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Uhuru’s triple headache: Pandemic, economy and 2022 succession wars

THE STANDARD INSIDER
By Special Correspondent | April 19th 2020

President Uhuru Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto and Raila Odinga at a past event. Having failed to take advantage of coronavirus to slow down toxic political competition between ODM and Tangatanga, the President must now brace himself up for a difficult and even lonely, final phase of his ten-year presidency. [File]

The 2022 succession politics have fixed President Uhuru Kenyatta terribly between the Tangatanga rock and the ODM hard place. Uhuru is steadily becoming a pawn in the ugly rivalry between his Deputy William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga. As the antagonism runs out of hand, the President is soaking in both political pressure and taking body blows. 

The failure of the Kieleweke wing of Jubilee Party to change the leadership of Jubilee’s National Management Committee (NMC) in the ended week is only the latest setback for him. The Standard (12 April) indicated that the attempted change was going to be most difficult to meet. This is regardless that the party follows the legal path, or an extra-legal avenue, as has been tried. Many more awkward challenges lie ahead for the president. His political gamesmanship has its greatest test in store, amid a complex web of social and economic challenges.

ODM has been eagerly and irritably pushing for a constitutional referendum before the end of the year. It keenly desires to change the architecture of the Executive, to pave way for its leaders to get a share in political power. The onus rests largely, but not exclusively, with President Kenyatta. According to Siaya Senator, James Orengo of ODM, the much desired referendum is about the politics of 2022. 

Orengo has been quoted in sections of the media as threatening to return the ODM radical wing into the streets, “if the country does not hold a referendum to pave the way for a Raila presidency in 2022.” He said on a radio station that broadcasts in his native Luo language that they “will not allow President Uhuru to play games with Raila.” Accordingly, “there must be a referendum, soon after the corona affair cools down.”

The storms have been gathering ever since Uhuru, on March 9, 2018, reached a truce with the ODM leader, in the wake of the controversial presidential election of 2017. Neither the president nor Raila appear to have consulted their troops ahead of the handshake of that day. Ruto has, however, claimed in public that he was always in the know. Sources close to the three leaders indicate otherwise. Only the two people in the handshake, and very close members of their families, knew what was happening. They are also the only ones who could know what agreements were reached, and the promises made.

Bending backwards

The handshake and the birth of the subsequent Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), threw the president and his deputy on a coalition course that is now turning nasty. The gloves are off. It is now an unprecedented bare knuckle fist fight – the first in Kenya between the president and his deputy. The struggle is already noisy and messy, and yet promising to be long drawn out. This contest also casts the president and the Kieleweke wing of Jubilee Party in the same corner with Raila and ODM. Yet, even as their red corner is bending backwards over to chop off the deputy president’s wings, Raila and ODM are impatient with the president. They are unhappy with the pace of things. 

The advent of the coronavirus in Kenya last month bought some breathing space for Uhuru. The president lives in intricate space. He must balance between taking full control of his party, while also keeping ODM happy and in check. Coronavirus brought him an escape passage that he, however, lost the opportunity to use. It was easily the best chance for him to place toxic politics in indefinite suspension, while significant national energies and resources were directed into the war against the virus. The president would, however, appear to have gone a bridge too far in the succession games of 2022, even with the possibility of seeing himself as part of the new formations in 2022. This could be what has hamstrung him. 

Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli, is one of the main schemers for ODM and Kieleweke in the 2022 dynamics. Together with Jubilee politician and former Gatanga MP David Murathe, they are some of Ruto’s most ardent critics. The two, who have vowed to stop Ruto by all means, have recently held a meeting with Raila and several others at Atwoli’s residence in Kajiado, to discuss succession issues. It is instructive that the travel ban from Nairobi Metropolitan Area to the outside and back was lifted to facilitate the meeting. Also suspended in their favour was the social distancing regulation in this coronavirus season.

Atwoli later told journalists that they had met “to celebrate Easter and fellowship together.” It will be remembered that the government has banned all gatherings and celebrations of that kind. That this has gone on without raising any concern is a mark of the presidential blessings that the meeting must have had. Murathe was more forthright in his comments on the meeting. They met to talk about future governance of the country in 2022, he said. He suggested that a government of national unity (GNU) in the immediate post-corona season would be a good idea.

