President Ruto’s headache over Uhuru Kenyatta's return to politics

Jubilee Party Leader and former President Uhuru Kenyatta

Jubilee Party Leader and former President Uhuru Kenyatta during Jubilee Party National Delegates Conference held Ngong Racecourse on May 22, 2023.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

Retired President Uhuru Kenyatta’s return to politics amid growing resentment over broken pre-election promises by the government threatens to upset President William Ruto’s political agenda.

Mr Kenyatta’s comeback could also potentially force Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua to work harder in his quest to become Mt Kenya kingpin, especially given growing voices from the region that the ruling Kenya Kwanza coalition stops going after the former president.

Having deep pockets required in any political contest, Mr Kenyatta’s decision to remain in charge of Jubilee Party could have some bearing in realignments that may become costly to Dr Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza brigade.

Some of President Ruto’s allies have accused Mr Kenyatta of supporting the opposition Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition’s activities to unsettle the government.

The fact that he served as the country’s commander-in-chief also makes Mr Kenyatta a delicate political figure for the government to handle as there would be reluctance within the top echelons of security agencies to unleash brute police force on him.

Mr Kenyatta’s potential future influence in the political scene and having Jubilee as an alternative party in Mt Kenya explain why President Ruto is keen to have him kicked out of the former ruling outfit.

Dr Ruto is not directly involved in the ouster bid of Mr Kenyatta but his recent recognition of rebel lawmakers points to his interest in having his predecessor out of active politics.

President Ruto’s allies, however, dismiss Mr Kenyatta as a spent political cartridge with no influence in Mt Kenya or elsewhere.

They cite his inability to influence Mt Kenya into supporting his preferred candidate Raila Odinga in the August 9, 2022 elections as evidence enough that he can no longer sway the electorate.

But analysts and opposition figures say recent sustained attacks by President Ruto and his allies, including the razing and looting of the Kenyatta family’s Northlands farm, has projected him as a victim of the current administration, something that could earn him sympathy.

Jubilee leaders

The former president told Jubilee leaders during a National Delegates Convention on Monday that he would continue being active politically, adding that he is no pushover.

“I wanted to leave politics and deal with other issues. I had hoped to relinquish my position in such an NDC but some people have decided to issue threats and use violence against us. I want to tell them to look for someone else to intimidate, not Uhuru Kenyatta,” he said.

“I did my best and completed my term in peace and handed over power in peace and in broad daylight even after they insulted me. I later took a back seat and kept quiet but the result was more insults, theft of my goats and burning of my farm. I tell them to continue.”

Among all the retired Presidents, including Daniel Toroitich arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, Mr Kenyatta left office the youngest aged just 60.

Some of the August 9, 2022 General Election losers, especially from Mt Kenya, have started coalescing around the former President after missing out on appointments by the Kenya Kwanza administration.

Former Murang’a governor Mwangi wa Iria and ex-Mungiki leader Maina Njenga are some of the figures building an anti-Ruto momentum in the Mountain, joining a host of politicians who backed Mr Odinga last year and have remained loyal to his cause.

Further, a new wave of political realignment is emerging in Mt Kenya as some of Dr Ruto allies stop attacking the former president.

Murang’a Woman Representative Betty Maina and her Kiambu colleague Anne wa Muratha are the latest in a growing list of politicians demanding respect for Mr Kenyatta.

“This should not continue. He has a place in our history and society. There are good things he did for us during his tenure and we must show him respect,” Ms Maina said recently.

Macharia Munene, a professor of History and International Relations, says Dr Ruto’s waterloo is in his inability to deliver on many promises.

But he adds that the former president’s stay in politics may not present any serious headache to the incumbent.

He argues that Dr Ruto is fast fixing himself through “unreasonable taxes” that have rattled Kenyans, including his support base.

According to Prof Munene, Mt Kenya is still wide open for a new leader to take the supremacy mantle.

“Deputy President Gachagua has not proved himself as the right person because the concerns of the people are not being addressed by those claiming to be in positions of power,” Prof Munene said.

“Raila and Uhuru have been together so it is not an issue or a new thing to President Ruto. What should worry Ruto is his inability to reduce the high cost of living. He is fixing himself through many blunders. He is increasing the prices of basic commodities unreasonably.”

Mr Kenyatta’s close ally and Jubilee Vice-Chairman David Murathe says the decision by the former president to remain in politics is beyond the party.

Mr Murathe claims the ground is shifting in Mt Kenya after residents realised they have been shortchanged by the leaders they elected.

