When he was born to Ngina Muhoho and Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in the dying days of the colonial administration in October 1961, it was Mwai Kibaki, then the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) Executive Officer, who suggested that he be named ‘Uhuru’. That was in commemoration of the imminent dawn of uhuru or independence and the hope that freedom portended for the Kenyan people.
But when he named him Uhuru in 1961, Kibaki would never have guessed that in years to come, political karma would first set him and the toddler he held in his arms apart, before drawing them close in different and profound ways, or that the younger man would follow in his very footsteps in ways more than one.
For Uhuru Kenyatta was ‘the apprentice’. Spending his formative years with his father at airports and public functions, shaking hands with Cabinet ministers, security chiefs and senior government officials, and meeting foreign heads of State and ambassadors, young Kenyatta unconsciously observed the nuances and protocols of politics and government. Something rubbed off.
After his father died in 1978, Kenyatta remained in the shadows. Barring his annual appearances at Parliament Buildings in commemoration of his father’s death beside President Daniel arap Moi and members of the Kenyatta family, he fell off the radar, working briefly as a bank teller after graduating from university before founding Wilham Kenya Limited, through which he sourced and exported agricultural produce.
In the cloud of the vicious attacks that followed, Kenyatta strategically and quietly retreated. Nonetheless, Kenyans had taken note, and the question was not if, but when he would run for political office
Kenyatta would emerge, albeit fleetingly, 20 years later, through a press statement that ruffled feathers and hit national headlines.
President Moi was under siege at the time, his decade-long hold on power severely threatened by a restless nation and a group of battle-hardened politicians led by former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who were demanding a return to multiparty democracy. Foreign ambassadors were batting in their corner. Foreign aid taps had all but dried up and the air was pregnant with political tension, impending change and the numbing fear of the unknown.
It is in this political powder keg that the press statement signed by Kenyatta and the sons of independence era politicians and Cabinet ministers, Tom Mboya and Argwings Kodhek landed. Time has come, they said, for the old order to give way to the new; for old leaders to pass the mantle to the young — for a rebirth of KANU and the nation.
The statement sent shockwaves across the country. It was deemed a direct attack against the person of President Moi, which was extremely brave considering Moi’s larger than life persona, the close, historical ties between the Moi and Kenyatta families and the excesses of the repressive KANU regime. The ruling party high command was livid, and its spokesmen lashed out at the young men saying they had been born with silver spoons in their mouths and were therefore out of touch with reality.
In the cloud of the vicious attacks that followed, Kenyatta strategically and quietly retreated. Nonetheless, Kenyans had taken note, and the question was not if, but when he would run for political office.
More shocking was when the powerful Kenyatta family issued a statement saying they would support former Vice President and Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki, who had resigned as Health Minister in December 1991 to found the Democratic Party (DP) and to challenge Moi in the 1992 multiparty General Election. The die was cast, it seemed; the ties between the Moi and Kenyatta families were irretrievably severed.
Kenyatta, surprisingly, did not run for the position of Gatundu Member of Parliament (MP) as was widely expected. And then Moi routed a divided opposition; Kenyatta fell off the radar once again.
But all indications were that fences had been mended when Kenyatta emerged in 1997 to run for the Gatundu South seat on a KANU ticket — not Kibaki’s DP as many had expected. In a political landscape where sons inheriting their father’s political seats was commonplace, his candidature, which was backed by the political name, might and the war chest of the Kenyatta family, seemed like a fait accompli.
It was not to be. Kenyatta lost the election in a situation where propaganda held sway and reinforced a false narrative of eventual victor Moses Mwihia, an ‘underdog from a peasant family’, being unfairly overrun by the scion of a moneyed and powerful political dynasty.
A little perspective is in order. The ruling party was not popular in central Kenya. The Gikuyu community had long borne the brunt of the authoritarian KANU regime and was firmly in the Opposition with Mwihia running on a Social Democratic Party (SDP) ticket associated with Anyang Nyong’o and Charity Ngilu. It didn’t help that Gatundu had been split into Gatundu north and south constituencies, creating the perception that it was Moi’s plan to offer his protégé Kenyatta a ‘safe seat’ on a silver platter. That notwithstanding, Kenyatta was the frontrunner by a mile. Until the tables suddenly and dramatically turned.
