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Uhuru poised for Nyerere role and why it’s foolhardy to be dismissive

By Kamau Ngotho | Dec 12th 2021 | 6 min read

Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere at Port Reitz Airport when the Tanzanian leader called for a top-level discussion, April 1975. [File, Standard]

Unless his exit date is postponed by a possible run-off and maybe a successful court petition after next year’s presidential poll, today is the last Jamhuri Day commemoration to be presided over by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Question is; what next for a president who retires at relative young age of 61? First, President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died in office at ripe age of 89, while Presidents Daniel Moi and Mwai Kibaki called it a day at advanced ages of 78 and 82, respectively.

Reliable sources disclose that in retirement, President Uhuru is set to play a role similar to that of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere who retired as Tanzanian president in 1985 at the age of 63, but stayed very much relevant as leader of the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).

He remained influential in the 14 years of retirement to his death in 1999. In death, he is still relevant in that his party, CCM, is going into the fourth decade in power after he quit the stage. On Thursday, President Uhuru was CCM and State chief guest at the 60th anniversary of Tanzania’s independence.

A strong pointer on the place of Uhuru in retirement came with Friday’s unveiling of Azimio La Umoja (Unity Declaration), which was the launching pad for the Raila Odinga candidacy in the 2022 presidential race.

Kenya’s Azimio is fashioned on Tanzania’s Azimio La Arusha (Arusha Declaration) unveiled by President Nyerere in 1967. Azimio La Umoja has already been reserved as the name of the umbrella coalition of like-minded political parties supporting Raila candidature.   

Insider sources disclose Uhuru is set to be crowned national leader of the Azimio grand coalition and chair of its summit made up of leaders of the respective parties of the coalition, with Raila as his deputy.

An Uhuru chairmanship of the Azimio coalition will be a multiple score. Foremost, it means he won’t be a lame-duck player in the race for his succession. More than once, he has publicly stated he will have a say on who succeeds him, and will do so when the right time comes.

Two, his chairmanship of Azimio coalition puts him in the best position to re-build his own Jubilee house after the fallout with his deputy, William Ruto. Three, heading the coalition that aims to produce the next president removes the orphan-tag in his Mount Kenya backyard. The region has been a stomping ground for all presidential candidates on the assumption that it will be leaderless on Uhuru’s exit from State House.

The obvious major casualty and loser in the event of Uhuru playing active role in his succession and remaining relevant in retirement is Ruto. The DP has staked his presidential bid on inheriting his vote in Mount Kenya and its Diaspora, which is why in the last three years, he has literally pitched tent there.

Presidential vote patterns in 2013 and 2017 indicate that for DP to win in 2022, he must overwhelmingly run away with what was Uhuru’s vote. The figures speak out.

In 2017, Uhuru strongholds in 12 counties of Mount Kenya and its Diaspora had 7,005,808 registered voters compared to 1,921,703 voters in Ruto stronghold of seven counties in the Rift. Statistically, it means for every 10 votes that came from their respective backyards – that is before topping the basket from outliers – seven came from Uhuru backyard.

So much for 2022 politics: Now, I tell you about personal encounters with Uhuru and the impressions formed                

Political animal                                            

In his column in the countdown to 2013 presidential election, New York-based Prof Makau Mutua remarked: “There’s nothing that shows Mr (Uhuru) Kenyatta lives in a thoughtless utopia. He’s a cold, calculating political animal. He knows what will – and won’t – fly.”

I noted that side of Uhuru Kenyatta back in 1993 long before he made public his political ambitions. I was an editor with People Weekly, the precursor to People Daily. I was chatting with then Kigumo MP, J B Mwaura, at the Pizza Garden in Westlands, seated at the smoking-zone (though I don’t smoke) when Uhuru, who was with friends at the other end, came for a quick puff.

He looked just like another lanky young man you couldn’t pick out in the streets unless somebody told you his surname. He saw the MP and pulled a seat, and right away got into political talk. The country had just come out of its first multi-party elections and Opposition was disunited.

At the time, the young man was in Opposition and from his body language, you could tell he was concerned. “We’re really in a limbo!” he said as he rose to go. 

Stealth operator

Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli has previously commented that Uhuru Kenyatta is a discreet operator who unveils his game plan at the tail end of things. He explained that is how Uhuru manages to ambush and outsmart even the most formidable of his political foes.

I can testify to that on account of encounters that made me know that big wigs and assumed close confidants of President Moi didn’t see Uhuru coming to Kanu to turn the tables on them. I first got that impression while having coffee at the poolside of Mayfair Hotel with Hosea Kiplagat, a member of the Moi Kitchen Cabinet.

As Uhuru walked in, the Moi-era honcho hid his face and the young man passed by. When I asked why, he gave a stunning answer: “Some people have misled Mzee into bringing the young man (Uhuru) to Kanu. He won’t add any value. His family and community are solidly Opposition!”

Months later, I was waiting to see Kanu Secretary-General JJ Kamotho at Jogoo House when again Uhuru walked in accompanied by my friend David Kigochi, who is today the chair of the Farmers Party. To my surprise, I was first to be called in to see the big man, JJ. Even more surprising, JJ had all the time for me and to attend to his telephone calls as Uhuru waited!

Later over a drink with JJ’s personal assistant, one Johnson Gakungu, I asked him why the cold shoulder to Uhuru by his boss. “What is the big deal? Uhuru is just another Kanu branch chair among 40-something others. He can wait!” To cut a long story short, JJ and the whole Kanu hierarchy up to then-Vice President George Saitoti would discover too late in the day that Uhuru was, after all, not small potatoes as he had misled them to believe!  

Come-back kid

Like former US President Bill Clinton, who was nick-named the come-back kid because of his knack to return with a bang just when everybody had written him off, Uhuru has a similar streak.

A month or so to 2002 election when he made his first stab at presidency, everybody could tell his was a lost cause. A colleague and I happened to meet him at his Jogoo House office when he was Minister for Local Government.

The meeting had been arranged by his personal assistant, one Geoffrey Gachagua, who has since re-invented himself as Rigathi Gachagua and possible deputy president in a supposed “hustler” nation.

At the end of the interview, Uhuru asked us to give him our honest opinion on how the ground was. We were very honest with him. After a deep, long puff, he replied: “If Mwai Kibaki wins now, don’t forget he gave it his first shot 10 years ago. Who knows what happens 10 years from now!”  Do I say?

Postscript: This week, I asked a Jubilee insider whether there is intention to hold the party national delegates’ convention before the year ends. “You know the president is a good Catholic. He wants to celebrate Christmas at peace with everybody. Political fireworks commence in January.” Keep reading.

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