It is this thought that has needled matters in Jubilee afresh, with ODM getting even more restless, on the other hand. The ODM leader and his troops would like to see Ruto annihilated politically ahead of 2022. If possible, they would like to get into the innermost sanctums of power before 2022. They can then go on to use the benefit of that opportunity to pave the way to the apex in 2022. Orengo is, accordingly, only the sounding board for ODM’s inner party conversations. They want a piece of the pie today, now. Yet the removal of the deputy president is far easier said than done. 

Regardless that they try to impeach Ruto, or that they try to expel him from the Jubilee Party, they will find the road at once steep, rocky and full of thorns. The Deputy President is barricaded behind a bulwark of constitutional and statutory protections. They make it almost impossible to remove him ahead of 2022. The Standard (12 April) discussed the challenges to attempts to remove Ruto through the party. It is coming to pass. 

In the coming months, the country is likely to witness a frustrated Deputy President who holds a big office without much work. Yet he will also likely to be one who cannot be dislodged. Kenyans are also going to see an ODM political opposition that is eager to get a share of the existing State power, but with all entries solidly sealed. Ruto has demonstrated that he has the numbers both in Parliament and in the party to blockade the president and Raila indefinitely. On the other hand, Kenyans will also see a president who is increasingly under sustained pressure from and impatient ODM, to pave the way for them to reach their higher political goals. 

It is the advent of a trickiest political season for President Uhuru. Having failed to take advantage of coronavirus to slow down toxic political competition between ODM and Tangatanga, the president must now brace himself up for a difficult, and even lonely, final phase of his ten-year presidency. Apart from the politics, he has a rickety national economy to address. Coronavirus has shaken the very foundations of the tax base in the country. Enterprises are working way below their capacity. Returns in the taxable sectors are scanty and the tax collection  labour force thin – due to social distancing requirements. 

President Uhuru is also the leader of a hungry population that could turn angry anytime. Close to 90 per cent of the population lives from hand-to-mouth. In the progressive closedown that the country is undergoing, this population is challenged for very basic survival. The president must balance between ensuring that this massive demographic is fed and relatively calm. If it is not fed, it will become a time bomb. It constitutes just the kind of angry population that ODM needs, if it should make real its threat to return to the streets. The president might be forced to use the club as an instrument of dialogue with the angry riotous Kenyans, with hard to tell consequences. 

There is worse news for President Uhuru. This week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) projected that the worst of coronavirus is yet to hit Africa. An estimate of 300,000 people could die of Covid-19 in the coming months, as the bug begins spreading its tentacles in Africa. At the time of this writing, there were less than 20,000 positive cases across the continent, with just above 1,000 deaths. WHO thinks that the cases have been under reported, due to inadequate testing facilities on the continent.

It is also possible that, as in all things global, Africa has lagged behind in contagion. With not so much traveling out of their continent among most ordinary Africans, the bug has been slow in getting to her people. It is, however, projected to begin spreading in earnest anytime now, owing largely to poor response to the social guidelines that have been given. If this thing will escalate in Kenya, it is likely to be in the period June to August and September. President Uhuru and his government need to be almost exclusively focused on anticipating this possibility and mitigating against it, in healthcare and on the social and economic fronts. 

Unfortunately for the president, if he ignores the politics, ODM will intensify accusations against him for “playing them up,” as Orengo says. And to demonstrate that he is not playing them up, he must be seen to be doing everything to remove his deputy from the mainstream of politics. Meanwhile the deputy president will not take it lying down. He is already daring his detractors to bring on the fight, knowing rather well that it is going to mess up many other people – and especially the president. When matters have deteriorated to the extent that they have done in Jubilee, the DP has little appetite to see the government succeed in anything that it touches. His only interest is to keep his troops intact. In point of fact, he cherishes the president’s agonies and discomfitures. 

