To what extent might President William Ruto follow through on the implied threat to go after the vast assets controlled by the family of his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta? How would such unprecedented actions impact on the Kenyan political scenario, particularly the culture of peaceful transitions since the re-establishment of multi-party democracy.
These are the questions that must be asked now as what initially looked like just a continuation of the post-poll tussle between Ruto and his defeated presidential election rival, Raila Odinga, escalates into a public row pitting the incumbent against his predecessor.
From the moment he suggested former President Uhuru Kenyatta was the one sponsoring Raila’s planned protests against what he claims was a stolen 2022 presidential election, Ruto upped the stakes in a drama that could snowball into an outright offensive targeting the vast wealth of the former First Family.
If opposition leader Raila threw down the gauntlet with plans for a civil disobedience programme on claims that fresh evidence, not yet verified, proves he was the true winner of the 2022 presidential election, President Ruto threw it right back with his own unproven counter-claims that the protests are sponsored by Uhuru.
Although he did not mention Uhuru by name, Ruto’s claims in a public speech that the Raila protests were sponsored by those out to block probes into the former First Family’s tax-dodging activities were almost simultaneously followed by his social media propagandist Dennis Itumbi disclosing on Twitter that a little-known law exempted Uhuru’s father, the late President Jomo Kenyatta, and his successor, the late President Daniel arap Moi, from paying estate duty on inherited property. Opening the 16th Annual General Meeting and Conference of Africa Prosecutors Association in Mombasa County on January 31, Ruto diverted from the official script to launch an open assault on Uhuru.
“We cannot continue to operate in a space where those in power exempt themselves from paying taxes. Their day is up. Every citizen must pay tax,” he told the gathering. “Even if they sponsor demonstrations so that they don’t pay tax, I want to promise them that they will pay tax. There are no more exemptions. This country is not an animal farm where some are more equal than others,” he added.
Observers would immediately have presumed that Ruto was talking about the controversial waiver on Stamp Duty granted when the Kenyatta family’s Commercial Bank of Africa merged with the NIC Bank, controlled by the family of former Central Bank Governor Philip Ndegwa, to create the NCBA Bank.
The open crony capitalism had, during the 2022 campaigns, attracted a lot of flak from the Ruto camp, which made it a prime illustration of the promise to launch an enquiry into ‘State Capture’ once in office. But this time round, besides the tax waiver benefitting the Kenyatta enterprise, Itumbi publicised the most unusual exemption granted by law for benefit of Kenya’s founding President and his Vice-President and successor.
“Did you know that there is a law in Kenya exempting the Kenyattas and Mois from tax on inherited land? Animal Farm!” Itumbi tweeted on January 30, using the same analogy used by Ruto. He went on to display a screen grab of the Estate Duty Act, which provides for taxes on property left behind by a deceased person, and a 1969 amendment which reads: “This section shall not apply to His Excellency Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, nor to His Excellency Daniel Toroitich arap Moi”. The two were, respectively, President and Vice-President at the time. In 2021, four private citizens petitioned the National Assembly to repeal the exemption on grounds that it was discriminatory and unconstitutional, but the effort floundered.
In short order, the hashtag #UhuruNikulipaUshuru was being aggressively pushed by the Ruto social media brigade, who left no doubt that it was in response to Raila’s planned series of demonstrations on the back of his claims that an Electoral Commission whistleblower had provided fresh evidence of a stolen presidential election.
The propaganda barrage also amplified claims, without any proof, that the Kenyatta family was the one sponsoring Raila’s planned protests to protect their wealth, with a graphic on Twitter bringing in the names of Uhuru’s mother, Mama Ngina, and her influential but publicity-shy last born son, Muhoho, who runs the family businesses and is also believed to control political funding. The offensive prompted Uhuru to break his silence on political matters since leaving office last September, criticising Ruto, without mentioning him by name, for leading a government long on rhetoric but short on delivery.
Uhuru spoke when he visited to condole with the family of former Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha, who had died suddenly the previous week. It was a calculated response as the former President had mobilised some key members of his government to accompany him to the Magoha home, including former Interior CS Fred Matiang’i and colleagues Ukur Yattani, Peter Munya, Eugene Wamalwa and Margaret Kobia; and former Principal Secretaries Karanja Kibicho, Susan Mochache and Jerome Ochieng.
Also present was Azimio coalition principal and Wiper Party leader, former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, who set the ball rolling by accusing Ruto of targeting his predecessor, unlike Uhuru himself and former president Mwai Kibaki, who had not harassed those they succeeded at State House.
According to well-informed sources, it was not incidental that Uhuru gathered a powerful delegation to accompany him to the Magoha home. He wanted to make a statement, and is mulling his options should the Ruto Kenya Kwanza coalition stalwarts continue attacking him on the public platform and social media or should the government make any moves targeting family property.
Ruto, just a few weeks ago, seemed to be walking back on his campaign promise to establish a State Capture inquiry, which would target the Kenyatta family and close political and business associates.
However, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua — who has been an outspoken critic of the Kenyattas dominance of the dairy industry, extensive land holdings, and influence on the agricultural marketing sectors — has often signalled the government’s resolve to destroy unnamed ‘cartels’ through methods other than a commission of inquiry or other formal structure. Whether that could mean administrative action such as seizure of property, cancellation of business licences or denial of government tenders is not clear, but if the onslaught on social media, political rallies and press conferences is anything to go by, the immediate focus will be reversing the tax breaks.
Repeal of the clearly unjust exemption on estate duty and reversal of the NCBA waiver would be an obvious start, accompanied by heavy propaganda highlighting how the ‘dynasties’ have awarded themselves tax breaks at the expense of the ‘hustlers’.
There have also been suggestions that Parliament should launch a more general probe into the Kenyatta family holdings and get the Kenya Revenue Authority to hit them with harsh demands if cases of tax evasion are uncovered.
However, a probe focusing on the Kenyatta family at a time when politicians and business people linked to Ruto are getting generous treatment on the dropping of criminal and tax evasion cases would raise eyebrows.
For now, however, Ruto has succeeded in diverting attention from Raila’s claims of a stolen election and the threat of street protests to the new allegations that he is just doing Uhuru’s bidding.
Having made such serious allegations against his predecessor, all eyes will be turned to see what he does next beyond pointing fingers. And on how Uhuru will respond.
The only thing clear for now is that the famous bromance which propelled the UhuRuto duo to office in 2013 has irretrievably broken down.