The saying that an old man sitting on a three-legged stool sees much farther than a young man standing on his feet, best describes the vision of Kenya’s second President, Daniel arap Moi.
While most may have given up on Uhuru Kenyatta’s political career when he was beaten by rookie politician Moses Muihia in 1997, Moi was confident that the son of his former boss would one day make an ‘A’ politician and president. This belief was apparently shared by Mama Ngina Kenyatta, Uhuru’s mother and behind-the-scenes mover and shaker.
The son of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s founding President, hesitantly embarked on his political career in 1997, a move many believe was set in motion by Mama Ngina with the tacit approval of Moi.
He contested and won the Gatundu KANU Branch chairmanship and was well on the way to bigger political fortunes. However, his plans and those of his mentors were stopped dead in their tracks when he contested the Gatundu South parliamentary seat later that year.
To his surprise and that of many Kenyans, Uhuru was floored by Moses Muihia, a hitherto little-known land valuer. Muihia disappeared on the eve of the election and it was rumoured that his opponents had abducted him. Fingers were pointed at the Uhuru camp and by the time the land valuer reappeared on the afternoon of polling day, tables had significantly turned against the son of Jomo.
For one who grew up in privilege, the bitter experience must have shattered young Uhuru, his family and close friends. Following his political defeat, he is said to have immersed himself in the expansive family business that includes luxury hotels (Heritage Hotels), airlines and commercial farming among other undertakings, and contemplated abandoning politics altogether. After all, it was not he who had set his political train in motion.
But just when everyone thought they had heard the last of Uhuru, at least in political circles, Moi, the self-proclaimed professor of politics, turned his attention back towards him and set his ‘giraffe sight’ into gear.
Clearly mapping out the political journey for the young Kenyatta, in 1999 Moi appointed him Chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB), a position Uhuru unwittingly or knowingly used to air his leadership abilities as a launching-pad to national politics.
But just how powerful Moi wanted to make Uhuru would not be very well defined until 2001 when he nominated him to the National Assembly, later elevating him to a Cabinet post in the Local Government Ministry. In fact, Moi prevailed on his ‘Mr Fix-it’, one Mark Too, to step down from his parliamentary seat to make room for Uhuru’s nomination.
Years later, during Mark Too’s burial in January 2017 while serving his first term as President, Uhuru narrated the circumstances that led to his elevation. He told mourners how his bid for political office was frustrated by his defeat in 1997 and implied that he had been ready to give up politics were it not for prodding by Moi and Too.
“Mark was in the frontline in pushing me to join elective politics… he often encouraged me, saying that there is no other way to initiate the change that I wanted to make in the country except through politics,” Uhuru disclosed to mourners at the funeral.
Although Too was urging Uhuru to join politics, the former nominated MP did not imagine he would be the sacrificial lamb in the high stakes game. He had intimated to Uhuru that his scheme was to entice a nominated MP from the coast to cede his seat so the younger Kenyatta could be nominated to Parliament. However, Moi had his own plans. One evening in 2001 he called Too and told him that he would be the one to give up his seat for Uhuru.
“So later that evening, Mzee Moi called me, and said that Mark Too had agreed to vacate his seat (for me). I was confused, but I just said it is okay. Moments later, Mark Too came to my house, and I eagerly asked him what happened, because I thought we were to try and convince the MP from Mombasa to give up his seat. But Mark Too simply told me Mzee had arrived at a decision,” Kenyatta recalled.
While this discussion about who would give up his position for the younger Kenyatta was ongoing, Uhuru unknowingly let the cat out of the bag when he met and told Moi of Too’s scheme. He further divulged that Too had told him (Uhuru) that Too had said to Moi that he would show Uhuru around Parliament and teach him how things were done. Apparently, no such discussion had been held between Moi and Too, and so the President turned the tables on Mark Too.
At the behest of his political mentor, Uhuru, nicknamed the ‘Moi Project’, went on to contest the presidency in 2002. He lost to Mwai Kibaki, but courtesy of the old constitutional order, he retained his Gatundu South parliamentary seat and would serve as area MP until 2013 when he was elected President.
The man with a firm and friendly handshake was born to Mzee and his fourth and favourite wife Mama Ngina in 1961 as the country prepared for independence – hence his first name Uhuru (‘freedom’ in Kiswahili).
He may not have been literally born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, but that would soon be his portion barely two years later, when Kenya gained independence from British rule. His father became the country’s first Prime Minister in 1963. The following year, Kenyatta would become the first President of the Republic and his family would become the first family.
The young Kenyatta attended the prestigious St Mary’s School in Nairobi and then Amherst College in the United States where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Politics and Economics.
While serving in Moi’s government as a Cabinet Minister, the game plan that the Head of State had set in motion started playing out, when during the 2001 KANU national elections in March, Kenyatta was elected one of the four National Vice Chairmen of the party. He had joined the big league in the high-stakes game of politics.
Raila Odinga, who had joined Moi from the opposition ranks and married off his National Development Party (NDP) to KANU, became the party’s Secretary General, side-lining the long-serving Joseph Kamotho.
Chancing on a divided opposition that had allowed Moi to sail through in two multiparty elections (1992 and 1997), each of the four Vice Chairmen, as well as the Secretary General, was hoping that Moi would anoint him as KANU’s flag-bearer for the 2002 election, the signal for a paved walk to State House.
The public had initially thought that George Saitoti, Moi’s trusted Vice President of several years, was the first among equals, but the President had surprisingly dismissed his (Saitoti’s) presidential bid in public. This left the shrewd Raila Odinga, who had joined KANU, to ostensibly boost Moi’s image along with the long-serving KANU senior official Kalonzo Musyoka as the most likely candidates.