*****

The fight between Odinga and Ruto is an old one. Ironically, much of it centres around Ruto’s political support for Uhuru, whom Raila has not loved that much, politically. In his autobiography, The Flame of Freedom, Raila has few kind words for Ruto, the late President Moi and his son Gideon Moi. Tracing his competition back to the Moi succession in 2002, Raila singles out Ruto as one person who has been a thorn in his flesh, right from the time he (Raila) began nursing presidential ambitions in the 1990s.

At page 673 of the biography, Raila recalls how on 28 June 2002 they jointly, with President Moi, hosted a dinner for the business community and diplomats in Kenya. This came in the wake of the merger between Kanu and Raila’s National Development Party (NDP), with Raila now as Secretary General of Kanu. The objective was to help the audience to understand the way ahead of the period that was then Moi’s imminent retirement from politics. Moi was serving his last few months, under the presidential limit clause of the constitution. Raila recalls further that the next day they carried the message to a public rally in Nairobi’s Kamkunji. He remembers, “Moi, whom the crowd welcomed cautiously, told the people he would soon make clear who his successor should be . . . many people were of the opinion that the chosen one might be me.”

Shortly afterwards, however, he got wind of the fact that Moi had only “used me to shore up his fading party” and that he planned “to dump me.” For his part, he says, “It was necessary to break Kanu from within.” Amidst the rising tension in the party, he says, “Ruto, together with Julius Sunkuli, MP for Kilgoris . . . was enthusiastically touring every part of Rift Valley and Central provinces, promoting Uhuru for the job.” (page 674)

Updated on the activities

He blames Ruto for accelerating the rise of Uhuru, once Moi settled on him, saying, at page 668, “The young Kenyatta was not known for his political experience. He had stood for election to his father’s Gatundu (South) . . . in 1997, losing miserably to the little-known Moses Mwihia. . . Moi had other plans. Several of his close confidants, presumably wary of my growing influence, clearly wanted to ensure that I was stopped in my tracks – and they decided that Uhuru was the man to do it. The would-be politician’s main sponsors were William Ruto, who had come to prominence as treasurer of the movement (called) Youth for Kanu ’92 . . . Moi’s close friend and aide, Joshua Kulei, Hosea Kiplagat ….”

Elsewhere (page 672) he accuses Ruto of trying to control him after he became New Kanu’s Secretary General in March 2002. “Determined to keep me under control, he (Ruto) had visited (Kanu headquarters) and instructed Gichumbi (party CEO) who would have which office.

He also made it clear to Gichumbi that, regardless of my election, he and Kenyatta would be the real masters of Kanu headquarters.” Gichumbi was however loyal to him, he says, “and he kept me permanently updated on the activities of Messrs Ruto and Kenyatta.”

Not even when they were together in ODM (first as a pressure group and later a political party) in 2005 – 2013, was there a sufficient fund of trust. Raila’s biography begins with the observation (pages 2 and 3) that Ruto was “a notable absentee” from the launch of his presidential bid in 2007, alongside Kalonzo Musyoka. Kalonzo was also a member of the ODM-Kenya Party and a presidential hopeful. Raila does not place any value judgment to their absence, however. Nonetheless, there would develop progressive animus between Raila and Ruto, throughout the rest of their political careers, this far.

It is into this animus that President Uhuru has sucked himself, possibly with the thought that he could also be part of the future political formations.

Atwoli keeps telling Kenyans that “Uhuru is too young to retire from politics.” Regardless of whether he intends to continue with the game or not, Uhuru’s game so far has placed him neatly in the spiderweb of the Raila-Ruto contestations. It is anybody’s guess where this will end up.

One last observation from Raila’s autobiography is however worth reflecting upon. He says of his decision to work with Moi in 1998 – 2002, “They were not aware that I rarely do anything without being thoroughly convinced of my own plans ahead of time. (page 673). The plan was to “continue my battle (against Kanu and Moi) from within . . . and to make the NDP/Kanu merger Moi’s waterloo (page 670) and “to break Kanu from within.” (page 674). 

President Uhuru should perhaps not send to ask for whom the bells toll. They are tolling for him, as he shifts between the rock and the hard place. 

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