Kenya's former Presidents from left: Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki, Uhuru Kenyatta and President William Ruto.


From Jomo Kenyatta to William Ruto: Kenya’s recurring tragedy of false dawns

Kenya’s founding President, Jomo Kenyatta, ascended to power with a strong message of caution to the departing colonials, ‘We shall forgive you for what you did to us.

But we shall not forget.’ Kenyatta’s forgive-but-not-forget grief and grievance character has dominated Kenya’s topmost leadership, over a six-decade period, with some finding it impossible to forgive, let alone to forget.

Each of Kenya’s five presidents has arrived on the throne nursing grief and grievance, harbouring a level of animus against somebody, to a lesser or greater extent.

This has spined off euphoric dawns of hope that have not matured into the promised brilliant opportunities. There have been instead remarkable historical turning points when the country’s history has failed to turn.

The nation’s history is remarkable for fresh hopes that have been frustrated by successive regimes, from independence to Ruto.

It is perhaps a factor of excess bottled-up sentiment that has spurred utopian imaginings that have ignored obvious human foibles in electoral candidates who will go down in history as persons who missed great opportunities for greatness and made great mistakes instead.

Jomo returned from seven years of detention and house arrest in 1961, to be cast in the mould of a liberator and a unifier. Colonial authorities had just lifted the ban on political activities in the colony, including allowing for formation of political parties.

Political activities began taking a suspicious ethnic slant, with the sharpest of the divisions being between the Kanu and Kadu Parties. Kenyatta joined the more nationalist perceived Kanu and was cast as a unifying force.

The impression at this point was that of an elder statesman who would rally a united country to a great future. His years of sojourn in England and elsewhere in Europe were understood to have given him astute exposure to what was necessary to hold the country together and steer it toward prosperity.

Yet, quite early in the day, disquiet began setting in over bloated ethnic numbers from the Mt Kenya region, virtually everywhere in the civil service and in State corporations.

But even within the Mountain itself, rifts set in between what came to be christened the Kiambu Mafia against everyone else. The infamous saying set in that the presidential motorcade should never cross the Chania River.

Intra-ethnic dissent set in, with the rest of the Mountain riding on the Jomo bandwagon with sentiments of relative exclusion.

Grand corruption

Moreover, the Kenyatta State was bedeviled by other ills. Grand corruption, poaching and smuggling set in. Fingers pointed at persons close to power, either by dint of office or bloodlines, as the culprits.

Armed broad daylight bank robberies became normal. Political assassinations and disappearances became part of the order, with Tom Mboya, Kung’u Karumba and JM Kariuki as the most notable cases.

Political dissent was stifled and competition officially banned, even if the Constitution still recognised the country as a multiparty democracy.

The first three years of the Kenyatta Government removed political opposition, dissolved the Senate, and destroyed devolution and removed regional assemblies.

They tampered with the Constitution to make Mzee Kenyatta the President without being elected (the first amendment) and concentrated draconian powers in the hands of the President.

By the time Daniel arap Moi became President in 1978, the path to a heavy-handed presidency had been paved. Peter Okondo in his book titled A Commentary on The Constitution of Kenya observes that even if the President did not intend to be a dictator, the Constitution invariably made him one.

He describes the Constitution of Kenya in the 1980s as ‘regal and monarchical.’ Moi, accordingly, represented continuity of all that had gone wrong with the Jomo Kenyatta regime.

In a rather uncanny fashion, the new President in 1978 told the country that he would walk in the footsteps of the departed Kenyatta. Thus was born Moi’s Nyayo (footstep) philosophy of ‘love, peace and unity.’

Nyayo was initially, however, an assurance to the propertied classes from the Mt. Kenya region that Moi was a safe pair of hands for their wealth and interests. He proclaimed loudly and clearly that he would ‘protect the Kenyatta family.’

Familial bloodlines

The Kenyatta family was, however, broader than the normal familial bloodlines. It referred to people in high places, now officially orphaned by the demise of Mzee Kenyatta.

President Moi sought to assure them that nobody would touch their wealth, regardless of how it was acquired. In return, they would give him the stable space to govern from.

Even as he began to dismantle the Kenyatta State, and disable the Kiambu Mafia and mold a new class of the Rift Valley Mafia, Moi was careful to continue giving the optic of working with top leadership from the Mountain.

Some of the notable names that were onboarded, and later dropped, included Charles Njonjo, Charles Rubia, Kenneth Matiba, Waruru Kanja, Davidson Kuguru, Joseph Kamotho, Geoffrey Kareithi, and of course Mwai Kibaki.

By the time Kibaki was ascending to power in 2002, the country – and especially the Mt Kenya region – was a stormy petrel of discord, dissent and discontent. Everything adverse that the Kenyatta regime had done, the Moi regime had taken to a new high.

Hence, the new President declared at his inauguration on December 30, 2002, ‘I am inheriting a country which has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude.

There has been a wide disconnect between the people and the government, between the people’s aspirations and the Government’s attitude toward them.’

And he was not yet done. In Moi’s stunned presence, Kibaki went on, ‘One would have preferred to overlook some of the all too obvious human errors and forge ahead, but it would be unfair to Kenyans not to raise questions about certain deliberate actions or policies of the past that continue to have grave consequences on the present.’

