Uhuru's legacy at stake as he gets ready to exit stage

President Uhuru Kenyatta is facing an uphill task of managing his own political succession. [PSCU]

From a string of losses in parliamentary and civic-ward by-elections, including the latest two in Juja and Kiambaa constituencies in his political backyard of Central Kenya, to the dismissal of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), twice by the courts, President Uhuru Kenyatta is increasingly finding himself in a difficult position.

This state of affairs, coupled with ill-luck, paints a gloomy picture for Uhuru who is destined to exit from power in about 11 months. It is a scenario that pundits say could push him into the lame-duck phase of his presidency, pretty fast.

On Friday, the Court of Appeal dealt a blow to the BBI, birthed by the historic Handshake between Uhuru and ODM leader Raila Odinga on March 9, 2018. The seven appellate judges, just like their counterparts at the High Court, found the push to change the supreme law through the initiative unconstitutional, sending key players back to the drawing board.

“There is indeed a strong tide against President Kenyatta because over the last two years everything he has laid his hands on has collapsed or flopped. And unless he takes a break to audit his approach and style, I am afraid this streak of bad luck might stretch all the way to the ballot next year,” said Makueni Senator Mutula Kilonzo Jnr.

The trend of things, opines the Senate Minority Whip, is bound to cause political disfavour for Uhuru. Owing to the apparent political bad omen, Mutula warns that the president must quickly “do something to register some kind of win”, lest he is considered a political pariah.

With the BBI having slipped through his hands, Arthur Odera, a commentator on political affairs, observes that Uhuru now has a harder task of uniting the One Kenya Alliance (OKA) fraternity of Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi (ANC), and senators Gideon Moi (Kanu) and Moses Wetang'ula (Ford-Kenya) with his Handshake partner, Raila. The president has over the last two months been engrossed in uniting the five leaders, in what is perceived as a move to forge a formidable force to succeed him at State House.

And according to Odera, the president must also now “find a way to silence the toxic talking heads around Mudavadi and Kalonzo in order to get his succession plan on course”.

“He also has to claw back Mt Kenya, which means finding a sweetener, now that the proposed 70 constituencies – a fairly huge proportion of which were to be in his backyard – will not be happening,” says Odera, a former Teso North MP.

And while at it, Uhuru has to put up with political mockery of his fate, actions, and apparent failures. His principal assistant, Deputy President William Ruto, while celebrating Friday's Court of Appeal decision to throw out the BBI, unleashed stinging remarks, referring to Uhuru and his allies as “the coalition of the mighty, and the powerful” who were allegedly hell-bent to “destroy our Constitution”.

In a tweet, Ruto instead asked God to “help the alliance of the unknown, the jobless, the hustlers and struggling farmers to now engineer our economy from the bottom up.”

For Ruto and others who have all along viewed BBI as Uhuru’s political project, the president’s succession plot has now been thrown into disarray. Former Mukurweini MP Kabando wa Kabando, for instance, says Friday’s judgment has dealt a big blow “to Uhuru’s plot to install a member of a senior Kenyan family as president". The vocal politician claims Uhuru had strategically planned to do so “via a Raila stop-gap presidency”. 

Architect of own weaknesses

But is the president truly losing out or just playing along as a giant general on decline? Alternatively, is he an architect of his own perceived weaknesses, aimed at hoodwinking political rivals or playing the victim?

A senior politician from western Kenya, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting “my friend, Uhuru”, argues that the BBI may have been designed to end up the way it did – in the courts. The politician questions how the Government, with all the legal expertise at its disposal, including the Attorney General, could have made such glaring legal errors in the BBI process as pointed out by the High Court and Court of Appeal judges.

“My guess is that, while Raila was committed to BBI as an article of faith, Uhuru has not been for it, but did not know how to pull out of it without upsetting Raila. Therefore, the outcome at the Court of Appeal is not entirely disappointing to Uhuru,” he argues.

The politician opines that the president has simply been keen on retention of the status quo: “He was buying time to end his term peacefully and the end-game will unravel in due course.”

While conceding the latest development has “partially affected” the president’s legacy, Nyeri Town MP Wambugu Ngunjiri equally claims all is well with Uhuru.

“He had a very good plan for this country, including expanding democratic space and introducing inclusivity in governance, but the judges just overturned all that,” says Ngunjiri.

In fact, according to him, the court's decision on the BBI hurts Ruto more than it does Uhuru. He argues that when the president finally takes his end of duty tour, shortly before next year’s General Election, he will have a better opportunity to de-campaign his deputy.

“He will tell Kenyans, and in particular the people of Mt Kenya region, that he did his best to give them more constituencies and allocate them more money to county governments, but that his deputy did everything to fight the move,” says Ngunjiri.

Nonetheless, Uhuru is facing an uphill task of managing his own political succession, more so after the collapse of the BBI process, which he has politically nurtured for four years alongside ODM. He has essentially lost control of the constitutional reform to Parliament, which can amend what it can and how it wishes to.

Mixed signals

Over the last two years, the president has been sending mixed signals over the choice of his preferred successor. And while he lately appears to be leaning towards Raila – if the endorsement of Uhuru’s political allies and business associates is anything to go by – he reportedly continues to warm up to other political leaders, especially the Mudavadi and Kalonzo.

An insider allied to one of the two OKA leaders confided to The Sunday Standard that the president had already “assured our man” that he was the anointed one for the top seat. The official was however puzzled by Uhuru’s apparent dalliance with the former premier – a fact he says had caused confusion and anxiety in his party.

“Uhuru meets my party leader quite often, courtesy of the president’s friends and business associates. However, we are no longer sure of the kind of cards Uhuru is playing in his succession plan,” says the source.

The president has in recent days continued his charm offensive on the OKA leaders. Last weekend, for instance, Kieni MP Kanini Kega joined the leaders and parliamentarians from ANC, Wiper, Kanu and Ford-Kenya during their retreat at the Great Rift Valley Lodge in Naivasha.

Although he technically skipped the press conference at the end of the retreat, Kega, who is a close ally of the president, actively participated in the sessions. The MP reportedly told his audience that Mt Kenya region was keen on working with a “friendlier and more acceptable politician”.

The president’s net also casts beyond the now fractured National Super Alliance (Nasa) fraternity. Within his Mt Kenya backyard, the role and impact of National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi’s presidential bid remains unclear.

While pundits claim Muturi is Uhuru’s “blue-eyed boy”, who is being positioned for the slot of running mate to the president’s preferred successor, the speaker maintains he is his own man who is independently seeking the top seat.  

As the clock ticks down to next year’s polls, Uhuru remains trapped in the succession battle, with his allies nationally and within Jubilee Party waiting in the wings for his nod or support.

However, the current spate of Uhuru’s ill-luck on the political scene does not augur well for his succession plot. In fact, there are fears the president could lose a firm hold on his political party and even get shunned by allies.