The two years to the end of his presidency are turning into the most powerful period of his term as he takes Centre stage in succession battles.
Two years to his retirement, one would have expected President Uhuru Kenyatta (pictured) to be entering a lame-duck phase. Instead, his political moves are in overdrive and he is not short of allies to do his bidding, especially when it comes to clipping the influence of his deputy William Ruto.
As Kenyatta negotiates the last corner of his two terms, he has confounded both friends and foes, gaining traction with nearly all political leaders across the divide who are falling over themselves to cut a deal with him.
In ordinary circumstances, many presidents leaving office are usually lame ducks, with competing interests in political circles overshadowing their roles in succession battles. But for Kenyatta, whose track record has been an intense subject of debate, his final years in office seems to have handed him fresh impetus, with those angling to succeed him valuing his endorsement.
Unlike his predecessor President Mwai Kibaki who took a back seat as succession politics unravelled in his final term, Kenyatta is in the thick of it and has cleverly unleashed his crude side, dealing with rebels in his party head-on and not hiding the fact that he will have a role in who takes over the mantle after he retires.
Working to take back control of the ruling party from the Tangatanga wing allied to Ruto, the president has turned to opposition parties to help him crush the dissidents through a purge in the Senate and National Assembly.
As a result of his rejuvenated push, rebels or MPs loyal to his deputy are shifting allegiance, with new alliances being formed.
Apart from dealing with his in-house problems, Kenyatta has also managed to strike a working relationship with opposition leaders by building on the much talked about handshake he had with ODM leader Raila Odinga.
He has brought on board Kanu Chairman and Baringo Senator Gideon Moi, Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka, Ford Kenya’s Moses Wetang’ula and Chama Cha Mashinani’s Isaac Ruto.
The end result has seen him bolster numbers in both Houses, and his ruling party is in the process of reorganising parliamentary committees in tandem with his agenda.
But why is the president, under whose leadership the nation’s debt has risen to worrying levels and in an economy whose recession has been hastened by the coronavirus pandemic, now getting so much attention from quarters that were previously throwing barbs just a few years ago?
Even his embattled deputy has avoided directly taking on his boss despite the ongoing purge of his lieutenants.
Jostle for approval
Ruto would likely want to finish the rest of Kenyatta’s term with him, even as his probable competitors jostle for the president’s approval. But just how did the president turn the tide against his critics?
New Senate Chief Whip Irungu Kang’ata says the president’s government had performed exceptionally well, which is why he is drawing interest from the opposition.
“Uhuru has done more in Mt Kenya than the other three president combined. Look at my home area of Kiharu where new tarmac roads have been built in Maragua-Mugoiri wa Tiri and to Gaturi, Maragi and Gathuru markets, not to mention vast rural electrification and cash transfers for the elderly,” said Kang’ata.
At a Sagana River State Lodge meeting for Mt Kenya leaders last year, the president sent an impassioned plea to the over 3,000 leaders present not to “bury me alive”.
In Kikuyu parlance, burying one alive means children dispossessing their father before his death. Or writing off a father figure before his demise. It is taboo and sets up the culprit for a curse. It probably explains why it is still very difficult to get interviews from his community that would contradict the narrative on performance.
But while the president was last November pleading with his backyard to support his legacy, things have since turned around and his critics have discovered he is still a formidable politician. ?
Amukowa Anangwe, a President Daniel arap Moi-era minister who now teaches political science at the University of Dodoma in Tanzania, said there is no magic portion that Kenyatta has employed – he has only fully exploited the benefit of incumbency to bring his presence to bear on the political situation.
“Those who took him for granted, including Ruto and his surrogates, had underestimated what an African president can do to deal with his political opponents, legally or otherwise. The presumed Ruto numbers in Mt Kenya have dissipated and his cronies have been cowed to the bone,” said Anangwe.
Former MP Koigi wa Wamwere – who was detained by both the President Jomo Kenyatta and Moi governments – said there is every indication that Uhuru may not be retiring from politics “any time soon” going by his rejuvenated political life.
Koigi, who has witnessed the country’s three power transitions, said the president’s actions in the last few months lend credence to claims by some of his close allies that “he is too young to retire”.
“From what we are seeing, it is my opinion that Uhuru is not ready to retire from active politics. How do you explain that a president who has just two years in office is building new political alliances, crushing divergent opinions and becoming bolder? These are signs that Uhuru is not going anywhere,” said the former Subukia MP.
He claimed that the president had realised that he has little time to achieve any meaningful change to cement his legacy and that is why “he is busy trying to bring on board even those who have opposed him to try and salvage whatever little is remaining”.
“I will believe that Uhuru is going to leave office once I see him go. But from whatever is happening, it is clear that he has to dictate his succession so that his interests and those of his family are protected. You see him wanting to control all institutions, from the National Assembly to the Senate,” said Koigi.
He added that another factor that would see the president want to participate in his succession was his age, saying that while the other heads of State have retired at advanced ages, Kenyatta is still energetic.
“But I still hold that if Uhuru was on his way out, he would not bother too much with what will happen after 2022; his renewed vigour can only point to a direction that he still wants to continue pulling strings,” said the former MP.
He added that while governments across the world were busy putting up measures to fight Covid-19, it was “disturbing” that the president was getting involved in political games.
“If I were him, I would put my best foot forward to fight this pandemic in the most powerful way and cement my legacy. He has an opportunity to salvage his legacy, but what is he doing? He is busy talking about BBI and referendum when the lives of people are endangered,” Koigi said.
“Why are presidents across the world prioritising the fight against coronavirus when ours is busy preparing for his succession? He is forming alliances, not realising that the health of Kenyans is at risk.”