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Will Uhuru anti-graft hammer stop Ruto or strengthen him?

By Special Correspondent | Nov 1st 2021 | 8 min read

President Uhuru Kenyatta and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta during Mashujaa Day celebrations in Wang'uru Stadium , Kirinyaga County.

For the second time in ten months, a visibly agitated President Uhuru Kenyatta has said that he will not leave the country in the hands of a thief.  He said the same in February this year. 

Deputy President William Ruto has been fending off accusations of being ‘a bad person’. “When I supported Raila Odinga in 2007, they said I was a good person. Similarly, when I supported Uhuru to become the President, they said I was a good person. Now that I want to support the downtrodden, they say I am a crook, a bad person and a thief,” he has said at a number of public rallies. 

President Uhuru knows that if Ruto is elected the next president of Kenya, he will have no choice but to hand the instruments of State and power to him. It is the one legal order he cannot defy, short of taking the country into ruins. What, exactly, is happening therefore? Why is the president visibly agitated and how does he intend to avoid handing over to a thief? 

Is it about theft, as the president says, or are there other undisclosed concerns? Is it his newfound political love affair with the ODM leader, Raila Odinga? Why does President Uhuru seem to be so keen about Raila succeeding him as Kenya’s fifth president? How far will he push this and with what outcomes for the kingpins in the political arena? Such questions are disturbing Kenyans as they embark on the home stretch to next year’s general election. 

The clearest indication so far that Raila is President Kenyatta’s favourite has come from the ANC leader, Musalia Mudavadi. Speaking from two separate public venues in Kakamega, in his Western Kenya home ground, Mudavadi was categorical that the One Kenya Alliance (OKA) leaders ‘will not allow anyone to impose a leader on Kenyans.’ He urged Kenyans to join OKA in rejecting an imposed leader. He spoke of phone calls that are made ‘in the night, telling people that you must support this person.’ Senator Enock Wambua named Raila as the one man OKA leaders ‘will not invest in again.’

When Raila toured Mt Kenya region two weeks ago, Uhuru made his own follow-up visit, in the lead up to Mashujaa Day celebrations in Kirinyaga County. He told roadside gatherings that his visitor had gone ahead of him, and urged the people to look at him with kind eyes. There was little doubt that the visitor was Raila. Then there has been the fanfare around Raila by the wealthy Mt Kenya Foundation, and a slew of the local political elite, including a battery of governors. The impression from the powerful is that things are looking up for Raila, and it should be all systems go. 

But, in the middle of all this, the president makes a tour to his home base. He addresses impromptu gatherings. Speaking in mother tongue, in thinly-veiled inferences, he concludes that he is not ready ‘to leave the country in the hands of a thief.’ And the following day Mudavadi tells the same country, ‘We must not allow anybody to impose leadership on us. We must not, we will not, and we must not and we should never . . . This message must go out clearly.’ Meanwhile Kirinyaga Governor Ann Mumbi Waiguru defects to Ruto’s UDA Party and faces corruption complications with the law soon after. 

Sources within the Jubilee Party indicate that there is frustration within the president’s corner of the party, following what is seen as Ruto’s popularity. When crossing over to UDA, Waiguru referred to the thunderous applause the DP received when she invited him to speak at the Mashujaa Day parade.

Waiguru was honest, in her address at the DP’s residence in Karen, when defecting. She did not pretend that she was standing on any higher moral pedestal than those she had left behind. The signs were there for all to see, she said. The people were showing the leaders where they wanted to go. The options were to listen to the people and survive, or to ignore them and perish.

Nakuru governor, Lee Kinyanjui and Nyeri Town Member of Parliament, Ngunjiri Wambugu, criticized the timeliness of the Waiguru defection. It was too soon, Lee said on Twitter. Wambugu agreed. They suggested that Waiguru could come yet to rue, for defecting at this time. The suggestion is further made that things could change and Waiguru could regret that she acted precipitously and backed the wrong tree.

 Yet, it is also possible that the mistiming in question could be about the attrition she is likely to undergo at the mercy of state agencies. Corruption related allegations against her would seem to lend credence to this criticism. Behind it, however, is the message that more defectors could be coming, only they will time differently. 

