Kenya: Can Kenyatta control his final 9 months in power?

By Son Gatitu, in Nairobi

Posted on Friday, 5 November 2021 18:57
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks during the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Monday Nov. 1, 2021. The U.N. climate summit in Glasgow gathers leaders from around the world, in Scotland's biggest city, to lay out their vision for addressing the common challenge of global warming. (Yves Herman/Pool via AP)/LBJ478/21305617751818/82397292/2111011815

On 9 November, Kenya will be nine months away from its presidential elections. Can President Uhuru Kenyatta shape the legacy he wants, or will he be dragged into bitter succession politics?

A foreigner visiting Kenya on 20 October 2021, who happened to switch on a TV set featuring the ‘Mashujaa Day’ celebrations, would be forgiven for thinking that Kenya is a model democracy with political leaders who treat each other with decorum, despite differences of opinion.

Mashujaa is a Swahili word meaning ‘heroes’ and every year, Kenyans celebrate independence- and modern-day heroes. This year’s fete was held at the new Wang’uru Stadium in Kirinyaga County within the Mount Kenya region.

On that day, President Kenyatta sat next to his deputy William Ruto, smiling and nodding, as though the last 18 months have not been wracked by increasingly tense relations.

In his speech, Ruto even cited the achievements of his boss. “We celebrate you as our leader. The last nine years [have] seen unprecedented transformation in our country, from [the] standard gauge railway to tarmac roads, electricity connection, your place in the history of Kenya is not only secure, but it is prominent.”

This may have come as a surprise for those who have witnessed Ruto disparage Kenyatta and his new-found ally, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. “I want to give you our assurance, myself and my competitors here, that we will build on the legacy that you have set and we will ensure that nothing that you will leave behind is left incomplete,” Ruto said.

But don’t be fooled, says Javas Bigambo, a lawyer at Interthoughts Consulting in Nairobi. “The two men (Kenyatta and Ruto) have no genuine respect for each other as of now, and only protected offices keep them shoulder-to-shoulder against their individual will.”

Defining a legacy

According to Bigambo, ‘Mashujaa Day’ was more of a pitch session for Kenyatta and those seeking to succeed him. He says the president wants to hammer down a legacy, and this includes his successor, thus, he used the ‘Mashujaa Day’ to try and shape the narrative.

When he stood at the podium, Kenyatta listed his administration’s initiatives, such as the revitalisation of the Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), a government-owned entity that procures livestock from farmers for meat processing.

KMC is currently under the management of the military, of which Kenyatta said has transformed from paying livestock farmers KSh52m between April and September of 2020, to a payment of KSh643m within the same period in 2021.

Beyond the veneer of what he enumerated as successes, there are myriad [of] challenges, and failures too […].

Kenyatta also lauded the government’s efforts in raising the value of Kenyan agricultural products, such as tea, coffee and rice, which according to him have yielded better returns for farmers during his tenure as president.

“On account of the reform measures implemented by my administration, the price of Kenyan tea has increased by 42% in the last one year alone,” he said. “The minimum auction price of tea is now $3 per Kg, the highest price on record in the last five years.”

Kenyatta’s attempt to list his successes is in no doubt a way of driving his own succession agenda, says Bigambo, who believes Kenyatta is starting to push for preferred candidates at various levels of government.

Kenyatta’s other claims as successes of his government include:

  • The 600km standard gauge railway from Mombasa to Nairobi
  • The 27km Nairobi Expressway, and other roadworks
  • The change to a ‘Competence Based Curriculum’ in schools
  • The successful lobbying to gain a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council
  • The expansion of the electricity grid to 70% of the population

Conflicting appraisal

However, Bigambo finds Kenyatta’s self-appraisal rose tinted. “[It ignores] the bad governance,” he says. “Beyond the veneer of what he enumerated as successes, there are myriad [of] challenges, and failures too, that must never go unmentioned.”

The Kenyatta administration has been accused of runaway corruption, and unchecked public debt. The president himself is on record claiming that on average, KSh2bn gets lost to corruption every day.

In 2016, Philip Kinisu, then Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) boss, said the Kenyan government was losing a third of its budget to corruption. Various audit reports by Kenya’s auditor general have also indicted different government agencies and departments of misappropriation of funds.