Greenhorn Uhuru was a distant fourth behind Musalia Mudavadi, who had served for a short period as VP. But ostensibly out of the blue, Moi decided that Uhuru was his preferred successor and influenced his nomination for the race to State House. There was an outcry from the other contenders who termed the move undemocratic and a ploy meant to perpetuate Moi’s leadership through his ‘puppet’ Uhuru.
According to his detractors Moi was, through an Uhuru presidency, trying to insulate himself against any charges of abuse of office that might be brought against him in future. Moi’s decision annoyed the other contenders; their ambitions nipped in the bud, they abandoned Moi and KANU in a huff, with the exception of Musalia Mudavadi. The group, whose departure signalled the beginning of the end for KANU, was led by Raila.
Despite the lukewarm support he got from his colleagues in KANU, to his credit the young Kenyatta conducted a spirited presidential campaign that is said to have cost his family millions of shillings. However, as largely expected, he lost to the Kibaki/Raila onslaught.
When the results of his election loss were released Uhuru, flanked by William Ruto, the man who would be the strongest Raila supporter in 2007 and Uhuru’s running mate in 2013, conceded defeat and took up his role as Official Leader of the Opposition when government was formed.
Uhuru’s tenure as opposition leader was at best lacklustre. The only time Kenyans seemed to hear from him was when he would dismissively describe Kibaki as “a hands-off president”.
When the 2005 campaign for the new Draft Constitution was taken to the road, Uhuru joined the ‘No’ brigade and appeared to be playing second fiddle to Raila who was clearly charting his route to State House by urging Kenyans to reject the Draft Constitution.
Later, when Kibaki sacked Raila and the other ODM Ministers for influencing the rejection of the Draft Constitution, Uhuru abandoned opposition politics and started working with Kibaki. In fact he played a crucial role in the ‘Kibaki Tena’ campaigns and many have acknowledged that were it not for people like him, Kibaki would have been defeated by Raila.
Following the 2007 General Election, Uhuru joined the Kibaki administration and served as Minister for Local Government, a position he had held during the Moi regime. But after the presidential election results were announced, violence was instigated by those disputing Kibaki’s win and the international community had to intervene to halt the carnage. When Raila and his ODM outfit joined the coalition government following post-election negotiations chaired by Kofi Annan, Uhuru was elevated to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade in April 2008.
He was later transferred to head the Ministry of Finance while maintaining his deputy premiership. He gained a reputation for being among the very few Cabinet Ministers without financial scandals, but on 29 April 2009, Uhuru faced a scare after he presented a supplementary budget that was subsequently approved by Parliament. The purpose of the supplementary budget was to cover a budget gap that had arisen due to slow economic growth. The government required an additional KES 38 billion, but compromised on a figure of KES 22 billion with non-essential proposed expenditure being postponed.
Later, however, MP Gitobu Imanyara raised questions concerning a discrepancy in the amount that had been approved by the House. It appeared that Parliament had voted on KES 31 billion as opposed to the KES 22 billion that they thought they were voting on – the difference totalling KES 9.2 billion. Uhuru initially defended the budget that had been passed, but later admitted that there were computer or typographical errors in the budget bill. An investigation by the CID and a parliamentary committee was ordered by the Speaker to question him on the discrepancies. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing by the Joint Finance and Budgetary Committee on the issue.
As Minister for Finance, Uhuru spearheaded a number of reforms including the creation of the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) and a fund for inclusion of the informal sector in the mainstream economy. He is also famed for an unpopular move to conserve resources by denying State officers fuel-guzzling luxury limousines and four-by-four vehicles, downgrading these to the much cheaper but adequately comfortable Volkswagen Passat.
In December 2010 Luis Moreno Ocampo, a prosecutor with the International Criminal Court (ICC) included Uhuru in the list of those suspected to be most responsible for the atrocities committed during the 2007/2008 post-election violence. Also in the list was William Ruto, a former Raila ally turned fierce foe. Uhuru was charged as an indirect co-perpetrator in the violence that followed the announcement of the 2007 presidential poll results. The charges against him were confirmed by the ICC on 23 January 2012. Prior to and after his installation as President, Uhuru attended his trial hearings at the ICC whenever required. In fact, after his election in 2013, the ICC ordered him to appear before it on 8 October 2014 for a Status Conference, a summons that he honoured. Before leaving for The Hague, the President signed off his powers to his deputy Ruto and proceeded to his appointment with the ICC in his private capacity in order not to “…compromise the sovereignty of Kenyans”. The charges brought by the ICC against Uhuru Kenyatta were dropped on 13 March 2015.
Nicknamed ‘Moi’s project’ by the media once Moi named him heir-apparent in 2002 at the expense of Raila and others, Uhuru had his work cut out to shake off the notion that he was not his own man. This perception persisted right up to the time of the 2013 election when, flanked by his running mate and ICC co-accused William Ruto, Uhuru won the presidency, defeating Raila Odinga among other contenders. Although Raila disputed the results at the Supreme Court, his plea was dismissed.
Following the 8 August 2017 General Election, Uhuru garnered 54 per cent of the popular vote and was announced President-elect for a second term on 11 August 2017. Elements associated with Raila’s NASA contested these results at the Supreme Court, which subsequently annulled Uhuru’s win. A second election was held later that year. Once again Uhuru won with 98 per cent of the vote and a 38 per cent voter turnout. Raila refused to acknowledge the victory and formed a resistance movement ostensibly to force electoral reforms.
In 2012, leaked WikiLeaks US embassy cables from Nairobi indicated that Uhuru was the only senior Kenyan politician who was not corrupt. Whether this is as a result of character or by virtue of having been born into wealth, only he knows. In a previous interview, Uhuru commented on how his father taught him and his siblings to be fair to all despite their privileged upbringing.
Said Uhuru, “He taught us the essence of justice and fairness”.