Attrition and Fabian tactics, meanwhile,  are the name of the game. Wear them out, run them out of town with burnout. For President Kenyatta, the foremost weapon of attrition in his arsenal remains the use of State security and anti-corruption agencies, to bludgeon into surrendering those who don’t toe the line. For whatever reason, he has decided that Raila is his man for 2022. Beginning with his Mt Kenya backyard, on to the rest of the country, you will either toe the straight and narrow path as defined by him, or face attrition in the corridors of the DCI, EACC, police cells and occasionally in the law courts and prison remand homes. 

These Fabian tactics are being applied to the political class in the Mountain and to political giants from the rest of the country could follow shortly. Mudavadi hinted at ‘telephone calls at night.’ There are likely to be a series of corruption and theft arrests that don’t seem to mature into proper court processes, with Waiguru and, before her, Rigathi Gachagua of Mathira only as harbingers. It does not matter how much MPs Ndindi Nyoro, Kimani Ichung’wa, Alice Wahome, Cecily Mbarire, and Gachagua, among others, may scream about ‘weaponization of the war against corruption for political ends.’ If it is the only weapon the State has, it will continue to be used to wrestle down the unwilling into submission. 

What this does not achieve, however, is to carry the people along. It could, in fact, prove counterproductive. Ruto’s soaring popularity in the Mountain has little to do with the hustler narrative and the bottom-up ideology. It has everything to do with the strong bonds of friendships and mutual loyalty that he built with the ordinary people of the Mountain during the ‘Ten for me, ten for Ruto’ campaigns of 2013 – 2017.

Uhuru must find a formula for dismantling the goodwill that Ruto enjoys in the Mountain and across the country. In the end, he will have to manage the ‘kamata-kamata Friday arrests’ and the rest of the attrition in a manner that does not begin winning the intransigents, public sympathy.

The war against corruption, especially, could misfire, if persons like Waiguru have previously been seen to be ensconced in comfort around the president, despite lingering scandalous questions. There was the NYS scandal of the first Jubilee term, the Eurobond, several Afya House scandals and unanswered questions about the failed Galana-Kulalu irrigation experiment. Some touched on Waiguru, while others touched on other people, who are still cozy in government. More recent has been the Kemsa Covid-19 billionaires scandal that is now going cold. Meanwhile, the president will gain further mileage and credibility in this war by issuing the comprehensive statement that he promised a few weeks ago, on large offshore accounts with his family fingerprints, in the recent Pandora Papers.

On his part, Ruto has the challenge of sustaining his apparent lead. For, even the sword outwears its sheath, as Lord Byron famously said, ‘And the soul wears out the breast and the heart must pause to breathe, and love itself have rest.’ Raila has found it necessary to suspend his campaign forays into the countryside, to be resumed ‘later in November’. It is the burnout of the campaign logistics, the funds and most important of all, the personal good health, strength and stamina.

The two began the race way too early. They must get hot in the chest, and lean and shallow in the pocket. Whatever their sources of funding and allied campaign assets, props and gimmicks; they too get thin with time.  Indeed, President Kenyatta could wear out Ruto by subjecting him to an endless whirlwind of campaigns, supported from public coffers.  

The challenge has remained the unwillingness of OKA leaders to play along. They were expected to bring on board not just the ethnic numbers from their backyards, but also the physical energy that Raila cannot marshal on his own. It has taken only a few weeks of tempestuous tours across the country for him to make the maiden time call out, on account of a hot chest. The only way to contain Ruto here is to subject him to concurrent rallies across the country, by members of the upcoming Azimio la Umoja. Hopefully, OKA will surrender and join in.

Five different battalions holding daily rallies across the country could be difficult to match. Yet, this will also depend on the crowds the individuals could pull. Some have only had bonny crowds.  Their thinness has been disguised by close up TV images, that have zoomed in on the speakers, and shown little of the paltry attendance. Sending out individuals who can’t pull crowds could prove counterproductive. 

Meanwhile, time ticks on, anyway. Difficult decisions lie ahead for the big guns. Can President Uhuru successfully employ State-driven attrition to the very end, despite the inevitable lame duck phase that stares at him? People don’t listen to leaders whose tenures are in twilight. Uhuru has ten months left.

He is set to get weak by the day, based on global lame duck history. Could he eat humble pie and return to support a relentless Ruto? What of the OKA leaders? Will they get to the wire and risk dire outcomes, or will they rally behind either Ruto or Raila?

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