Several cabinet secretaries and ministerial accounting officers, who served under President Kenyatta, have also been accused of corruption, and some charged. For instance, Hassan Wario, a former cabinet secretary in charge of sports, was recently convicted and fined KSh3.6m in a case involving the Rio Olympics Kenyan delegation. Another former CS, Henry Rotich (National Treasury), is facing corruption charges over a dam project.

War of words

There are also those who point to unmet pre-election promises that were made during the 2013 and 2017 contests.

Ruto, for example, blames the association between Kenyatta and Raila, which has taken centre stage since March 2018, for some of these missed opportunities. “We are competing against very troublesome people…,” he said.

Someone wakes up in the morning and all they do is tell stories, then that person moves from one place to another still giving stories, what time will that person work?

“We have lost four years of Jubilee’s second term in a constitutional-change drive to award more seats and power for political leaders,” Ruto told a campaign gathering in Mombasa on 17 October.

The deputy president remains a frontrunner in the Kenyatta succession race alongside Raila. Others keen on beating Ruto include former vice presidents Musalia Mudavadi and Kalonzo Musyoka.

Ruto has been campaigning for the presidency using a bottom-up economic model that has gained momentum under the ‘hustlers movement’, which has forced opponents to seek alternative narratives to counter his influence. In his approach, the deputy president has sought to capture the imagination of millions of Kenyans whose livelihoods are pegged on odd jobs in the informal sector.

Ruto’s campaign has not gone down well with the president. Just two days before the event, Kenyatta had been inspecting projects in Kirinyaga and warning the masses against Ruto and his policies.

“Someone wakes up in the morning and all they do is tell stories, then that person moves from one place to another still giving stories, what time will that person work?” Kenyatta told crowds in Kikuyu, his local language. “The person seems to be moving around inciting people…”

Careful not to be cited as directly meddling in the succession politics, Kenyatta subtly backed Raila’s presidential bid. “There’s a visitor who passed here, I don’t know if you saw him, decide for yourselves…,” the president said. Raila had been on a tour of parts of the Mount Kenya region.

Raila’s positioning as ‘friend to the Kikuyu’

Back at the Kirinyaga podium, Raila took the crowd down memory lane, hailing former President Mwai Kibaki as his hero. “When I said ‘Kibaki Tosha’ (Kibaki is fit) they said Raila is finished politically… Luos voted for Kibaki by over 95%, […] we campaigned for Mwai Kibaki.” A cautious Raila was endearing himself to the Mount Kenya voters. “Raila Odinga is a friend of the mountain and has been able to climb the mountain.”

Raila was instrumental in crafting the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), which propelled Kibaki, who is from the Mount Kenya region, to the presidency in a landslide victory in 2002. Raila has been building a coalition of parties – business communities and ethnic point men – in what he hopes can be a repeat of the 2002 phenomenon.

If he (Kenyatta) deviates and gets into the succession (politics), people are likely not to see those good things he has done […].

Rigathi Gachagua, an MP from Nyeri County within the Mount Kenya region, and a staunch supporter of Ruto, finds Raila’s historical perspective irrelevant. “I’d like to vote for him if he convinces me life will be better for me and my children; how does he intend to revive the economy, how does he intend to put money in my pocket?”

Ruto appears to have a higher popularity rating in the region, though polling is sketchy. At the moment, he has a higher following of current elected legislators than Raila. However, out of 10 governors in the region, six of them regularly accompany Raila during his campaign tours.

Only one governor, Anne Waiguru of Kirinyaga has declared her support for the deputy president. She decamped from the Kenyatta-Raila axis on 26 October and joined Ruto’s UDA, after years and months of dalliance with the former. Three governors from Mount Kenya are non-committal on whom to support, while many MPs are yet to openly declare their allegiance.

Legacy beyond economics?

Kimani Wamatangi, the senator for Kiambu County, says the president still has time to influence his exit based on an economic stimulus programme worth KSh26bn ($234m) that he unveiled on 20 October.

“If what the president has proposed is implemented, we could see a country that is starting to revive after the technical knockout brought about by Covid-19,” says Wamatangi.

For his part, Gachagua is skeptical as to whether Kenyatta will only focus on rebuilding the economy, and warns him of the consequences of straying beyond a neutral stance. “If he (Kenyatta) deviates and gets into the succession (politics), people are likely not to see those good things he has done and are likely to see the meddling in what he shouldn’t meddle with.”

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