How Jomo and Obama helped Uhuru to become president
By Babere Chacha and John Wahome | June 8th 2021
Suppose some creative Kenyan artist came up with a replica of America’s Mount Rushmore, featuring the likenesses of our first four presidents curved on granite? Given the striking physical similarities, observers would be forgiven for confusing the first president with the last, save for some obvious chronological gradations.
For indeed, Uhuru Kenyatta’s glinting eyes, stately gait, ease in engaging masses with booming orations delivered in impeccable English, vernacular, or Kiswahili, and his initial charisma- now arguably fading - are unmistakable heritages from his father Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. William Wordsworth would say this child is definitely ‘the father of the man’.
Uhuru’s windfall from the Jomo brand, however, transcends mere genetics and awesome aura. We argue that he might not even have attained presidency without the propulsion of the magical Kenyatta brand.
At the advent of the Republic of Kenya on December 12, 1964, the Orwellian stature and name of the founding father were inextricably enmeshed with that of the country. In fact, Uhuru Kenyatta rode into State House in 2013 on the nostalgic longings of his base constituency for a reincarnation of the ‘mighty grand man of Africa’, Jomo.
Secondly, the emergence of Kenyatta 1 as ‘father of the Nation’ was rooted in a foundational story in which the future president was portrayed as the superhero in the struggle for independence. This myth as a powerful political instrument imposed a reflexive dualism which legitimised the government then in place and undermined any competing memories.
Kenyatta’s name was even an alphabetical superset of the nascent nation’s very own! ‘Uhuru’ itself has an unmistakable nationalistic ring, perpetuating the status of national mythology being firmly woven around the current president’s actions and personality.
In 2012, Uhuru’s election propagandists and spin-doctors ensured that his photo appearing as a toy-carrying stripling, taken with Mzee and former presidents Moi and Kibaki went viral on the social media, and was sold in the streets of all major towns.
The picture seemed to invite the beholder to ‘fill in the blank’ of who should be the next president. Consequently, the yearning for a lion-like commander-in-chief with enough oomph to contrast Kibaki’s laid back presidency was greatly kindled, especially among the Kikuyu.
Whereas brotherhood with Deputy President William Ruto may have provided critical propulsion, it was essentially those paternal memories that Uhuru leveraged as a stepping stone into his future presidential engagement. One might even say that Jomo returned from ‘AfterAfrica’ - to use Ali Mazrui’s improvised term for the hereafter - to hand his son Uhuru the presidency.
On the other hand, the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the United States’ presidency in 2009 on the platform of ‘youthfulness’ provided Uhuru’s own campaign with additional afterburner and inspiration, for he and Ruto were effectively the local face of the intense, globally prevalent Obama-maniac buzz. Real and sentimental gains were also mined from a cunningly contrived connection between Uhuru’s struggles against ICC indictment with Obama’s success at upsetting ‘the system’ to emerge tops.
It helped much that the face of Kibaki’s government at the time was largely that of tired, rich and withered old men. The populace now craved an energetic campaign show, verbal articulation and young blood, and this was unfailingly delivered by the UhuRuto ‘dynamic duo’.
In Uhuru’s and Obama’s career progressions, one sees how politics of remembering is very critical to voter mobilisation and electoral engineering. For Obama, this quickly elevated America’s image abroad and inspired the world, his term in office providing a monumental representation of internal memory so well applicable in Kenyan politics. The TV images of disbelieving Americans openly weeping at the event of the swearing in of the first black American president are unforgettable for all time.
Similarly, the ‘spirit’ of Jomo - a living dead as JS Mbiti would refer to him - helped Uhuru’s followers to re-visualise the departed leader and enact many fond memories. The symbolic representations of the past therefore become sites where memories converge, merge, and mark ties between past, present and future.
Therefore, Uhuru appropriated Obama’s global fame to forge his own identity, enable social and political change and even to facilitate processes of healing, harmony and peace especially after the 2007 post-election violence.
In sum, both the past and present helped Uhuru to win election in 2007. The past was his father Jomo Kenyatta and the present Obama’s inspirational presidency.
Apparently, there were deeper forces behind Uhuru’s presidency than a mere tacit ‘Uhuru Tosha’ approval by the Ruto constituency.
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