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Will Uhuru's big gamble on Raila pay off?

President Uhuru Kenyatta when he was received by ODM party leader Raila Odinga at Kisumu International Airport on May 30, 2021. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

President Uhuru Kenyatta has carried his political sacrifice beyond the political crossroads. On Friday, he declared his support for the Azimio la Umoja effort to make ODM leader, Raila Odinga, Kenya’s fifth president. That brings to an end any expectation that the president could ever mend fences with his estranged deputy and support Dr William Ruto’s bid. It also perches the president on the hinge of fate in what promises to be a bruising political dog fight from now to August 9, and probably beyond. It is not the size of the top dogs in the fight that will count, but the size of the fight in the dogs.  

By virtue of his office, the president becomes the de facto leader of the Azimio battalion. He brings to the contest vast experience as a tested and seasoned political field marshal. But he also comes with all the benefits of incumbency and state machinery, as well as vast personal financial resources. Kenya’s president has often been ranked by various authorities as one of the wealthiest persons in the world, to say nothing of a vastly rich family and associates. Put together with the Mt Kenya Foundation’s support, as well as other wealthy business groups, they promise their opponents a huge fight. 

 The deputy president is set to run under the aegis of the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) Party and the newly founded Kenya Kwanza coalition. The new union binds him together with Amani National Congress (ANC) leader, Musalia Mudavadi, and Ford Kenya’s Moses Wetang’ula, among others. Their hope centres mostly on public appeal, and especially to the massive lower classes that are expected to empathise with their Kenya First agenda. Its bottom up economic development philosophy is promising the great unwashed masses and other poor classes that they will take precedence in development planning and growth. 

The stage is now set for a blistering high stakes competition between a heavily funded Azimio and a Kenya Kwanza whose hope is built on sheer emotional appeal to the poor, symbolically represented by the UDA wheelbarrow emblem. Besides, one of President Uhuru’s closer loyalists, Woman MP Sabina Chege of Murang’a County, suggested in Vihiga County this week that nothing is off limits, including underhand methods to give her team victory. Her political seniors have yet to distance themselves from the sentiment. 

The president’s announcement before a 3,000-strong youth delegation at State House, Nairobi has not come as a surprise. Limping relations between Kenya’s two foremost state officers have deteriorated very steadily into awkward public outbursts of anger and exchanges of invective. They herald more hostile times ahead. Earlier in the week, the president lamented what he called early campaigns by his deputy whom, he said, should be working for those who elected him, instead of “campaigning from the top of motor vehicles.” Dr Ruto was swift on the uptake, reminding the president that they were elected on a common ticket, and that “sometimes work is done from the top of motor vehicles.” 

Then came the clincher, “When the man of riddles (Raila) had the opportunity to serve the country, you did not support him (hinting at the rebellion and sabotage that Uhuru, as deputy prime minister led among Party of National Unity (PNU)  MPs, against Raila as his boss in the grand coalition government under President Mwai Kibaki). Now that you know very well that he cannot serve the country, why do you support him? It cannot be that you think he can serve the country. You intend to use him as a stooge so that you can continue to exercise state power, even after your imminent retirement,” Ruto said at a public rally in Nyamira. 

Kenya finds herself in unique uncharted political waters. Never before in the history of the country has a sitting head of state and government openly endorsed an Opposition leader as his preferred successor. And never before has there been such a hostile free-for-all in the country’s political arena. In 2013, President Kibaki was believed to have had a soft spot for Mudavadi, then one of the two deputy party leaders in the Opposition ODM, alongside Ruto, who pressured Raila to split the position into two, so that he could share in that portfolio with Mudavadi. Both later abandoned Raila’s ODM, with Mudavadi running for President on the United Democratic Front (UDF) ticket, while Ruto supported Uhuru’s bid. It was speculated within political circles that UDF had been put together by State House functionaries, with President Kibaki’s blessings, as a special purpose vehicle to take Mudavadi to the House on the Hill. 

Unlike Uhuru, however, at no time did Kibaki come out to openly express support for Mudavadi. The presumed support was in the optics and official state body language. Mudavadi has himself denied any knowledge of such preference by the then retiring president, or anyone else close to him in 2013. He dismisses this as idle political chatter. He has written in his autobiography, Above the Storms of Passion, “The propaganda gained momentum after we took over UDF.” 

 Remarkably, however, President Moi made it very clear in 2002 that Uhuru was his chosen successor. Beyond that, Moi went out on the stumps and hustings, to forage for Uhuru on the Kanu ticket. Then a political greenhorn that was plucked straight from oblivion and thrust to the centre stage, Uhuru was a hard sale. Raila would recall the activities of that season in the words, “ The young Kenyatta was not known for his political expertise. He (had) stood for election to his father’s old Gatundu South parliamentary seat in 1997, losing miserably to the little-known Moses Mwihia and thereafter reportedly leaving politics altogether.” 

 Raila writes further in his autobiography, The Flame of Freedom, “The Moi family (and to a lesser extent the Kibaki family) also have wide ranging and extensive land and business holdings. Naturally, the rather opaque nature of many of these acquisitions needed protection. Moi looking ahead to the future of his family once he retired, no doubt saw his election and subsequent control of Uhuru Kenyatta as vital if they were all to protect everything they owned. And in any case, far better an agreement among fellows who understood each other than to countenance ceding control to the son of that firebrand fighter for the landless – Oginga Odinga!”

The passage of time has taken things full circle and if these suspicions ever existed as Raila states, they seem to have been resolved – perhaps understood as a misapprehension of the past. President Uhuru is not only endorsing Raila loudly and in public, he has also stated, “It is now time for us to close our offices and go out to campaign. They (Ruto and team) began early. Now they should prepare to face us. We are coming to the arena.”

