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Kenyan politics get nasty as post-Uhuru power struggle looms

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 24 June 2019 16:15

Kenyatta (L) and Ruto (R) celebrate their election win in 2017, an alliance that is rapidly souring as supporters get behind Ruto's presidential bid. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

On Sunday 16 June, President Uhuru Kenyatta told a religious gathering at a stadium in Nairobi: “When they see me remain silent, they should not think they are threatening me. I will flush them out from where they are.”

He was referring to politicians, mainly from his Mt. Kenya base, who have been “busy politicking”.

  • It is a veiled jab at the political base that his deputy, William Ruto, who was seated right behind him, has been cobbling together for the next elections.

At several points he called the politicians “thugs” and “crooks”, and added: “These rubbish should stop bothering me.”

While Kenyatta has done this before, this time he chose a setting where the recipients of his message, some of whom were present, could not ignore him.

  • He also spoke in his native Kikuyu language, at one point saying: “I will go around the region and tell people, these crooks we have elected because of politics, let them not think that I am their [uncircumcised] boy.”

The official State House communication on the event was silent on these particular remarks, while calling for unity.

Meanwhile, early on Monday morning news broke that four cabinet secretaries were being questioned by the DCI on allegations of threatening Ruto’s life:

Now almost at the midpoint of his last term, Kenyatta’s primary support base has been uneasy, and several leaders have tried to offer solutions for the post-Uhuru future.

  • Deputy president William Ruto’s networks in the vote-rich region have been visibly growing, as governors and other elected leaders throw their weight behind his quest for the presidency.
  • This has worsened the rifts within Jubilee, between what are now commonly known as the Kieleweke (“Let it be understood”) and the Tangatanga (“to move around”, taken from a phrase Kenyatta once used to describe what his deputy has been doing.)

For central Kenya, the difference in argument between the two factions is whether the region owes Ruto a political debt for supporting Uhuru in 2013 and 2017, an issue so emotive that it led to the resignation of Jubilee’s deputy chair, David Murathe, in January this year.

Moses Kuria, the President’s own member of parliament (MP), has been at the forefront of leaders from the region either directly attacking Kenyatta’s achievements so far, or supporting Ruto’s bid, or both. Kuria has also declared that he will be running for the presidency.

  • In January, just days after apologising for saying the same thing on New Year’s Eve, Kuria told a crowd: “The [Mt. Kenya] region lags behind in terms of roads, electricity and water. It is time the government put more effort on it.”
  • Part of the reason, he said, is that many counties are categorised as privileged areas and therefore allocated fewer resources. His statements triggered a backlash from several leaders, and a fake resignation letter started doing the rounds around the same time he said his life had been threatened.

On a visit to the coastal city of Mombasa in the midst of the uproar in January, Kenyatta said that those who “think development should go to the people where a leader comes from should be ashamed of themselves”. He called such people “washenzi” (fools).

“The people of Mt. Kenya are already disillusioned. There is much that was expected from the current government. Only a little of it has been delivered,” Irungu Nyakera, a former permanent secretary and now deputy chair of one of former president Mwai Kibaki’s parties, said in April.

For Kenyatta, these statements and others are a clear sign that his political base is becoming increasingly uneasy, especially as the economy slows down and the country’s politics go through an unusual run of being almost purely issue-based.

  • Two weeks ago, the interior cabinet secretary ordered the deportation of Chinese nationals engaged in small-scale trade in Nairobi’s secondhand markets. Local traders, many of them from the Mt. Kenya Region, had decried the influx of Chinese nationals, who, they said, were undercutting them on price and networks.
  • A previous push against Chinese hawkers last year was led by legislators from the president’s backyard.

For the legislators, increasingly drawn to William Ruto, Jubilee’s divisions are the result of what they see as high-handedness and an unsure future.

  • The ruling party has not held a parliamentary group meeting – fairly frequent before – since the last elections.
  • Media reports also point to a growing plan by legislators and government officials to remove Ruto’s lieutenants from key positions in parliament.

Since the public truce between Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, Jubilee has not had a direct opponent and its future is uncertain as both sides pull away from the center.

  • The 15-month-old truce and what it means in parliament, where their parties sit on opposite sides, is still an issue.
  • One legislator, Bureti MP Japheth Mutai, recently told The Standard that one reason why the party needs a parliamentary group meeting is that “President Kenyatta has never told us the position we should take on the handshake. We must have the terms of engagement with ODM [the Orange Democratic Movement, Odinga’s party].”

Other issues include the government’s pending bills to contractors, the economy, the Big Four Agenda, and a likely referendum.

Already, Kenyatta’s government has promised to settle delayed government payments for goods and services by the end of the month, while the government and banks are experimenting with a workaround the rates cap by offering small-business owners mobile loans.

But some moves may yet complicate Kenyatta’s attempts to placate his political base.

As part of its austerity measures, for example, the government has said that new public-service staff will be hired on contracts, and the service restructured, to reduce the wage bill.

  • A diversity report by the Public Service Commission released late last year showed that Kikuyus, Kenyatta’s ethnic group, still account for the majority of government employees. They account for 17% of civil servants, 21% of public officers and 19% of new appointments between 2017 and 2018.

For Kenyatta, whose government is trying to solve myriad economic issues, the politics and bubbling rebellion from his central base feel like a direct attack on his legacy as the third president from the region.

Bottom line: Kenyatta’s options are limited, as his government is struggling to rein in public debt, complete infrastructure projects, and jumpstart the economy in time for his four-point legacy agenda to have any chance of success.

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