Uhuru for aiding Raila’s bid and shielding him from direct confrontation with the UDA presidential candidate.

“My friend the President of Kenya has decided in his democratic right to support my competitor, Raila Odinga. I respect his decision and opinion," Ruto said last week.

"But I ask my competitor not to hide behind President Uhuru, he must step forward and compete with me.”

In a quick rejoinder, Raila said Ruto had no moral authority to lecture him or any member of his Azimio brigade.

He said Ruto had taken him for granted for long, thinking he is a coward, and that he must now get ready for a resounding defeat.

Five days ago, Uhuru presided over the commissioning of projects initiated by his administration, including Embakasi East Hospital, where he hit out at Ruto over remarks that he should focus on his retirement ahead of the August 9 polls.

“Why are they harassing me yet I am not on the ballot? They are telling me to finish and go, where do they want me to go? I will do my job until the last minute,” Uhuru said.

While at it, Uhuru drummed up support for the Azimio presidential candidate, Raila, and his running mate Martha Karua, stating the former premier was the best person to succeed him.

This is probably the development that irked Ruto and his allies.

Yesterday, however, Azimio secretary general Junet Mohamed appeared to downplay the president’s role in the coalition party’s presidential campaign.

He said that Uhuru, in his capacity as president, was on a countrywide tour to launch and promote his legacy projects.     

“As our campaign’s head of protocol, I can confirm that I have not seen the president join us on stage or on the campaign trail,” Junet said. "But as a senior politician and Head of State, he has every right to pronounce himself to Kenyans and his supporters across the country on his preferred candidates for various seats in the upcoming elections."

Prof Anangwe says that they too had noticed a major change in their rival’s campaign approach, specifically by Uhuru, who had momentarily taken a backseat.

“Changes don’t just happen. There must be a rationale behind this change of tack and from where we sit, we know Azimio is cornered,” Anangwe said.

According to the former Cabinet Minister, Raila’s campaign was on a downtrend and the president has been encouraged to “come to its rescue.”

“The so-called Martha Karua-effect was overhyped and now gaps in the campaign’s impact are emerging. There was clearly need for strong intervention, hence the resurfacing of Uhuru,” he said. 

Personalised attacks

Claiming that Raila-allied parliamentary and senatorial candidates, especially from Mt Kenya region, were struggling on the campaign trail, the Team Ruto strategist believes the entry of Uhuru is geared towards bolstering their chances.

A Jubilee-allied second-term MP, who requested anonymity, concurs with Prof Anangwe.

“Despite the promise on funding our campaigns, we have been left on our own – without funds and support from our leaders in meet-the-people tours and rallies.

"We need urgent help, including the president’s tour of the region, if possible, much as we have no idea whether this will backfire,” the Jubilee MP said.

Prof Anangwe further points out that the latest development is political fodder for his team to exploit, as “it underscores the fact that Raila is a part and parcel of this government”.

In other words, the former premier’s campaign is bound to be adversely affected by the baggage of the Jubilee administration.  

“The association with Uhuru also means that Raila’s rule, if he wins in August, will be a continuity of the Jubilee administration as opposed to Ruto, whose win will signify a fresh start,” says Prof Anangwe.

Macharia Munene, a professor of history and international relations, however says Uhuru’s active involvement in pre-poll issues is deliberately meant to hurt Ruto’s presidential campaign.

“Much as Raila is progressing well, the president does not want to leave anything to chance. He would like, not just to deliver victory to Raila, but to be seen to have played an active role in Raila’s win — this is politics and optics are crucial,” observes Prof Macharia, a commentator on political affairs. 

The United States International University (USIU) lecturer separately attributes Uhuru’s move to disapproval over his portrayal as a lame-duck president at the tail end of his term.

Prof Macharia believes that Uhuru wants to defend himself against personalised attacks by the Kenya Kwanza brigade and send a powerful message to his detractors that he is still around on the political scene.

When they started the “Team Kieleweke” (the Jubilee faction allied to Uhuru) in 2019, founder member Ngunjiri said that part of their objective was to ensure that Uhuru finished his term as politically strong as possible.

This is because the team had reportedly noticed a subtle effort to undermine the president so as to make him politically irrelevant by 2021/2022. 

Political experience

“We have achieved this objective by aggressively pushing back at any efforts to weaken his presidency. With about 21 days to the polls, Uhuru is retiring while still able to campaign for his preferred candidate Raila due to his relatively strong political capacity,” said Ngunjiri.    

“We needed him to finish strong because we believe his political experience will help to guide the nation, as well as our (Mt Kenya) region, which is going to be a key determinant of who succeeds Uhuru as president.”

While the unveiling of Karua by Raila as his running mate in May momentarily gave Uhuru the much-needed breather of having to market him in Mt Kenya region, observers point out that the temptation for the president to return to the campaign trail seems irresistible.

Although he is not on the ballot, Uhuru’s Jubilee party, of which he is party leader, is on the ballot. The president also doubles as chair of the Azimio La Umoja-One Kenya coalition party, a factor that makes an interested party in the current goings on.  

With just a couple of weeks remaining before his exit from office, Uhuru has two examples to learn from – that of the second president Daniel arap Moi who publicly and unsuccessfully supported his own presidential bid in 2002 and his predecessor, Mwai Kibaki, who took a backseat in the 2013 contest he won.

Uhuru’s backers point out that current political circumstances are different arguing that the relatively younger Uhuru has several political interests to fix and protect before his exit.

Whether Uhuru’s move to hit the campaign trail will suit his political interests ahead of the August poll or hurt his career and that of his allies, will soon come to the fore.