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What you need to know:
- President Uhuru Kenyatta’s fidelity to the presidential succession playbook is impressive.
- His pool of possible successors is more heavily and indiscriminately populated than anyone else’s, with diverse players across the political aisle.
Who was President Jomo Kenyatta’s chosen successor? Constitutionally, one could argue, Daniel arap Moi, who in any event eventually succeeded him after Kenyatta’s death in office. On proper analysis, however, the more realistic answer may be anyone or everyone.
The first Kenyatta’s government teemed with potentates chafing at the bit, impatient to inherit state power.
Strategies employed to catch Mzee’s eye and, perhaps earn his favour were diverse, ranging from prim and earnest devotion, to lethally Machiavellian subterfuge as well as desperately shady schemes.
It was, therefore, reasonable for people to fancy Njoroge Mungai, Mwai Kibaki, Jackson Angaine, Oginga Odinga, James Gichuru, Tom Mboya, Charles Njonjo and Kitili Mwendwa as having decent chances of ascending to the top state office at various times.
Daniel Moi was not strongly fancied and, owing to his unaccountable vantage as Vice-President, was seen as irritatingly out of place at best, or an unseemly obstacle to others’ ambitions.
Mwai Kibaki’s succession was similarly irresolute in ‘chosen heir’ terms. This ambiguity created space for irrepressible ambitions to tussle it out in the electoral and political campaign arena.
George Saitoti, Kalonzo Musyoka, Raila Odinga, Martha Karua, Musalia Mudavadi, Charity Ngilu, William Ruto, Moses Wetang’ula, Uhuru Kenyatta all seemed to have something going for them one way or another, such that their ambitions could not entirely be scoffed at.
Once again, the old man’s ambiguity liberalised the market for presidential contention to the extent that his office was reported to have at least two factions each backing their own candidate.
State House and Harambee House were political rivals, vying to secure presidential blessings to their proteges.
Kibaki exited power without ever pronouncing himself on the matter, happy with a may-the-best-candidate-win position.
Nyayo’s succession became a subject of national concern after the 1992 election, when his term in office finally had constitutional limits and political competition made it difficult to take anything for granted. Indeed, Chairman Jackson Kibor stoked Moi to an incandescent rage by publicly calling on him to name his successor.
Moi compounded the ambiguity of his succession with a disconcerting refusal to confirm that he would indeed exit at the end of his term.
At the same time, he began to make stunningly cavalier sport with the position of vice president, at some point operating without one for 15 months, only to reinstate a bewildered but no less ambitious Saitoti.
By this time, Nicholas Biwott, Kalonzo Musyoka, George Saitoti and Simeon Nyachae were raring to go.
Nyayo would then drop two bombshells to further liberalise a complicated succession matrix.
First, he complicated things by introducing a generational dimension by elevating Katana Ngala, Uhuru Kenyatta and Musalia Mudavadi into contention.
Man on the inside track
Secondly, pursuant to a Handshake with Raila Odinga, he had set the latter up as Energy minister and Kanu secretary-general, adorning him with the formidable optics of a man on the inside track.
It did not take too long, however, for a disbelieving nation to realise that both the inside track and the race itself belonged to Uhuru Kenyatta.
It is when Nyayo directly clarified this gradually obvious fact that the 2002 electoral contest and presidential succession clarified. Even after Kenyatta lost, Moi did not appear uncomfortable with a
Mwai Kibaki presidency, and even campaigned for his re-election.
At the best of times, the presidency is set up to be challenging, complicated and stressful. The temptation to do nothing is compelling. It seems that succession politics only comes in to catalyse the presidency’s intricate complication to an insoluble riddle.
An analysis of presidential precedent strongly suggests that it is excellent political practice to confront a cryptic succession maze with an equally confounding intervention. In other words, Kenyan presidential practice has evolved a strong tradition of deploying strategic ambiguity in the face of complex political challenges and, particularly, in managing presidential successions.
This is why we feel haunted by echoes from other generations when observing Uhuru Kenyatta’s efforts to manage the stormy ambitions surging at his exit and thronging the political runway as his presidency taxies to the constitutional terminal.
Kenyatta’s fidelity to the presidential succession playbook is impressive. His pool of possible successors is more heavily and indiscriminately populated than anyone else’s, with diverse players across the political aisle.
After the Handshake, the liberalisation of the presidential succession domain escalated apace. At the moment, the list of hopefuls is long and growing.
Punters angling for the needful presidential wink include Raila Odinga, Gideon Moi, Musalia Mudavadi, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetang’ula, Justin Muturi, Fred Matiang’i, Ann Waiguru, Peter Kenneth and Jimi Wanjigi.
Kenyatta’s perfect equanimity at the prospect of a burgeoning stable of aspirants hopeful for his blessing suggests that the imperatives of Kenya’s presidential succession calculation still hold. In that case, strategic ambiguity will be useful in sustaining the hopes of all contenders as far as possible. Per established precedent, the best candidate will win.
Mr Ng’eno is an advocate of the High Court and former State House Speech Writer. @EricNgeno