Pretending to be kidnapped and harmed, just three days before the election, Mwihia, an Opposition candidate, used this false information to gain sympathy votes. It was a bitter and devastating loss for Kenyatta; a loss that would be difficult to surmount, pundits ruled.
Once again, Kenyatta retreated until 1999 when seemingly out of the blue, Moi, the self-styled professor of politics, appointed him Chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board. Kenyatta was a youthful 38, and looked the part.
Predictably, there was mumbling within Opposition quarters that he didn’t merit the appointment; that he lacked the experience to chair such a strategic and critical national parastatal. Never mind that Kenyatta was relatively familiar with matters tourism on account of his family’s expansive investments in the tourism and hospitality sector.
Those who understood President Moi’s Machiavellian chessboard, however, suspected something bigger: the professor of politics was reinventing ‘Candidate Uhuru’”. To paraphrase Jaramogi Odinga in his book Not Yet Uhuru, Moi, the giraffe with a long neck that sees far, was testing the waters and preparing to insert the unknown and unheralded striker into the rough and tumble of the Kenyan political game. To what end, only time, and Moi, himself knew.
From then, it was game on. In 2001, Mark Too, ‘resigned’ as a nominated MP, his slot was taken up by Kenyatta who was quickly appointed Local Government Minister by President Moi. Superintending over Nairobi City Council and all municipalities, Local Government was a powerful perch whose tentacles spread into every nook and cranny of the country. It was the perfect launching pad into the national political arena.
The following year, Moi, who was retiring as President, announced that Kenyatta was his chosen successor and would be KANU’s flag bearer in the 2002 Presidential election. In so doing, he not only caused a furore that split his party into ‘old’ and ‘New KANU’, but placed Kenyatta in the crosshairs of his ‘father’, Kibaki — the Opposition candidate who had named him as a baby and whose children were Kenyatta’s friends.
It was a mismatch. Here was political greenhorn backed only by Moi’s fanatic Rift Valley following in a party that had lost favour taking on one of Kenya’s most consummate, astute and experienced politicians — an erudite policy wonk and cunning political fox at the helm of a massive national wave that wanted KANU dead and buried.
Not surprisingly, when the last ballot was counted, Kibaki was president. It was a 70 per cent rout that nonetheless thrust Kenyatta, now MP for Gatundu South, into Kibaki’s former front bench seat in Parliament as Official Leader of Opposition.
It was not yet Uhuru, but ‘the apprentice’ was back.
The Opposition benches were unfamiliar turf for KANU and its new, young leader. Long associated with kleptocracy and incompetence, it now fell upon the maligned independence party to call out the excesses of government, a role that Kenyatta took up with gusto. This role, however, placed him once more on opposite ends of the table with Kibaki, each time he challenged the government as Opposition chief.
As time went by, his position as KANU chairman became tenuous. He had beaten powerful Moi era Cabinet Minister Nicholas Biwott to the post in 2005. However, as the 2007 poll approached, remnants of ‘old KANU’ politicians, still smarting from being stood over by Moi in in 2002, wanted him replaced. They were dying to present a Presidential candidate, but Kenyatta had strategically calculated to sit it out knowing that to run against Kibaki — who now enjoyed the advantage of incumbency — for the second time would be committing political suicide. It was virtually impossible to garner the crucial Gikuyu vote, and foolhardy to challenge the combined might of two of the senior most Kenyan politicians of the time: President Kibaki and Orange Democratic Movement (ODM-Kenya) party leader, Raila Odinga.
In any case, the ground had long shifted. Rift Valley, the bedrock of KANU, was now in the hands of Odinga and William Ruto after they were fired from the Cabinet for teaming up with KANU and Kenyatta to vote ‘No’ during the 2005 Constitutional referendum, which the government lost. With Rift Valley gone, Kenyatta knew, KANU had little hope of winning the election.
‘The apprentice’ had clearly learnt crucial lessons from his 1992 debacle.
