As the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) national delegates’ congress was going on recently, a video clip from the event was lighting up social media.
It featured Deputy President William Ruto’s aide Farouk Taigut Kibet in an animated conversation with party chairman Johnson Muthama and secretary-general Veronica Maina.
He appeared to be giving instructions on how the two leaders should progress with the NDC. “Sasa ambia kila mtu anyamaze (Now tell everyone to be quiet),” Mr Kibet can be heard instructing Mr Muthama in one of the clips.
But Mr Muthama says the public misconstrued the conversation they were having.
“That was a totally wrong perception. Why should I have commotion with Farouk? We were not sharing anything, he was not looking for a chance to speak. He was a messenger being sent from me to the DP and from the DP to me. That is what happened,” said Mr Muthama.
It was not just Muthama and Ms Maina who were receiving the instructions from Mr Kibet. Even the event’s masters of ceremonies too ‘heard’ from him during the event.
Such is the power that Mr Kibet wields around the deputy president that he has become one of the most powerful gatekeepers for any political leader. His name stands out among the DP’s aides: he determines who sees him and who will not. At the rallies, he also determines who speaks and in what order. In an earlier video clip from the DP’s campaign trail, he appears to order nominated senator Millicent Omanga back on stage to dance.
With no clear job description, Mr Kibet is the ‘Mr Fix it’ for Mr Ruto and even MPs supporting the DP have to be in his good books to continue visiting the Karen residence. Whether the recent appointment of Davis Chirchir, a former Energy Cabinet Secretary in the Jubilee administration, to be Mr Ruto’s chief of staff could change the power matrix at the DP’s office remains to be seen.
But Mr Kibet represents a growing list of powerful gatekeepers for leading Kenyan politicians. Often operating behind-the-scenes, these powerful men control access to the big men and women as well as the diaries of their bosses. In the process, some of them have become hugely wealthy because of their closeness to the bosses.
Political commentator Javas Bigambo calls them the “socio-political enablers” of the leaders and adds that “any leader worth their name, not just the presidential hopefuls” have such people around them.
“They are unquestionably loyal and have got the best interests of the leader. They are also sworn confidants and even hold property in trust for the leaders,” he said.
Former State House aide Joshua Kulei had a very close relationship with President Daniel Moi that some of the former president’s property were in his name.
For Mr Dismas Mokua, the gatekeepers are important as a buffer and take the heat for their bosses.
“These insiders are also used in plausible deniability projects. These insiders are also important because they offer the politicians safe landing and a buffer zone,” says Mr Mokua.
Since his election in 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta has held on to Joseph Kinyua not letting him go even when at one point it was reported that he had asked to leave. As the head of public service, he has often shunned the limelight and is politically less visible but has been devoted to the nuts and bolts of running the government.
On the other side is State House Comptroller Kinuthia Mbugua, the former Nakuru governor. As the presidency’s accounting officer, people around Mr Ruto have accused him of denying the deputy president’s office financial resources to pay staff allowances and per diems, as well as fuelling the cars the DP uses in his political campaigns.
But around the president are also non-public servants who are powerbrokers. For instance, there is Muhoho Kenyatta, the president’s brother who unofficially wields immense powers and has the president’s ear.
As Prime Minister, Mr Odinga had Caroli Omondi, who as his Chief of Staff wielded immense power. The two have since fallen out and Mr Omondi has failed in all his attempts to capture the ODM party ticket to run for parliament. He still retains an array of aides to whom he can delegate duties including Andrew Mondoh, who heads his office at Capitol Hill. But some have stood out as the most trusted confidants.
Suna East MP Junet Mohamed is emerging to be one such gatekeeper for the presidential hopeful. He has become one of Mr Odinga’s most trusted lieutenants and was the only MP to accompany him to the handshake with President Uhuru Kenyatta in March 2018.
Mr Mohamed’s stature has grown over time: from a mayor, he now wields immense power around Mr Odinga, often emceeing his events and like Mr Kibet, has sway over who speaks at the events. Mr Mohamed’s closeness and growing influence around Mr Odinga has bred resentment by some ODM MPs towards him. One senator was even reported to have organised MPs to heckle him in Kisumu. As it turned out, the plan leaked and Mr Mohamed did not accompany Mr Odinga to Kisumu. But the MP has had a difficult time trying to get an audience with Mr Odinga to apologise.
Odinga’s kitchen cabinet
He has displaced traditional members of Mr Odinga’s kitchen cabinet such as Siaya Senator James Orengo who for long has been the go-to guy around the former premier.
The powerful gatekeepers around Mr Odinga also consist of close family members like his wife Ida Odinga and daughter Winnie Odinga, the latter who has been described as the “real force” behind her father’s current presidential campaign secretariat.
She has been involved in her father’s campaigns, taking up prominent roles, for instance, in organising the launch of Azimio la Umoja meeting in December 2021. She recently also accompanied Mr Odinga to the UK. In an interview she gave in 2018, she described herself as her father’s “bodyguard, his briefcase carrier, travel companion or even driver if need be.”
But even more importantly, for Mr Odinga, the real power behind the throne is his wife, Ida. She wields immense power around her husband that sometimes those in the know say it is easier to get to the man through the family matriarch – she gets things done.
She is one of the people said to have convinced Mr Odinga to agree on a political truce with the president in 2018, an act of rapprochement that changed the course of the country’s politics for good and left Deputy President William Ruto gasping for breath.
Every big-name politician has one or two of such gatekeepers and ANC party leader Musalia Mudavadi is no exception.
Given his longevity in politics, he has had many assistants yet one name has stuck around him for much longer than anybody else: Kibisu Kabatesi, his long-serving spokesman.
In recent times he has, however, become less visible around Mr Mudavadi though he authoritatively speaks on his behalf. There is also Geoffrey Kanoti, the ANC director of political affairs and head of protocol at the Musalia Mudavadi presidential campaign centre. The man who is eyeing the Khwisero parliamentary seat represented Mr Mudavadi at what was to be the ANC leader’s last engagement as a member of One Kenya Alliance (OKA).
Besides the two, there is Dan Ameyo who Mr Mudavadi trusts to negotiate political deals on his behalf. All the three have Mr Mudavadi’s ear and he confers with them a lot of times, according to people around Mr Mudavadi.
Like Mr Odinga and President Kenyatta, the family has been key to Mr Mudavadi’s journey and his wife, Tessy, plays a very important, behind-the-scenes gatekeeping role.
She has been very much involved in her husband’s political decisions and even had a major role in him agreeing to work with Mr Ruto under the Kenya Kwanza Coalition.
Moi, Salat bond
Around the Kanu chairman Gideon Moi, there is Nick Salat who is also the independence party secretary-general. He carries a lot of weight around Mr Moi and has remained the party secretary-general. Having undergone the rites of passage together in their teenage years, the bond between the two has stood the test of time and ‘chairman’ consults him before undertaking any major political decision.
At a time when the Oka alliance was seen to be dragging its feet on whether to join forces with Azimio or go it alone, Mr Salat publicly urged Mr Moi to proceed on his own and join forces with Mr Odinga if his co-principals were having second thoughts about it.
It didn’t take long before the Baringo Senator joined Azimio. From fielding questions from the press and sometimes meeting ‘difficult’ political players, Mr Salat takes the flak on behalf of his boss.