It is a serious warning shot. Moreover, this shot lifts higher the lid on the openly antagonistic and hostile character that the campaign for State House is taking. This hostility, too, is unprecedented. While President Moi campaigned for Uhuru against Kibaki and the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) in 2002, the comportment on both sides remained fairly civil and restrained. Occasionally, an exceptionally overzealous political operative like Peter Odoyo (then NDP MP for Nyakach) may go overboard and get personal with the Kenyatta family and candidate Uhuru. Yet, there was overall no animus of the kind on display today. 

What could prompt the kind of vitriolic exchanges between the two leading political camps, and especially the president and his deputy? They have called each other hard to print names and employed unbelievable descriptors. What drives the negative energy among people who have previously teamed up together in what is now a complex labyrinth of political formations? In the 2002 race, for instance, Uhuru was on one side with Ruto and Mudavadi in Kanu, while Raila, Wetang’ula and Kalonzo Musyoka were on the same side in Narc, with Kibaki as their candidate. 

 In 2007 Ruto and Mudavadi were with Raila in ODM, while now Uhuru and Wetang’ula were together with Kibaki, under the umbrella PNU.  Come 2013, and Raila was now with Wetang’ula and Kalonzo in the Cord alliance. Mudavadi was alone, while Uhuru and Ruto had found one another yet again, in the TNA-URP formation. In 2017, Mudavadi joined Raila, Wetang’ula and Kalonzo, while Ruto remained with Uhuru. The unions have been so tangled.  In the language of the jungle, the political congresses are a succession of canine political celebrations in seasons of electoral fertility. The energies and motives that drive this political barter trade is the substance that academic theses are made of. Yet, the case of President Uhuru in the present season is particularly confounding. 

Ideally, a retiring incumbent would tend to focus on preparations for a smooth transition, now only six and a half months away. He would be slowing down on political activity and especially on generating or participating in toxic antagonisms. He would be monitoring the activities of his significant assignees and sundry appointees, closing files and preparing to hand them over to the next dispensation. He would be making friendly farewell trips across the country and on the international circuit. On another level, he would be securing his personal and family interests, regardless of who takes over from him. He would be on his most charming offensive at home and away. Clearly, President Uhuru has a different script. He has folded his sleeves, pulled up his stockings and is ready for a good fight. It is a furiously energised and resentful departing head of state that the country is set to see over the next six months. 

At one level, it is possible to read denial. The president could be in denial that power is constitutionally slipping away from him. He is keen to have a say in the next dispensation and he will bend backwards over to attain this. In 2019 he promised the country that he would have a say in his succession and that his choice would shock the country. That time is here. He has a candidate whom he is going flat out to campaign for. It has been suggested by a section of the Media that the head of State, as a partner with Odinga and his ODM Party, will decide who becomes Odinga’s running mate and, therefore, Kenya’s next deputy president. This nominee, if successful, will sit only a heartbeat away from the ultimate power. Besides, a Jubilee Party Parliamentary Group meeting in the ended week recommended that President Uhuru will remain the Jubilee Party Leader, even after he retires later this year. This, it is hoped, will give him some residual powers in the next regime. 

 Lessons from Nigeria, DRC and Angola indicate that hopes by retiring presidents to remain the powers behind the throne can be elusive. Once the new man is snugly ensconced in power, an overbearing former leader is consigned into the corner of frustrations. In order to even see the president, the retired president needs an appointment. He could even be ushered into the VVIP waiting room with a cup of tea and other niceties. President Jose Edwardo Dos Santos paved João Lourenço’s way to power in Angola in 2017, believing that the new man would be his stooge. He thought they would share power and that he would, in fact, be the real power behind the throne. Today, the reality is very different. The Dos Santos family is fighting to keep the wealth it accumulated over three-and-a-half decades of the family patriarch’s stay in power. They face a galore of corruption issues, at the behest of the man they believed was their project. Most of their time is spent in court corridors and in talking to lawyers.

 Elsewhere in Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan fell out badly with retired President Olusegun Obasanjo, after Obasanjo helped Jonathan to ascend to power following the demise of President Omar Yar’Ardua in 2010. In DRC, President Joseph Kabila sponsored Felix Tshisekedi’s rise to power. Once again, he thought he would be the real power wielder. Things have not worked out that way. There are numerous lessons across the world. It will be interesting to see how the Kenyan case turns out, in the event that Odinga becomes the president and President Uhuru and those around him want a share of the pie. 

Meanwhile the Kenya Kwanza team has been selling the stooge narrative, to discredit Raila. Regardless, Raila is on 26 February set to gain formal endorsement by the President’s Jubilee Party in what is also set to be the formal parting of ways between what is left of the Jubilee political family and their UDA counterparts.   Azimio la Umoja and Kenya Kwanza will then engage in the ultimate competition for political power. Whatever the permutations, Kenya will at the end of the year have a new President and Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces. How much influence the retiring president will have on his successor remains to be seen.

It is also noteworthy that President Uhuru has suggested that he cannot leave the country in the hands of his deputy. The law does not give a retiring president the choice to decide if he will hand over or not. President Uhuru is likely to wear a pleasant mien and turn up to hand over to whoever wins this year’s presidential race. Indications are that it will be either Raila or Ruto.  If it should be Ruto, it remains to be seen whether it will be a chaotic handover like the one between President Moi and Kibaki, or a decorous one like the one between Kibaki and Uhuru. A lot will depend on the next six months.