But ‘old KANU’ wanted its way, and in 2006, Kenyatta was replaced as party chairman by Biwott. It took a court ruling the following year to reinstate him.
Now firmly back in the saddle, and to the chagrin of KANU diehards, Kenyatta announced that the party would be supporting President Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) in the 2007 General Election.
For the first time in 15 years, Kibaki and Kenyatta would be sitting at the same table and pulling in the same direction.
The 2007 election results were bitterly contested and on 17 April 2008, a coalition government, the Government of National Unity, was formed with Kenyatta, the former Official Leader of Opposition, sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, with James Omingo Magara as his deputy. In January 2009, he was appointed Finance Minister to replace Amos Kimunya.
At the Treasury, where Kibaki, the University of London-trained economist had served long stints as Finance Minister, Kenyatta became ‘the apprentice’ once more.
The post-election violence that followed the disputed poll had literally flattened the economy and obliterated the gains made during Kibaki’s first term of office. The spiral needed to be urgently stemmed and measures put in place to spur economic growth.
Kenyatta’s two budgets as Finance Minister were, at near a trillion, not only the biggest in Kenya’s history but a reflection of Kibaki’s economic philosophy. He poured billions of shillings into sectors that would shift the gears of economic development and give the common mwananchi (citizen) a leg up and the opportunity to create wealth and access markets. The budgets reflect a singular focus on revamping agriculture, water and irrigation and investing in education, infrastructure development, reducing the cost of power and expanding access to affordable energy supply for Kenyans.
Yet in spite of flirting with an unprecedented trillion-shilling mark, the budgets still reflected Kibaki’s famed frugality and a disdain for foreign loans to breach deficits.
The 2010 budget, for example, outlined the need to maintain a stable macroeconomic environment and create an enabling environment for business; developing key infrastructure facilities and public works countrywide to stimulate growth, create employment and reduce poverty; promoting equitable regional and social development for stability; investing in environment and food security; and strengthening governance to improve public service delivery.
And by cutting excise duty on cosmetics and beauty products by half to 5 per cent because “…beautiful women are the face of a healthy society,” ‘The apprentice’ not only aptly captured Kibaki’s wit, but profound sense of detail as well.
An 18 February 2011 Reuters profile of Kenyatta the Finance Minister sums his tenure thus: “Kenyatta has overseen unprecedented spending on infrastructure. In his budget speech for the fiscal year ending in June, the finance minister allocated 182 billion shillings, or 18 per cent of the government’s spending plan, for road, railway and energy projects.”
“He has tried to implement some measure of austerity at the Treasury with limited success. He suggested that ministers and high ranking officials downgrade to vehicles with lower engine capacities and mooted the idea that parliamentarians should pay tax (in his 2009/2010 Budget Speech)…” Reuters reported.
MPs and Cabinet ministers rejected the austerity measures, but right there, once more, lay Kibaki’s famed frugality.
But all the while, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and the dark cloud of the 2007–2008 post-election violence hung ominously over Kenyatta’s head.
In December 2010, he was named alongside suspended Education Minister Ruto, Industrialisation Minister Henry Kosgey, Secretary to the Cabinet Francis Kirimi Muthaura, former police chief Mohammed Hussein Ali and radio journalist Joshua Arap Sang by the ICC as a suspect for instigating the 2007–2008 post-election violence in which about 1,500 Kenyans died and 350,000 were displaced.
As a result, Kenyatta resigned from his position as Finance Minister, but retained the portfolio of Deputy Prime Minister.
Faced with the possibility of living out the rest of his years in the menacing shackles of an international prison, Kenyatta’s life and political career seemed done and dusted.
But far from cowering with fear, Kenyatta and Ruto joined The National Alliance (TNA) — a political party run by a band of youthful Kenyans — and set sail for a seemingly perilous journey and improbable destination.
To the shock of Kenyans, when that boat docked at the 2013 General Election, it had out-sailed Prime Minister, Opposition Leader and perceived frontrunner Odinga and ODM. Uhuru Kenyatta became the fourth President of the Republic of Kenya.
It was no longer not yet Uhuru. ‘The apprentice’ had come of age.