After George Saitoti lost his position as Kanu’s vice president in a choreographed fall, he met with a few of his friends in the evening: “I feel pain,” he told one of his confidants, Alex Magero.
“I feel betrayed.” The evening was long after the merger of Kanu and Raila Odinga’s National Development Party. That night, Saitoti’s trusted bodyguard, Ole Sultan, served some cognac as everyone drowned their sorrows.
As Magero told me some years later, it was a night of bitterness. Kenya’s longest-serving VP and the second senior-most Kanu politician had been publicly humiliated. There was no comeback.
History has an uncanny way of repeating itself, and watching Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua and the political motions that he is going through reminds me of other VPs who went through similar predicaments.
It is still too early to foretell whether the camaraderie between Gachagua and President William Ruto has died – but the body language does not show some strong chemistry.
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Some of Gachagua’s supporters say this fallout is a media creation. But we know that Dr Ruto camouflaged his fading relationship with former President Uhuru Kenyatta as a press creation.
Gachagua has made several political mistakes. He is busy creating new enemies. By trying to rally the Mt Kenya region behind himself rather than Dr Ruto, Gachagua made a cardinal political mistake.
He quickly forgot that President Ruto was not popular within central Kenya courtesy of some Gachagua magic, but by his snake oil salesman promises, a bit of Odinga-phobia, an anti-Uhuru Kenyatta vote, and the promise of a theocratic order.
By making himself the Mt Kenya ‘kingpin’ – whatever that means – Gachagua thought that Dr Ruto would have to kowtow to him ahead of the 2027.
But as things stand, Musalia Mudavadi has become the political insurance in case Mt Kenya retreats from the United Democratic Alliance – as part of its usual exodus from political parties. The bipartisan talks that Gachagua opposed might give Musalia a constitutional office.
UDA will conduct its grassroots elections by December, which will be the biggest test for the Mathira man. He should learn a lesson from Moi’s Vice-President, the late George Saitoti: He must have the most delegates.
His other prayer would be that Musalia Mudavadi party does not join UDA, which could create a battle for the number two position within the party.
It is good to remember that Moi upstaged other politicians within the Jomo Kenyatta government by folding Kadu and becoming Mr Yes Sir.
More so, Raila Odinga caused a stampede within Kanu after its merger with his National Development Party (NDP). In Kenyan politics, newcomers are treated better – and Gachagua might know that soon.
Suppose Kimani Ngunjiri, former Bahati MP, is to be believed? He recently claimed that the DP has sidelined some of his supporters. Other pundits say Gachagua’s political cacophony on shareholding isolates him and turns him into a regional rather than a national leader.
More so, most of the DP’s diary is within the Mt Kenya region, and soon, he might face the same accusation that Mwai Kibaki faced when he was Moi’s vice president.
Kibaki was ridiculed as Othaya’s VP as his political influence began to wane – mainly because of numerous personal differences with Moi. He was finally dropped on March 24, 1988.
Unlike Moi and Kibaki, who had a long political history, the same cannot be said of Gachagua and President Ruto. Moi had picked Kibaki in 1978 to assuage the Kikuyu – and again, Kibaki had been one of Moi’s ardent supporters as he battled the Kiambu mafia.
In the axis was Charles Njonjo, the attorney general, who had hoped to one day upstage Kibaki and get the position. Gachagua is lucky that the Constitution protects his position but does not guarantee him any other responsibilities apart from chairing the Inter-Governmental Budget and Economic Council.
Other functions are as assigned by the President, and any fallout could isolate him. In the recent reshuffle, the President added an extra ministerial docket to Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi. It meant that Musalia has an upper hand in the assigned portfolio.
As murmurs on Gachagua start within the UDA, it will be interesting to see whether President Ruto will come to his aid and silence the critics. When Njonjo started undermining Kibaki – and just before Njonjo was dropped after May 8, 1983, traitor bombshell – President Moi came to his defence: “I am warning those undermining the vice-president… nobody should try to frustrate him because he will not perform his duties properly.”
That was the only time that Moi came to the defence of Kibaki, who also used the 1983 Njonjo crisis to scatter his enemies, who by then included Njonjo. But the absence of Njonjo from the political scene also meant that Kibaki was the most vulnerable of all senior politicians.
Foreign Minister Elijah Mwangale was by this time openly campaigning to be appointed the VP, which led Kibaki to talk about “political tourists” being sent to Nyeri District without his knowledge to undermine him.
It was not lost to observers that Kibaki was also under siege in Nyeri from Waruru Kanja, who besmirched Kibaki’s bosom friend, Isaiah Mathenge, as a “home guard”. Others who would openly attack Kibaki included Nakuru Kanu supremo Kariuki Chotara.
It was a political strategy used by Moi to re-organise Mt Kenya politics by dethroning the two most powerful politicians in the region. One should not be surprised if Dr Ruto uses the same formula in case he wants to shed the entitlement burden. Gachagua is making the mistakes that Prof Saitoti made.
By working solo without the Rift Valley elite, Saitoti thought he could marshal his support. Again, as VP, he naively thought that his appointment to one of the senior positions would be automatic, nay, guaranteed. As he left his Lavington home in Nairobi for Kasarani, he hoped to emerge as one of the national kingpins.
He was wrong.“We had worked very hard up to that morning,” the late Magero, one of Saitoti’s campaign managers, told me.
“Saitoti was confident that he would get a prime seat.” But what Prof Saitoti did not know was that vintage Moi had plotted his downfall, albeit slowly, behind his back and that the first would be a salvo at the Kasarani Gymnasium Stadium and in public. As UDA goes to the polls, these are pointers that Gachagua should watch for nothing is guaranteed.
As Moi’s vice-president since 1988, Prof Saitoti initially thought he had the upper hand in the Moi succession as the country’s second senior-most politician. But Moi had other thoughts on him. How Moi treated his vice presidents – starting with Mwai Kibaki – said much about his leadership style. At best, they were figureheads with little say in the Kanu administration, and at worst, they were humiliated – like in the case of Dr Josephat Karanja – or demoted, as he did to Kibaki.
In politics, Moi seemed to believe there are no permanent friends, only interests and survival. He never trusted them. That day, and as the merger of Mr Odinga’s National Development Party into Kanu started, Saitoti was horrified to find that his name was nowhere in the line-up.
He walked over to President Moi, and according to multiple sources, he complained loudly about his missing name. It was the first time that many of his friends saw him complain bitterly. But Moi dismissed him with: “Kimya (shut up!) Professor, if your name is not on the list, it is not there.”
Raila had played his cards well – or so he thought – that the merger would give him the elusive presidency. But that was not what Moi wanted. Instead, he was plotting for a group of newcomers: Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, Musalia Mudavadi, and Julius Sunkuli.
Saitoti didn’t know that his fall was choreographed behind his back at State House by some Rift Valley elite he associated with in the past.
Another person to fall with him was Kanu Secretary General Joseph Kamotho, whose position was to be taken by Odinga. None of them got wind of the embarrassment that lay ahead, and as they drove to Kasarani with their heads high, they didn’t realize that the political die was cast.
The UDA elections will be a Waterloo for some individuals as Ruto reorganises his party. It will be a thrilling replay of Kenya’s politics. Just watch.