Uhuru Kenyatta: The odd one out, or simply extraordinary political operator?

President Uhuru Kenyatta with DP William Ruto (left) Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka at the KICC on October 1, 2014. [File, Standard]

When, on one Friday afternoon in 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta disclosed in Nyeri that his choice of a preferred successor "will shock many", some dismissed the sentiments as sheer politicking. But those well versed with his modus operandi were certain Uhuru was up to some wild and risky political undertaking.

And nearly four years later, since his roadside declaration on the second day of November, Uhuru has truly and firmly settled on ODM leader Raila Odinga as his preferred successor. The choice of the opposition chief and Uhuru's hitherto political nemesis is not only baffling but a hair-raising development that is clouded in a lot of intrigues.

Naturally, it was anticipated that Uhuru would front his deputy of two terms, Dr William Ruto, as his successor, or alternatively another senior politician from within the ruling Jubilee Party, in the event his differences with Ruto were irretrievable. The choice of Raila is not only a long shot but a move that has visibly slighted and irked Ruto, who is on record protesting, "isn't there a credible leader in our midst to warrant him (Uhuru) to hire someone else from the opposition to vie as our presidential candidate?"

Raila will be flying the Azimio One Kenya flag on August 9 in the race for State House while Ruto will be turning out for the United Democratic Alliance UDA).

Laid-back leadership

This, however, is not the first time Uhuru is embracing a contradictory political trajectory or done exactly the opposite of what is anticipated. Ahead of the 2007 General Election, for instance, Uhuru, then the Kanu party leader and Leader of Official Opposition in the 9th Parliament, made history when he dropped his presidential bid and supported Party of National Unity's Mwai Kibaki's re-election, instead. Before the unprecedented move, Uhuru was a fierce critic of the third President describing his laidback leadership style as "hands-off, eyes-off, ears-off, and everything off".

Terming Uhuru as an individual with a peculiar and extraordinary approach to politics, his longtime political confidant and friend, David Murathe confesses he always somehow proves his sKeptics wrong: "He is daring and thinks out of the box - always drifting into the unchartered waters. And he almost always turns out to be right, no matter how politically risky his moves are."

Besides separately teaming up with Kibaki and Raila under unlikely circumstances, Uhuru also entered into an unforeseen political marriage with Ruto in 2013 to form a government. Only five years earlier, members of Uhuru's and Ruto's Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities were consumed in a bloody ethnic war in the Rift Valley region, triggered by the highly disputed and discredited 2007 presidential election. Uhuru and Ruto were separately allied to Kibaki and Raila, who were the main combatants in this race.

And in an even bolder and unprecedented move while in office, Uhuru signed off his powers to Ruto in order to attend court sessions of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Trial Chamber judges over his alleged role in the 2007 post-election violence in his personal capacity.

Breath-taking move

And although the political risks of Uhuru's action were not well explained at the time, Kenyans were awed by the breath-taking move of momentarily surrendering power to another individual. Explaining the unusual action, Uhuru said he did not wish "to drag the sovereignty of Kenya (or) 40 million Kenyans" with him in the crimes against humanity case.

While Murathe attributes Uhuru's political contradictions to astuteness, Dr Henry Wabwire opines that some of his moves border on political recklessness: "His tendency to ignore the rather obvious options and instead walk paths less travelled by counterparts is bravery that is laudable. However, some are high-risk experiments that have stalled midway."

The political analyst singles out Uhuru's attempt in 2013 to surrender his presidential ambitions in favour of Musalia Mudavadi as one such "costly" move that backfired. Before consummating his political marriage with Ruto, Uhuru had inked a deal with the former Vice President to serve as the presidential candidate of an outfit he and Ruto had cobbled together. The gesture - albeit short-lived - was a political shocker to many, especially Uhuru's supporters who were infuriated by the move, considering that they believed he had more realistic chances of clinching the top seat.

Murathe maintains that Uhuru was very serious about the offer to his longtime friend who similarly sacrificed his political career in 2002 by supporting his presidential bid. Mudavadi, who was destined to be Uhuru's VP, lost his Sabatia parliamentary seat to newcomer Rev Moses Akaranga in the process, owing to an anti-Kanu wave that swept across the country.

Ideally, the Uhuru-Mudavadi deal was heavily resisted by members of his The National Alliance (TNA) and Ruto's United Republican Party (URP), who insisted that Uhuru must vie for the presidency. Uhuru's decision at the time was persuaded by two beliefs - that his case at the ICC would be an impediment to his presidential bid and that Kenyans were not enthusiastic to vote into power a third president from his Kikuyu community.

"Uhuru's explanations about his strong ties with Musalia and the fact that he was a reliable friend capable of safeguarding his interests fell on deaf ears. Uhuru's allies told him point-blank that this was no longer a matter about him, but rather one about the larger community of Mt Kenya region," recalls Murathe.

Uhuru, explains Murathe, was thus compelled to reverse his decision by Mt Kenya politicians, most of who wanted to ride on his fame to win back their seats in the upcoming polls. "I remember him trying to explain to the politicians that he had already committed himself to a deal with Musalia but his supporters would hear none of it," recalls Murathe on the saga christened "mademoni", with reference to Uhuru's observation that he could have initially been misled by demons to suspend his political ambitions.

But it is the handshake with Raila that shocked many. Apparently, neither the President's nor the former Prime Minister's allies were at ease with the arrangement. Uhuru's supporters were more skeptical about the symbolic handshake gesture, on March 9, 2018.

Owing to Raila's alleged past history of breaking up political parties, Ndaragwa MP, Jeremiah Kioni, confesses that they initially feared the newfound relations between their party leader and the Orange Democratic Movement's (ODM) counterpart would hurt Jubilee's political prospects.

Many in Raila's corner were similarly apprehensive, but as the National Assembly's Minority Whip, Junet Mohamed, puts it, "we were persuaded to soldier on by the very fact that Baba (Raila) was enthusiastic about it and we know he hardly gets it wrong and he means well for this country".

Bold move

He now lauds Uhuru for his bold move to reach out to Raila: "This was a very wise move aimed at fostering national unity. And as he exits from office, he leaves behind a harmonious country having promoted peace and unity countrywide through symbolic handshakes with Ruto and lately Raila," he told The Sunday Standard.

Dr Wabwire partly attributes Uhuru's milestones to strategic political positioning. The pundit considers the President's decision to back Raila's presidential bid, for instance, as hitting two birds with one stone - calming historical hostilities between the Kikuyu and Luo communities as well as securing a favourable slot for his community on the power-sharing table.

With respect to Uhuru's support for Kibaki in the 2007 poll, Dr Wabwire describes it as a strategic Kibaki succession ploy aimed at inheriting the Mt Kenya support base.

But Elgeyo Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen, considers Uhuru's support for Raila as an act of 'political greed', claiming he is seeking to extend his (Uhuru) own reign "by installing a puppet", a move he believes will flop courtesy of its "poor execution".

Soy MP Caleb Kositany, separately told The Sunday Standard that Uhuru's unique ways portrayed him as "either exceptional or a plainly reckless politician."

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