Kenya’s third president cast himself in the cask of a reformist. He would address the diminished space for civic freedom, the debilitating debt and a virtually collapsed economy, spiraling ethnic animosity that had over the past 15 years burst into bloodletting and the state of crime, unemployment, food insecurity and rising levels of poverty – among many other challenges.

Corruption had become the order of the day, with Goldenberg scam as the pick of the basket. Detention without trial, demonisation of political dissent, assassinations, clampdown on academic freedom, toxic ethnic divisions – all this and much more – defined the order of the day.

When Kibaki came to power, therefore, it was yet another euphoric moment. The country rent the air with song, dance and drama. Proclamations were volubly made to the effect that all was possible, without Moi. “Yote yawezekana, bila Moi,’ they sang in Kiswahili, ‘We are unbwogable (you cannot muzzle us).’

Kibaki embarked on a reform agenda that reflected both change and continuity. He restored development partners’ confidence and support within months of ascending to power and swung into a series of infrastructure and sundry big-push projects that would roll into the next regime.

Sundry economic stimuli packages were initiated. Infrastructure began developing again. Inflation dropped. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that economic growth that had dropped to 0.6 percent in 2002 stood at 7.1 percent within Kibaki’s first five years.

The Vision 2030 Economic Blueprint of 2008 became the roadmap and compass that the country still talks of 14 years later, and with only eight years left to the season.

Reforms were carried to all sectors of the national economy; in health, transportation, communications, education, agriculture, financial services and – above all – in the legal climate in the country. The Constitution of Kenya (2010) remains Kibaki’s foremost legacy and gift to Kenya.

Yet the Kibaki regime also witnessed Kenya’s lowest moment, with the botched presidential election of 2007 that threw the nation into a terrible bloodbath.

A badly mismanaged presidential election and attendant post-election violence in which more than 1,000 people were killed is part of the Kibaki legacy, despite his sterling economic record.

To his credit, however, President Kibaki turned the negative energy of this ugly chapter to give Kenya a progressive new Constitution, with attendant statutory laws that have since given the country immense potential for a fresh start – if the political class will find and embrace the will.

Kibaki handed over to Uhuru Kenyatta, the fourth President, an economically stable country, despite the political shocks and traumas. Together with his deputy, William Ruto, Uhuru arrived on yet another podium of grief and grievance.

The two were among six Kenyans before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for some of the worst crimes against humanity. They felt that they had been victimised by persons who, in their view, should have been the ones in the dock.

Uhuru and Ruto made the 2013 election a referendum against the ICC. They mobilised partisan ethnic populations that voted for them overwhelmingly. Even when the Supreme Court nullified their re-election on account of illegalities and irregularities in 2017, their support base did not flinch.

Yet their victorious re-election — initially nullified before a repeat poll — marked the end of their dalliance, their cases before the ICC having collapsed.

Nothing held them together from now on. President Kenyatta, instead, now embraced the Opposition chief, Raila Odinga, in a bond whose details remain unknown, crowned with a public handshake in Nairobi in March 2018.

Uhuru’s second term has gone down as a season of incessant bad blood between the President and his deputy. The drivers remain a mystery. It would seem, however, that the deputy craved a piece of a pie the President was unwilling to share.

Remarkably, at the presentation of the Building Bridges Initiative to the principals – Uhuru and Odinga – the President chided his deputy for what he called impatience. Comparing succession to the passing on of the relay baton, Uhuru stated that Mr Ruto wanted to take over the baton before his turn. Within that riddle resides what tore the two asunder.

Uhuru has paid the price, for Ruto ran away with their victorious political formations of 2013 – 2017. With them, he ran a grief and grievance presidential election campaign, riding on the theme of betrayal and that of class struggle between Kenya’s political dynasties and the ordinary people (hustlers) to ascend to power with a slim margin against Uhuru’s candidate, Odinga.

Although he constitutionally handed over the instruments of power to the victor in the August 2022 elections, Uhuru is on public record as stating that Odinga is his President.

The opposition leader himself has refused to recognise Ruto as the President, claiming that he was cheated out of victory, despite absence of proof – and despite the Supreme Court upholding the election results.

It is perhaps too early to assess the Ruto presidency, seeing that it is only a few months old. Yet the grief and grievance perspective is clear. He is on public record as asking Uhuru to allow him the space to govern. ‘Although you did not support my candidacy even after I supported you thrice, please allow me the space to lead the country and to work for the people,’ President Ruto said.

Whether it is because of the intransigence from an insurgent Opposition or for other factors, President Ruto has got off to a hard start. Grumblings about the ethnic monster can already be heard, as are rumbles about incipient corruption. The Head of the Public Service, Felix Koskei, has had to summon all chairs and CEOs of State Corporations to read to them the Riot Act over perceived corruption. Focus, it would appear, is on tenders rather than service. Can it be nipped in the bud? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, the country is in a bad place. The cost of living is at an all-time high. Education is in a state of confusion. Unemployment and insecurity are both on the rise, each seeming to ride on the other’s back.

Above all, the country is broke, with a terrible debt burden on its shoulders. Taxation seems to be the easiest option at the Government’s disposal. Yet, taxing poverty never got anyone out of the rut. Is Kenya staring at another false dawn with the fifth presidency? Again, only time will tell.

- Dr Galava, a former managing editor with the ‘Nation’ and ‘The Standard’, is managing partner at Athari Communications . [email protected] / Twitter: @DenisGalava