He adds that more leaders from the region are coming out in the open to declare their opposition to the Finance Bill, 2023 due to the punitive taxes that are likely to hurt everyone.

“It is their action (persecution) that is uniting us more as the opposition. You can see resentment in Mt Kenya. Some of the lawmakers from the region have openly declared that they will oppose the Finance Bill, 2023” Mr Murathe said.

He says no sitting president has ever successfully fought his predecessor, citing South Africa and Botswana.

In South Africa, 80-year-old Jacob Zuma has remained influential after resigning in 2018 following reports of corruption.

But his “persecution” has ended up snaring President Cyril Ramaphosa, who narrowly avoided an impeachment inquiry in a vote by Parliament.

Zuma, however, still faces investigations following revelations that he is holding more than $500,000 in the US against the law.

In Botswana, former President Ian Khama has declared his intention to contest in 2024 and ensure the end of his successor Mokgweetsi Masisi’s term.

Mr Khama handpicked Mr Masisi to succeed him but the two fell out after Mr Masisi assumed office, forcing his predecessor into exile in South Africa.

Mr Murathe argues that being Deputy President alone cannot make Mr Gachagua the Mt Kenya kingpin.

National Assembly Minority Leader, Opiyo Wandayi, says the shadow of Mr Kenyatta still lurks large in Mt Kenya.

He says the former president cannot be ignored, especially when the country goes into the General Election in 2027.

According to Mr Wandayi, President Ruto is scared of Mr Kenyatta’s continued involvement in Jubilee activities.

He says Jubilee is largely a Mt Kenya party as it can provide an alternative from the ruling United Democratic Alliance (UDA).

“Had it been within their powers, they would have returned the country to one-party rule. Because they cannot do that, they are either crippling or outrightly taking over potentially strong and independent parties. This is in addition to the fact that they would want Mr Kenyatta to be out of politics. They see Jubilee as a platform of kicking out Mr Kenyatta from active politics,” Mr Wandayi said.

“Mr Kenyatta is a very big threat to them, particularly in Mt Kenya. Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza are unable to deliver on their lofty campaign promises and the ground is fast shifting towards the former president and Jubilee.”

Vihiga Senator, Godfrey Osotsi, also describes the fight in Jubilee as a contest for the control of Mt Kenya.

“President Ruto wants to ensure Mt Kenya has no voice in 2027. The intention is to kill Jubilee so that Mt Kenya does not have an alternative platform. It will depend on how Mr Kenyatta plays his cards but his shadow will definitely be a significant determinant in the next elections, especially in Mt Kenya,” Mr Osotsi said.

Former Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu and Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei, however, dismiss any influence by Mr Kenyatta.

Mr Wambugu says the former president’s remarks during the Jubilee NDC portrayed him as a man seeking to protect his interests.

“His involvement in politics appears to be driven by personal tribulations with the Kenya Kwanza government rather than the region’s interests,” he said.

“He is a retired president whose preferred political transition was rejected by his traditional stronghold. Mr Kenyatta just needs to step back and let those still in active politics do their thing.”

Senator Cherargei says the decision to hang on to Jubilee is an exercise in futility.

He says it will not alter the country’s political dynamics.

“Why should we be scared of a dead party? Which influence does Mr Kenyatta have? He could not help Raila to win even when he was the country’s president. Raila did not win in Mr Kenyatta’s polling station in Gatundu South constituency,” the Nandi senator said.

Political analyst Javas Bigambo and historian Godfrey Sang say the show of unity and regrouping by Azimio bigwigs speaks to political self-preservation and is also political danger due to the perceived power of Kenya Kwanza to spread its tentacles ahead of 2027.

Ferocious politician

“The opposition knows that President Ruto is a ferocious politician, organised and a strategist par excellence. They appreciate that given the reins of power, Dr Ruto is determined to serve his term and seek re-election,” Mr Bigambo said.

“It’s not just about mutual interests. They are tied together by the bond of fear. There’s mortal fear that if each goes their separate ways, the President and his political machinery may beat them to a pulp because he did that in 2022 even when Azimio had the backing of the state.”

Mr Bigambo says the opposition’s only ground for survival is to stick together.

Mr Sang says that with a number of Azimio leaders having declared interest in the presidency, being around Mr Odinga gives them relevance.

“If an Orange Democratic Movement leader is close to Raila, he or she feels it is politically expedient to be seen as loyal. This can help them avoid being targeted as a mole by their own party or Raila himself,” Mr Sang said.

“Hanging around him offers these politicians some form of gain, in the sense of career progression or stability against opposing voices.”